When JD Davis saw Steve Whitby’s photos of the three C-119 air tankers taken in 1981 as they were lined up at the Hemet-Ryan retardant pits, he was kind enough to send us individual photos of each of the tankers, all shot when they were airborne — tankers 81, 82, and 87. JD’s pictures were taken between 1975 and 1982 in southern California.
Steve Whitby took this photo in 1981 at Hemet-Ryan Air Tanker Base in southern California. Three of Hemet Valley Flying Service’s Fairchild C-119s are lined up in the pits where they are loaded with fire retardant for assisting firefighters on wildfires.
Steve said he’s been scanning negatives he took 39 years ago. Keep up the good work, Steve!
When Air Tanker 135 took off from Ontario Airport east of Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m. July 29, 1977 the Mine Fire 16 miles to the south was threatening homes and burning thousands of acres of 60-year old brush in Tin Mine and Hagador Canyons on the southwest edge of Corona.
In a New York Times article about the fire, Corona was described as “a rural town”, and:
A force of 900 firefighters made a successful stand in front of the Village Grove development as flames from the 2,000‐acre blaze came within a football field of homes with price tags of up to $150,000.
Rose Bello was standing outside her house half a mile from the end of the runway at the northwest corner of Belmont Street and Mildred Avenue watching her three-year-old daughter Julie riding a bicycle with a friend. She saw the tanker flying very low, just clearing some power lines. When it passed over her home fire retardant was pouring from the plane.
“The noise was so loud it hurt my ears,” she told a reporter from the Daily Report. “I heard my little girl scream because [the retardant] was in her eyes and all over her clothes — she was just soaked.”
At the time the FAA required restricted air tankers like the C-119 to turn left off the Ontario runway to avoid the heavily populated center of the city. The aircraft had three engines. Two of them were props, Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclones, a twin-row, supercharged, air-cooled, radial aircraft engine with 18 cylinders. After the C-119 retired from the military a third engine was added, a turbojet in a nacelle above the fuselage to supply additional power if needed on takeoff or while making a retardant drop.
The pilot, of course, didn’t plan to drop retardant from a very low level on four homes, six cars, children on bicycles, drying laundry, a corn field, and an assortment of trees and sheds. But shortly after take off one of the radial engines developed a runaway propeller, causing the engine to exceed the RPM limits. If not corrected immediately this can cause the propellers to fly off, possibly causing severe damage to the aircraft. When this occurs the pilot will usually reduce the power to the engine and shut off the fuel, a procedure that should prevent additional damage to the engine and the aircraft. But shutting down an engine, especially at low level while climbing and turning, may cause a stall. The pilot jettisoned the 2,000 gallons of retardant, about 9,000 pounds, to reduce the chances of a crash. The aircraft then gained enough altitude to turn and land safely back at the airport.
J.D. Davis, who took these two aircraft photos, was monitoring a scanner and heard the pilot ask to jettison the load on the runway, but the tower refused permission. The pilot headed toward a corn field near Ms. Bello’s home. That is where most of the retardant landed, plowing up several rows of corn, but part of the load was a little short.
Jim Stumpf was the Deputy Fire Management Officer and Aviation Officer for the nearby Angeles National Forest, the agency that ran the air tanker base at the airport. I asked him what he remembers about the incident:
When I arrived after about 40 minutes (traffic) everyone was really unhappy. CDF [California Department of Forestry] was on scene working clean up and I requested (Lower San Engine I think) to come to the incident to assist in the cleanup. A CDF Batt. Chief and I were directing the clean up and talking with a great deal of the affected residents assuring them that there were no long term effects from the retardant. It would wash off of adults, children, houses, etc. The clothes on the line could be rewashed without any problem.
If I remember, we spent several hours at the scene — CDF and I bought cokes and pizza for our respective crews. The local residents started consuming copious amounts of beer, wine and whiskey so it ended as a block party for all concerned. CDF and USFS turned down the offer to participate in the party. It started out bad and ended up a party. After our street and house cleaning all equipment was returned to their respective stations.
The following day I took Charity Burton to the scene (she was handling claims for the ANF). We talked to as many residents as possible and told them about the claims process. The best I can remember we didn’t get any claims. I drove through the neighborhood a few times on periodic visits to the tanker base, and even talked to some folks who thanked us for being responsive. All was well but they didn’t like tankers flying over their house.
Before the incident 70 individuals and two churches had filed two lawsuits totaling $11.70 million for damage due to noise from jets taking off from the airport, according to an article written in 1977 by Richard Brooks of the San Bernardino Sun.
Back then there were more air tankers than we have today, and they were not forced to move around the country as often following the latest hot, dry, and windy weather. The tanker crews that had been permanently stationed at Ontario perfected the tricky left turn while climbing off the runway, but tanker pilots from other areas were not always as diligent avoiding heavily populated areas. For the rest of the 1977 fire season only the permanent tanker was allowed to use Ontario. After that the base was permanently closed.
Ontario was the southernmost base that could support and refill large air tankers, so closing it reduced their ability to quickly and aggressively respond to fires in Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego Counties.
In 1987 a C-119 (N48076) with the same tanker number, 135, crashed while working the Whalen Fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Killed were Hawkins & Powers pilots Bill Berg and Charles Peterson, and mechanic Stephen Harrell. The crash was result of an inflight failure, with the right wing, the left wing tip, and the tail boom separating from the aircraft during a retardant run.
A big thank you goes out to J.D. Davis who supplied information about the incident and the C-119 photos.
A carpenter has built a model of a 9-cylinder radial engine. Ian Jimmerson apparently built this amazing project in his garage or workshop and everything appears to move just as it would in the real thing. But best of all, in the videos he very carefully explains how all of the parts work together.
In the first video he tells us about the design of the engines, and in Part 2 he goes into more detail and animates it with an electric drill.
Most of the earlier air tankers used various configurations of radial engines. For example, the P2Vs had Wright R-3350-26W Cyclone-18 18-cylinder engines. Some of the C-119s also had that same engine, but others had a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major with a large 28-cylinder supercharged air-cooled four-row radial piston engine designed and built during World War II.
These first four photos were provided by GSA, and were presumably taken recently.
Over 1,100 C-119s were produced between 1949 and 1955. A few were converted to air tankers after they were discarded by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Some of them had the “Jet-Pack” modification to supplement the power produced by the dual radial engines.
Two C-119 air tankers crashed while they were dropping on fires in California, in 1981 and 1987. In the first accident, on the Los Padres National Forest, the outboard half of the left wing flexed downward, snapped off, and began cartwheeling along behind the air tanker. The two-person crew was fatally injured when the aircraft struck the ground.
The 1987 crash occurred on a fire about 10 miles southwest of Mt. Shasta, California. At about the time the pilot dropped the retardant the right wing separated from the airframe along with the tip of the left wing and the tail booms. The crew of three was killed.
For Throwback Thursday, here is a look at a vintage ad in which Monsanto is advertising Phos-Chek fire retardant. The ad includes the date, 1977.
The aircraft appears to be a C-119 which last flew over fires when? In the late 1980s? I seem to remember that one fell apart in mid-air while I was fighting one of the hundreds of lightning-caused fires in northern California in 1987. (UPDATE Nov. 21, 2014: we heard from Dale, who told us: “You are correct about the year of the C-119 crash in Northern California. There were 3 people on the airtanker when it crashed. The next day, Buzz Dyer, the USFS Airtanker Program Manager grounded all C-119’s from flying for the FS again.”
When I drive through Greybull, Wyoming on highway 20/14/16 I sometimes stop at the South Big Horn County Airport to look at the dozens of old aircraft that are the remnants of the glory days of Hawkins and Powers. In 2012 there were still several old war birds on the ramp in front of the former H&P office. When I stopped today I did not see any aircraft on the ramp and the two retired C-119s that had been in the grassy field just west of the office for many years were gone.
It turns out that several of them have been moved a few hundred feet to the west at the highway rest stop west of the entrance to the airport (map). The aircraft are separated from the rest stop by a chain link fence, but there is a path developing in the grass along the fence where rest stop visitors walk to inspect and take pictures of the classic air tankers.
These photos were taken at the rest area through the chain link fence.
There are two C-119s. One is a J-model, Tanker 136, with the jet engine bolted onto the top, and the other still has Canadian Royal Air Force written on the side. It may never have been converted to an air tanker and does not have the jet engine. There are also two PB4Y-2 air tankers parked just outside the fence, Tankers 126 and 127.
We are honored to present a photographic essay of air tankers by professional photographer Joe Cupido. He tells us below about his career in photography.
I grew up in a military family and acquired the love of aviation early on. When I was in high school I started photographing aircraft. Then later while in the military I became a Combat Photographer / Photojournalist and continued photographing aircraft professionally. I specialized in Air to Air photography working with the military and for some of the major aircraft companies. I was lucky enough to finish my career with about 5,500 hours in over 100 different airframes, 7 books and over 2,000 magazines articles on aviation subjects.
I’ve always enjoyed chasing fire-fighting aircraft whenever I had the time. The images below were captured over time and with a lot of cooperation from a lot of good people in the Air Tanker business. Without their help I could not have captured the images that I did and I thank all of you. Hope you enjoy!