Friday, July 25, 2014

Man, I wish I could have gone to work for the Forest Service

Back in the day, they flew some planes.

While strolling around Pima Air Museum's back lot, out behind the hangars on the far side from the rest of the outside collection, I found some sad-looking old military derelicts that will hopefully be restored someday. Most of them were marked up as Forest Service fire bombers, indicating how they finished their flying lives.

The first was this Grumman AF-2, which was originally built as a torpedo bomber and then repurposed as an anti-submarine aircraft.
This particular one is an AF-2S. 193 of them were built out of a total production run of 389 AFs of all variants. They were only in service with the US Navy for five years, 1950-1955, and with the Navy Reserve until 1957.
Her engine was only 2400 horsepower, which many pilots felt made her underpowered for her size and weight. She was never a very popular pane to fly, and eventually they were replaced in their ASW role by the much more successful S-2 Tracker.
Most were scrapped, but a few, like N99952 here, were turned over to the Forest Service and either leased or titled to companies like Aero Union and used to fight forest fires.
She needs a bit of TLC, but I'd still love to take her up.

Also back there, this Lockheed P-2 Neptune, another Maritime Patrol and ASW aircraft that flew primarily with the Navy but also the Army and Marines and the CIA well up into the 1980s.
This one is on loan from the Forest Service and still looks to be quite flyable; it's probably the most airworthy aircraft in this back lot.
These aircraft flew in the Korean War, Vietnam, and even as recently as the Falklands War in the hands of the Argentinians.
Note the addition of two jet engines under the wings to operate in conjunction with her reciprocating engines.
At one time, the Navy even developed a program by which the P-2 could be used as a carrier-borne nuclear bomber, using rocket packs attached to her sides to help it get off of a carrier deck with a nuclear bomb aboard. But as the P-2 could not land on a carrier, the crew was expected to find a friendly country to land in or ditch the aircraft at sea following bomb delivery. Fortunately for the Navy crews, other, more capable aircraft came along shortly and this role was taken away from the Neptunes.
Several P-2 Neptunes are still flown by firefighting companies like Neptune Aviation Services in Montana, and Minden Air Corporation in Nevada. If I get time this week, I may just send them each a resume. Flying these would be cool.

Also cool to fly: This DC-7.
Here's where they rigged a water-drop bomb bay beneath her. I'd have scootched under there for better shots, but man, that sand was hot, even with the shade.
The engines just need a bit massaging, and I suspect that they'll turn right over.
Not sure why I don't have more pictures of this one. Probably because I was still bouncing around the place like an eight year old on a sugar high in a candy store.

There was a Fairchild C-119 in that lot too, also with a single jet engine attached to it's roof.
Most of these were built near me in Fairchild's factory in Hagerstown, MD, but 71 were subcontracted out to Henry Kaiser who built them out of the old Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti, MI.
These old birds carried troops, supplies and anything else that needed carrying in Korea and Vietnam. Some were even fitted with side-firing guns in an AC-119 configuration,and they rained holy hell down on the bad guys in SE Asia.

This one ended her days as a fire-bomber, but who knows what she did while flying for the Air Force. Like the others here, these were warplanes before they were fire-bombers, and they flew countless thousands of hours between them, probably all over the world in both peacetime and war.
Of course this one could use a little TLC, too.
Look behind her--another C-119 awaiting restoration back in the "off limits" area.
In 1981, Hemet Valley Flying Service lost one of these aircraft and it's two crew members when it's left wing suddenly tore off during a fire drop. That aircraft's N number: N13742. This one:
Cause of the crash: age and wear; metal fatigue.

Sadly, that's not an unknown occurrence in a firefighting fleet made up of surplus aircraft, some of which date back to World War Two. In 2002, Tanker 123, a Consolidated P4Y-2, went down for a similar reason in Colorado, also with the loss of her crew.

Yeah, it wasn't without risk, and still isn't, but what I wouldn't give for a flying job like that, especially in those old warbirds.


  1. Your an eternal optimist every one of those birds have lived out their lifespans and are now museum pieces. That however doesn't mean a few couldn't be made airworthy for demonstration purposes.

    1. Yeah, maybe. But if you can get the engines to run up and the control surfaces to move right on any of these old warhorses, I'd be game to fly it. What's life without a little adventure?

  2. Anonymous12:39 PM

    Much as I hate the smoke and pain that comes with fire season, since our local airport is the regional refueling hub for the fire fleets, I always love to see the pretty orange airplanes fly over.

  3. The P-2 and the C-119, two of my favorites. Actually saw both of those birds quite a few times when I was just a kid growing up in Vermont. Go figure.

  4. I have a friend that volunteered to go fight fires in Idaho a few (ok, not so few I guess) years back. I have a picture he took on the side of a mountain, with a DC7 flying far below where he stood, down a very narrow valley. Amazing.

  5. ..."off limits" area..." I'm disappointed, I didn't think you knew what those words meant. Just sayin'

    1. Oh I know what they mean. They mean "wonderful stuff to see here" but you have to be willing to risk being tossed out when caught there and I wasn't ready to be tossed out of the Pima Air Museum yet.

  6. Anonymous5:14 PM

    An amazing amount of history in tese old birds

  7. Yep, lots of good men lost flying those old birds.

  8. Minden Air & Neptune are getting rid of the PV2 as fast as they can. They have lost at least 3 in firefighting ops, likely due to structural failures, in recent years and the USFS & BLM don't want to certify them anymore.

    1. I might have to see what they want for one.

  9. The variety you found and pictured is 10x what an interested but ignorant "passenger" such as me would've noticed. Thank You!

  10. I had my card back in the day to fly for they and DNR. (it's in my office at work, hand typed, which gives you an idea of the year). More than once playing lead, I took off my amber sunglasses, only to see that I was IFR in the smoke (in a canyon, yikes).

    It was a great way to build multi and turbine, but we lot more than one good person. RIP John Roy Turner.