The Liberty Gazette
October 17, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Our college flying team gathered on the flight deck as the air tanker pilot spun tales of derring-do in aerial firefighting. He explained the little button on his control yoke, the airplane’s steering wheel. Behind him, the instrument panel was dark in comparison to the light shining through a virtual greenhouse of windows. Most airplane cockpits are too small to fit more than two or three people, even in big airliners. But the spacious cockpit of the C-119, a Korean War era plane nicknamed the Flying Boxcar, held our group of ten with room to spare.
The little button, which got more than a little attention, was a release button, like those used by bombardiers. This one opened doors on the belly of the airplane allowing up to eighteen hundred gallons of fire retardant to fall from a tank. That’s ten thousand pounds. The entire load could be dispersed in less than a second, or the drop could last up to ten seconds. One member of our group got a little too close to that button. The pilot quickly blocked her itchy fingers to prevent spilling expensive, gooey fire retardant and painting the entire ramp bright red.
Years ago, the airplanes dropped a yellow-green type of fire suppressant called Borate, which earned them the nickname, Borate Bombers. Borate was made from Borax mined from the California desert. It not only smothered the fire, it killed all the vegetation. The weight of impact was enough to cut off oxygen to the fire so the Department of Agriculture looked for something that could do the same, but wouldn’t be so harsh on plants. Phos-Chek is the suppressant used today. It’s usually dyed red with iron-sulfate so pilots can see where they have dropped their load. Once the fire has been put out, the sulfate and phosphate salts act as fertilizer to promote regrowth.
One of the airports where our flying team practiced precision landings was an air attack tanker base. Hemet Valley Flying Service operated a number of aircraft including several Flying Boxcars. The airplanes were old even then and have since been retired from service, replaced by DC-10s, 747s and others. The 747 “Supertanker” carries more than ten times the load the C-119 was capable of lifting.
While I marvel at their forms as they glide across lakes to scoop up water, and sweep down valleys with seeming grace to disperse their cargo, I do not forget the reason they exist. They are frontline weapons in a fight to save lives.
Dozens of helicopters and airplanes have been dispatched to help put out these fires that have devoured much of Napa Valley, California’s wine country. The two Canyon fires near Anaheim have claimed over 8,000 acres. The Palmer, Atlas, and Tubbs fires have burned more than 20,000 acres, and resources are stretched. This has been a tragic year of natural disasters. With each event, aviation has provided significant rescue and support.