Elizabeth Prentice Danley sent us the sad news that her father, Frank Prentice recently passed away. She said he was the last surviving member of the air tanker program that began in Willows, California back in the 1950s. “To his last days he enjoyed seeing the photos published at Fire Aviation,” she said.
This is the obituary:
Pioneer Air Tanker pilot, former Ukiah resident and original owner of Ace Aerial Service, Frank Prentice, 93, passed away July 16, 2020, at his country home near Chico, CA.
Frank lived in Ukiah from 1960 to 1971. He was one of the founding members of the first Air Tanker Squadron of pilots flying for the Mendocino National Forest based at the Willows, CA airport. The group included seven pilots from the Sacramento Valley flying Boeing Stearman 75 and Naval Aircraft Factory N3N’s, converted into agricultural, and then air tanker planes. The first strike was in 1955 on the Mendenhall fire in the Mendocino National Forest. By 1956 the seven elite agricultural pilots were flying the converted planes with 170 gallon drum of water/borate and other fire retardants over forest fires all over the state.
In 1958 Frank contracted with California Division of Forest (CDF) and eventually moved his family to Ukiah, establishing Ace Aerial Service as an aircraft maintenance shop in 1960. He continued to fly air tankers during that time.
With billowing towers of smoke and ash obscuring their view, he and his team carried out precision strikes until the fires they were fighting were extinguished. This practice remains an invaluable technique in wildland firefighting today, and would not have been as widely used or evolved had it not been for the first Air Tanker Squadron. Frank was the last surviving member of that historic crew.
In 1971 Frank moved back to Willows/Chico area to farm his in-laws’ Walnut & Almond orchard, leaving professional aviation behind. He and his wife, Lila, were joined by their three children in establishing an impressive legacy near Willows & Chico.
Frank & Lila celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in November of 2019. Frank is survived by wife Lila, Chico; Elizabeth Ann Danley (Wade), Willows; Marilee Susan Doolittle (David), Butte Valley; F. Steven Prentice (Yolanda), Chico. They have 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, with #13 due in November.
Services are pending when his ashes will be flown over the orchard at a later date.
Conair has produced a short video documenting the history of the company. Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development, described it for us:
“2020 is Conair’s 51st fire season supporting wildfire control agencies around the world. We put together a video celebrating those 50 past seasons celebrating all the hard work and innovation that has gone into each and every season.
“The video titled ‘Roots and Wings’ highlights 50 years of Conair’s history in 5 minutes! Those interested in aircraft history and/or aerial firefighting will enjoy the vintage footage from the 1960’s and 70’s through to the present day.”
Twelve years after 13 smokejumpers were killed on the Mann Gulch Fire 13 miles north-northwest of Helena, Montana, 20 jumpers were entrapped on a fire in northern Idaho 83 miles southwest of Missoula, Montana.
It happened August 4, 1961 on the Higgins Ridge Fire in the Nez Perce National Forest after an eight-man crew from Grangeville, Idaho had jumped in the area, followed by 12 men from the Missoula jumper base, the last arriving at 1 p.m. The fire behavior on the two-acre fire was fairly benign until a passing cold front brought a sudden increase in the wind at 4:15 p.m. which resulted in the fire spreading rapidly. The 20 men took refuge in a previously burned area. As the wind increased to 50 mph the supervisors of the two squads, Dave Perry and Fred “Fritz” Wolfrum, instructed the firefighters to remain calm and to clear an area for themselves in the ashes.
Lightning was bursting from the pyrocumulus cloud over the fire as the men in their newly issued orange fire shirts covered their heads with their arms when the fire burned around them. They helped each other swat out the flames on their clothes during the ember shower.
They did not hear it because of the roar of the fire, but they looked up and saw the red skids of a helicopter. It was a Bell 47B-3 that had seating for three people abreast, with the pilot in the middle.
Below is an excerpt from the April, 1994 edition of “The Static Line” published by the National Smokejumper Association:
…The pilot was Rod Snider of the Johnson Flying Service and he had spotted the men and their orange [fire shirts].
Fritz and Snider quickly organized an evacuation plan. Snider had to drop down vertically and take off the same way because of old snags surrounding the jumpers [a maneuver that requires more power than departing from a ridge]. On the first few trips Rod took out two jumpers on each run, having them ride in the cabin. Then, with the helicopter getting hotter, Rod told them he would take four out on each trip. Two rode in the cabin and two hung on to the [cargo trays]. Rod was able to ferry all 20 jumpers to the Freeman Ridge fire camp. Fritz and Tom were among those on the last trip out.
Some of the jumpers were treated at St. Patricks’s Hospital for smoke-burned eyes. Within several days most of the jumpers who had been on the Higgins Ridge Fire were out jumping on more fires.
In June, 2019 a reunion was held in Missoula for the firefighters that were involved in the Higgins Ridge Fire. Eleven of the jumpers gave oral interviews and participated in a panel discussion at the National Museum of Forest Service History (video of the panel). Mr. Snider made the trip and gave his oral history, but unfortunately had to return home the night before the panel discussion due to a family emergency.
Below are excerpts from an article in The Missoulian, August 2, 2019:
“It was hard to find them,” said Snider, 89, a quiet man who received awards for his heroism but shuns the obvious mantle of hero.
“The wind was really cooking in there and you couldn’t see the heliport all the time to get down. I had to come in high and drop down into it when I could see a little break,” Snider said in an oral history interview before he left town.
What made you risk your life to do it? an interviewer in Missoula asked.
“Oh, it had to be done. It had to be done,” Snider replied. “I don’t know. You just can’t leave guys down in the position that they were in.”
His helicopter, a Bell 47G-3 that Snider christened “Red Legs” for its painted landing skids and support legs, was one of the first with a supercharger. But the overload was nonetheless hard on it, he said.
“I felt a little uneasy, because I knew I’d over-boosted everything, But when they gave an inspection later on they couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” Snider said.
The following year Snider received the Pilot of the Year Award from the Helicopter Association of America in Dallas and the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.
In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial year, Tom Kovalicky, 84, of Grangeville and Stanley, Idaho, successfully nominated Snider for the North American Forest Fire Medal, which was being revived for the first time since 1956. Snider and his wife were flown to New Orleans for the presentation that October. And in 2002 he was inducted into the Museum of Mountain Flying Hall of Fame.
The year was 1961 when cumulus clouds built up every afternoon promising rain, but delivering isolated dry lightning storms. This was the year before I became a smokejumper. It was my second year to work on the Moose Creek District of the Nezperce National Forest. The preceding summer I had spent as a lookout fireman on top of Bailey Mountain. This year I had been working trail crew for a couple of months until the sky erupted at the end of July and left fires all over the district.
My trail partner (Ron) and I had been cutting a trail from the Selway River to Big Rock Mountain and were currently holed up in a cabin there when a helicopter picked us up to transport us to a small fire on Higgins Ridge. We were to meet a crew walking in from Elbow Bend on East Moose Creek. We saw smokejumpers parachute into the fire area on our way to the fire. We landed on the uphill side of the fire, grabbed our shovels and pulaskis and started for the fire. We could see the jumpers’ orange shirts through the smoke.
Before we could get to the fire a large cumulous cloud covered the sun and the wind picked up to 25 or 30 m.p.h. The fire blew up in our faces, and we were forced to retreat back into a large rockslide.
The jumpers weren’t so lucky. They were trapped in the middle of it with no escape route. They dug in, buried their faces in wet bandanas in the dirt, and tried to find air to breath as the fire roared from a manageable 2 acres to a 1280 acre holocaust. It was late evening, and the fire was beautiful to watch. It was crowning, and trees several hundred feet ahead of the fire would begin to tremble and then burst into flame like a fireworks display.
The fire was so hot that canteens of water near the jumpers started exploding. When things looked at their bleakest, the cavalry arrived in the form of Rod Snider(NCSB-51) in a Bell 47G-3B helicopter from Johnson’s Flying Service in Missoula. It was getting dark when he flew into the middle of the fire and started bringing Jumpers out four at a time, which is two more than the maximum the copter was supposed to carry. He had two guys on the seat and two more on the runners. He made five trips into the fire and rescued twenty jumpers. The manifold pressure on the copter engine was 200% above maximum, and when the engine was torn down later, two pistons fell apart. I heard that “Crash” received 20 cases of beer the next week.
My trail partner and I stayed on the fire through mop-up. The other crew arrived without tools, which were to be dropped in by air. Unfortunately, communications left something to be desired. We kept requesting tools and instead received three separate drops of sleeping bags. Each person had a half dozen sleeping bags, but Ron and I were the only ones who had a shovel and pulaski to work on the fire. So we did.
When the tools finally arrived and we got the fire under control, I walked down to the area where the jumpers had been trapped. I found exploded water cans, unexploded gasoline cans (go figure), and a personal gear bag with all their cameras melted together. I could see Minolta, Canon, and Nikon logos on the fused metal and glass. I sent the lot back to Missoula. The fire had been so hot that there were no snags, just pointed stumps and ashes over a foot deep.
I remember two of the rescued jumpers departed the chopper and immediately asked for a cigarette. Now that’s a habit!
I’ve always wondered what that fire looked like from the other side. If anyone reads this that remembers, let me know.
The group that organized the oral history and panel about the Higgins Ridge Fire was organized by the National Museum of Forest Service History. Wildfire Today first wrote about the museum in 2009 five years after they began their effort to raise $10.6 million to build a national museum to commemorate the 100+ year history of the U. S. Forest Service. Their vision began in 1994 when they obtained 36 acres west of the Missoula airport where they hope to build a 30,000 square-foot building.
The museum’s fund drive received a significant boost this month when it received a $2 million contribution from the estate of Bill Cannon, a Forest Service retiree.
From the Ravalli Republic:
…Cannon spent most of his Forest Service years in California and Oregon, with an interlude in Hawaii where he was assigned to state and private forestry work. He finished his career in Washington, D.C., where he worked on program planning for the Forest Service’s state and private programs.
Meanwhile, according to a press release announcing his gift, he used his avocation of studying financial markets to become an adept investor.
Cannon became impressed with the National Museum of Forest Service History on a field trip to the site while in Missoula for the 2000 U.S. Forest Service retiree reunion.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
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.
In our continuing series of looking back at photos of historic air tankers, today we are featuring five PB4Y-2 Privateers: Tankers 30, 50, 121, 123, and 124. The photos of the aircraft seen here were furnished by the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base except for the ones credited to JD Davis. Thanks JD!
In our continuing series of looking back at photos of historic air tankers, today we are featuring Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2 Privateer (N6884C, B. 59701). All of these photos of the aircraft were furnished by the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base except for the one at the top of this article.
Unlike many of the aircraft that were converted into air tankers from what would now be 50 to 70 year old former military war birds, Tanker 127 still exists today and can be seen at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting west of Greybull, Wyoming. Just looking at the external appearance of T-127 it almost appears like it could take to the air again, at least when viewed from a distance. But apparently it has had quite a bit of cosmetic surgery done on its nose.
Consolidated Aircraft produced 739 PB4Y-2s from 1943 until 1945, mostly for the U.S. Navy, but also for the U.S. Coast Guard. Its primary function was as a long-range patrol bomber. Defensive armament included twelve .50-in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in six power operated turrets (two dorsal, two waist, nose, and tail)
The Navy and the Coast Guard retired the model in 1954 and 1958, respectively. In the 1950s and early 1960s many of the PB4Y-2s were converted to a drone configuration as P4Y-2Ks to be used as targets.
According to Warbirdregistry.org, this aircraft was “up for disposal, circa 1959”, and was later owned by Allied Metal Industries, International Air Applicators, Rosenbalm Aviation, Hawkins and Powers Aviation, Pride Capital Group LLC, and Bob J. Hawkins/D & G Inc.
Quite a few PB4Y-2s were converted into air tankers but their firefighting careers came to an end after the second in-flight major structural failure of Hawkins & Powers air tankers in 2002. The first was T-130, a C-130A working on the Cannon Fire near Walker, California on June 17, killing all three crew members after both wings folded upward and separated from the aircraft.
The second was T-123, a PB4Y-2 on the Big Elk Fire east of Estes Park, Colorado on July 18. From Wikipedia:
The aircraft, operating with the call sign Tanker 123, was loaded with 2,000 US gallons (7,600 L) of retardant. At the time of the accident, it was in a left turn to line up for its eighth drop of the day on the Big Elk fire. While still in the 15–20° left bank, witnesses on the ground and in another tanker observed the left wing separate from the aircraft and “fold upwards”, followed almost immediately by the initiation of a fire. The aircraft continued to roll left, impacting the ground at a 45° nose down attitude, starting a large fire at the wreck site. Both crewmen were killed in the crash.
After those two crashes and five fatalities, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to evaluate, “the airworthiness of aircraft that were operating outside of their original intended design”. After the report was released in March, 2003 the USFS and BLM declined to renew the contracts on nine C-130A and PB4Y-2 airtankers. In a 2003 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Larry Hamilton of the BLM testified, “The report also identified a lack of training in contemporary aviation management areas that has contributed to an unacceptable accident rate.”
In 2002 44 large air tankers were on exclusive use contracts but after the two accidents the fleet atrophied, reaching a low of 9 in 2013. In 2014 “next-generation” air tankers began receiving contracts and the numbers increased, with 10 to 20 on EU contracts, but only 13 in 2018. The USFS has been using Call When Needed air tankers much more often than before, even though they are much more expensive to operate. The 2017 average daily rate for large federal CWN air tankers was 54 percent higher than aircraft on exclusive use contracts.
(Originally published at 4:17 p.m. MDT June 20, 2019)
Today we have another couple of photos from the Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base — an F7F-3 (N7625C) registered to Fred Arnberg Inc out of Yreka, California. In these photos there is a small “2” on the tail and also on the nose wheel cover.
A photo at Goodall.com.au shows an F7F-3 registered to Fred Arnberg with the same N number but with different livery and a large “22” on the tail. That website says Arnberg operated the first F7F-3 Grumman Tigercats as air tankers for several seasons in the early 1960s. This particular aircraft was purchased February 27, 1962 and by September 24, 1962 had hit trees and crashed near Callahan, California.
In the photo below you can see painted on the underside of the right-side wing.
And here is one more F7F-3 known as Tanker 22. It is N7238C operated by Cal-Nat Airways out of Grass Valley, California. Other owners were Dick Gordon of Santa Rosa, California and Sis-Q Flying Service of Montague, California.
(UPDATED at 10 a.m. MDT June 20, 2019)
Bill Bailey sent us an email and the photo below:
N7635C had AERO on the top of the left wing and bottom of the right wing and it has AD on top of the right wing and under the left. There were 2 AERO AD F7F-3s, N7625C , which you posted and N7626C which was later owned by Cal-Nat, still painted all Red and marked as Tanker E-42.
I found the attached photo some years ago and don’t remember who took it.
By the way, that first photo solved a question among modelers that has raged for years ….. was AERO AD painted on top of the wings.
Thanks go out to Bill B.
(UPDATED at 4:46 p.m. MDT June 20, 2019)
JD Davis sent us additional photos of the F7F-3. Thanks JD!
(Originally published at 4:58 p.m. PDT June 17, 2019)
The Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base called and asked if we were interested in accepting some old photos of air tankers that they didn’t know what to do with. I said, “Of course!”
I’ll be posting some of them off an on over the next few days and weeks.
Today we have two DC-7 air tankers that were photographed in August, 1975. The locations on many of the photos say Lancaster, California, and that is the case for these. There is no indication who took any of the photos. The aircraft model, N number, location taken, and the month/year are hand-written on the backs.
Most of the photos were taken while the aircraft were on the ground, a few show them airborne, and only a couple show them dropping water, which were probably a test flights.
If anyone has more information about these aircraft, such as what company operated them and the pilots who flew them, that would be great.
(UPDATED at 6:20 a.m. PDT June 18, 2019)
After getting more information in the comments from Tom Story and Jon (thanks folks), it turns out that there was an error in the hand written notation on the back of the Tanker 69 print. The N number should have been N4SW instead of N45W. I fixed the caption in the photo above.
And, like Tom said, the two DC-7s were operated by Butler, according to the information at Geoff Goodall’s Aviation website. In 2012, Tanker 60, N838D, was transferred to Erickson Aero Tanker and is still in operation.
In his comment, Jon said, “Tanker 69 was the one lost on the way to Medford from Klamath Falls for the end of the season party in 1979. My dad knew most of them.” Here is some of the information he referenced at aviation-safety.net:
[On September 14, 1979] DC-7 “Tanker 69” departed Redmond, OR a company business flight to Medford, OR, with an en route stop at Klamath Falls, OR. The aircraft struck trees on the crest of Surveyor Mountain and crashed. The aircraft departed Redmond for Klamath Falls about 19:45 and arrived there at 20:29. Two passengers enplaned and the aircraft departed runway 14 at Klamath Falls at 20:40.The aircraft struck trees on the crest of the 6400 feet high Surveyor Mountain about 7 minutes after takeoff.
PROBABLE CAUSE: “The flight crew’s decision to undertake a direct point-to-point high-cruise-speed flight at low altitude. The crew’s judgment in the selection of a low-altitude flight profile may have been influenced by their familiarity with the terrain.”
CLASSIFICATION: Controlled flight into terrain.
Any crash of an air tanker is awful, usually killing two or three crew members, but in this case 12 people died — two crew members and 10 passengers. May they rest in peace.