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Floyd Nolta, a member of the First Fire Aero Squadron, based in Northern California, is shown here as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps during WWII. He was assigned to the 1st Motion Picture Unit to make training and morale films during the war and remained a Hollywood stunt pilot for a time afterward.
SACRAMENTO — Aviator Frank Prentice doesn't think he was bold as he skimmed forest treetops and brushy ridges in a biplane as one of seven pioneering aerial firefighters half a century ago.

Saturday marks 50 years that everyone from film stunt pilots to airline captains have flown everything from biplanes to big cargo planes to fight deadly fires such as the Oakland hills blaze — a quest that's sometimes used questionable but beloved Navy planes like those in the East Bay's USS Hornet Museum.

Even Saturday, as the elite aviator corps honors its pioneers, the National Transportation and Safety Board will still be determining whether the crash of a four-engine, P-3 Navy patrol plane in April means the mainstay of the current federal tanker fleet should be grounded.

But, as California faces the worst of its fire season, officials and contract pilots alike agree the fleets operated by the federal and state governments are essential and have been for decades as Californians build across flammable wildlands.

The birth of aerial firefighting 50 years ago in Willows added an incredibly valuable tool to the wildfire management arsenal, said Robert Fish, spokesman for the Associated Airtanker Pilots.

The group, with the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry, will hold an anniversary celebration in the Northern California town, featuring Prentice, the last surviving member of the First Aero Fire Squadron.


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Also appearing — health and heat permitting — will be 96-year-old Joe Ely, a former Forest Service employee considered the father of aerial firefighting because he approached agricultural "crop duster" pilots with the idea.

One converted firefighting air tanker pilot initially "was on standby there (in Willows), but one airplane alone was like spitting in the ocean," Prentice said. "So Joe Ely decided to create a fleet of them.

"He was able to demonstrate that dumping water on a fire did have some effect," Prentice said.

The seven pioneers flew Stearman biplanes over forests, without the strict safety rules applied to today's CDF and Forest Service fleets.

"There was a time or two when I hit a tree with the landing gear," Prentice said. "I'd look back and see the tree rocking back and forth. But getting twigs in the landing gear wasn't a big deal."

In one close call, Prentice remembers, his plane and another air tanker collided, but both pilots survived. "There were propeller marks in the fuselage of one of the airplanes," he said.

In Southern California, with its brush, "we'd come right in on a ridge and actually clean the brush right out," he said. "We were used to flying five or 10 feet above the ground. It was no big deal."

Even so, Prentice said he doesn't consider himself a bold pilot. "There's old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots," he said.

As the years unfolded, "the tactics and equipment developed by Fire Control Officer Joe Ely and his pioneering fire pilots have saved numerous lives, thousands of homes and millions of acres of property in the intervening decades," Fish said.

The use of biplanes gave way to more expensive but larger and faster World War II Navy TBM Avenger dive bombers. They became the first aircraft dedicated solely to aerial firefighting.

One of the TBMs, used as an air tanker, has been refurbished and is on display at the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda.

But like today, the aircraft employed in firefighting wasn't always a perfect fit with its mission, and they aged quickly given the hard duty.

"The TBM was so massive, you'd pull the nose up and nothing would happen. It took awhile before it would come up," Prentice said. "It killed a lot of good pilots."

Government began contracting with firms supplying a wider variety of surplus military planes, even as water gave way to a series of better chemical retardants.

"These multi-engine PBYs, B-24s, A-26s, DC-6s and even B-17s could carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant and were much more effective on large fires," according to an Associated Airtanker Pilots' history of aerial firefighting. 

The Forest Service's search for newer, safer air tankers continues amid groundings of certain kinds of surplus military planes as unsafe. Meanwhile, CDF's fleet has become a model through its extensive upgrading of former Navy S-2 patrol planes

Several companies are scrambling to produce next-generation tankers for the Forest Service, including Evergreen International of Oregon. They are converting a massive Boeing 747 airliner.

As the pioneers were nudged out by the bigger, faster air tankers with specialized crews, some were indignant.

But Floyd Nolta, who served in the Army Air Corps and became a Hollywood stunt flier for a time before fighting fires, just smiled at his colleagues and said: "What the hell. It was fun while it lasted."

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.