Looking back at Air Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2

PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127, N6884C, at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting, Greybull, WY, May 26, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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)

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, in flight near Reno, 1976.

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.

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 ,N6884C, August, 1975 at Reno-Stead AFB. Photo by J.B. Handwriting on the back of the photo says, “The new N6884C formerly N7962C.”

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.

PB4Y-2 Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127, N6884C, July 1976. The handwriting on the back of the photo says, “Nose is T-33 canopy cut and turned upright. In fact this nose is new (2 yr) for N6884C and may be from 92 Charlie.”

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.

PB4Y-2 Air Tanker 127 N6884C
PB4Y-2 Tanker 127, N6884C, at Reno, July, 1976. Photo by Babcock.

Continue reading “Looking back at Air Tanker 127, a PB4Y-2”

Photos of some of the first F7F-3 air tankers

(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.

F7F-3, N7625C
F7F-3, N7625C, registered to Fred Arnberg Inc out of Yreka, California.

In the photo below you can see painted on the underside of the right-side wing.

F7F-3, N7625C
F7F-3, N7625C, registered to Fred Arnberg Inc out of Yreka, California.

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.

F7F-3 air tanker (N7238C)
F7F-3 air tanker (N7238C) operated in the 1960s by Cal-Nat Airways and other companies.

(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.

F7F-3, N7626C
F7F-3, N7626C, operated by Cal-Nat Airways, Grass Valley, California. Purchased around 1960 from Aero Ads Inc. skywriter. Sold to Sis Q Flying Service in 1969. (according to goodall.com.au). Photo by William T. Larkins at Oakland, CA., date unknown.

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!

DC-7, N7626 air tanker
F7F-3, N7626, Tanker 42. By JD Davis, who said tanker pilot Ed Real took it to the ‘California 1000’ Air Race at Mojave Nov, 1971 — Qualified it but didn’t race it.

Photos of two DC-7 air tankers from 1975

DC-7 air tanker, Tanker 60, N838D
DC-7 air tanker, Tanker 60, N838D, August, 1975 at Lancaster, CA.

(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.

DC-7 air tanker, Tanker 69, N45W
DC-7 air tanker, Tanker 69, N4SW, August, 1975 at Lancaster, CA.

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.

Tanker 60 DC-7 Madras, Oregon
Chuck Rhodes, Erickson Aero Tanker Maintenance Supervisor, with Tanker 60, a DC-7 at Madras, Oregon, June 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

The NTSB report can be found here.


(UPDATED at  4:46 p.m. MDT June 20, 2019)

JD Davis sent us additional photos of these aircraft. Thanks JD!

DC-7, N4SW air tanker
DC-7, N4SW, variously known as Tanker 19 or Tanker 69. Photo by JD Davis. At Ontario (ONT) Sept., 1974.
DC-7, N838D air tanker
DC-7, N838D, Tanker 60, by JD Davis. At San Bernardino (SBD) Oct. 17, 1999.