Aerial firefighting began with military aircraft |

Aerial firefighting began with military aircraft

Today, fighting forest fires from the air is routine. However, some 50 or so years ago the practice was still in its infancy and pretty much a novelty. The first aerial tankers were converted World War II military surplus aircraft. Called “borate bombers” by the public after the fire suppressant mixture dropped on fires, they flew out of what was then the Loma Rica Airport. Let’s go back to the beginning and Nevada County’s involvement.

During the fire season of 1957, the first aerial tankers went into service in Grass Valley. The California Division of Forestry’s fire attack base is at the end of the runway, far left in the 1962 photo. At that time there was very little development at the airport and few private aircraft.

The first aerial tanker was developed at the Willows airport by Ray Varney, Harold Hendrickson, the Nolta brothers and others at the request of Joe Ely, fire control officer on the Mendocino National Forest. A Stearman trainer was fitted with a 170 gallon tank and thus became the first aerial tanker. The plane was first used on Aug. 12, 1955 on the Mendenhall fire on the Mendocino National Forest. A fleet of seven more followed and were operational the next year.

According to retired CDF firefighter Sherman Hanley, “They were slow, but it was a start,” he said. “The retardant used then was a ‘borate solution,’ and the name persists today even though the planes haven’t dropped a that stuff for some 30 years,” he added.

In 1958, pilot Bob Stevenson and his Cal-Nat Airways began a 10 year association with the state and federal firefighting services and with Nevada County. Stevenson supplied planes, pilots and airport management expertise on contract.

Stevenson had purchased a number of World War II surplus Navy aircraft, among them were Grumman F7F Tigercats, TBM Avengers and one Northrop P-61, Black Widow night fighter. The P-61 and the F7Fs were twin engine while the Avenger was a single radial engine craft. The “Widow” entered service in the last days of World War II and saw little action. As an aerial tanker its performance was adequate.

The F7Fs had a suppressant liquid capacity of 800 gallons while the TBMs, nicknamed the “Turkey,” had a capacity of half that of the Tigercats.

Airport improvements were ongoing and in the mid-1960s; the main runway was extended to 4,200 feet allowing Stevenson to bring in larger aircraft. Again, WWII surplus multi-engine planes were the answer.

He acquired a Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, famed for submarine and open sea patrol in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres. The PBY had a 2,000 gallon tank for retardant. The bird had twin engines and a high wing. A Boeing B-17, a four engine bomber used extensively in the European campaign. was also added to the fleet.

Most of Stevenson’s pilots were WWII veterans. One, Neil Hennessy, was a commercial pilot prior to the war and was drafted into the Army Air Corps and given a direct commission. He was discharged a major at the end of hostilities. After another stint as an airline pilot, Hennessy moved to Nevada County and followed real estate. He also served a term on the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and flew aerial tankers well into his 50s. Hennessy logged more than 20,000 flying hours overall. He died in 1982.

Joe McCoy and Ralph Ponte were two other pilots credited with many flying hours. One day while McCoy was attempting a landing directly into the sun, his F7F skidded off the runway, crumpling the nose wheel and bending a propeller blade. Neither the plane nor McCoy was seriously injured.

The days of the single-engine tanker were numbered. The TBMs finally retired for safety reasons. Ponte acquired a number of these and painstakingly restored them. Today, his restorations are highly prized by collectors and air museums alike.

In 1968, Bob Stevenson sold Cal-Nat Airways to Sis Q Flying Service which continued flying the vintage WWII aircraft well into the 1970s. Replacement was acquired when the newer Grumman twin engine S2s were surplused by the Marine Corps. By upgrading the engines to turbines, the horsepower was increased allowing an increased liquid capacity to some 1,200 gallons with a range of 200 miles.

Today, the S2s with their OV10 Bronco spotter planes are in use statewide by both the California Department of Forestry and the national forests. In some areas outdated multi-engine passenger aircraft are being converted to high capacity aerial tankers.

With the a crop of new aircraft came the retirement of the venerable WWII planes after a second tour of duty along with many of their valiant pilots.


A BIG “Thank You” to Sherman “Sherm” Hanley for his invaluable assistance in supplying the essential historical facts for this story.


Bob Wyckoff is a retired Nevada County newspaper editor/publisher and author of local history publications available at your favorite local bookstore. He can be ached at: or PO Box 216, Nevada City CA 95959.

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