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.