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Have been it not for the efforts of two males who settled within the city of Willows, California, the August Advanced Hearth, the biggest within the state’s historical past, might need devasted much more than the million acres it ravaged in the course of the seemingly infinite hearth season of 2020.

These two males have been Floyd “Velocity” Nolta and Joe Ely, and so they pioneered the usage of airplanes to drop water on forest fires. They’d contrasting backgrounds—Floyd from a blue-collar timbering household in Oregon and Ely an Ivy League Midwesterner—however collectively they offered an instance of American ingenuity at work.

Nolta was already a extremely regarded mechanic at 17, when he enlisted within the Military after america entered World Conflict I. The Military despatched him to Rockwell Area close to San Diego to function a mechanic. (Whereas at Rockwell, Nolta met Jimmy Doolittle, not but a legendary aviator, and the 2 males turned lifelong pals.) Nolta had his first airplane flight whereas within the Military, and he discovered to fly after the battle when he settled in Willows in Northern California’s Sacramento Valley. There he fashioned the Willows Flying Service to offer crop dusting providers.

In 1928, Nolta developed a strategy to velocity rice planting by mounting a hopper on the fuselage of his Hispano-Suiza powered Journey Air biplane. A sliding valve with a threaded knob allowed him to measure exact quantities of fertilizer and seed that dropped from the hopper right into a field. The wash from the propeller unfold the product over a 50-foot swath. Nolta’s system vastly improved rice propagation. Based on Thad Baker, a modern-day licensed crop advisor and rice farmer, pilots world wide nonetheless use Nolta’s system.

Floyd Nolta used a Journey Air biplane to sow rice earlier than he turned a firefighter. (Courtesy of Gary Hendrickson)

Along with agricultural flying, the Willows Flying Service had contracts to offer varied providers to the U.S. Forest Service. It flew personnel to distant areas, airlifted provides, carried out aerial searches for fires and dropped seed for forest hearth remediation.

Whereas Nolta was constructing a profession at Willows, a younger man 11 years his junior was pursuing an Ivy League schooling that positioned him on an intersecting trajectory. Born in Wisconsin in 1911, Joe Ely earned an undergraduate diploma at Dartmouth Faculty and obtained his grasp’s diploma in botany from the Yale Faculty of Forestry in 1935. He joined the Forest Service after getting his grasp’s, and he would spend his profession there in quite a lot of posts.

When america entered World Conflict II, forest rangers have been exempt from army service as a result of the federal government categorized them as vital for shielding forests, significantly within the occasion of Japanese incendiary balloon assaults. Ely, due to this fact, continued his forestry profession. In distinction, Nolta flew as a Hollywood stunt pilot earlier than re-enlisting within the Military Air Forces and becoming a member of the First Movement Image Unit. He piloted plane for coaching and morale-boosting movies and flew a B-25 Mitchell bomber below the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, a fictionalized account of his pal Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 bombing raid on Japan.


Nolta and Ely each ended up in Willows after the battle. Nolta continued his stunt work however returned to his flying service after recovering from critical accidents he suffered in a crash of a P-38 Lightning close to Los Angeles in 1948. Ely ultimately settled along with his household in Willows after being promoted to Hearth Management Officer within the Mendocino Nationwide Forest, probably the most energetic hearth areas. Positioned within the Northern Coast Vary Mountains, the forest covers 900,000 acres, has upwards of 6,000 toes in elevation change and options a mixture of evergreen forest, oak woodlands and heavy chaparral woodland ecosystems. California chaparral is the densest brush on this planet, consisting of bushes and vegetation with waxy leaves and a excessive oil content material that permits vegetation to outlive dry summers, but additionally makes them extremely flammable.

These situations led to tragedy on July 9, 1953, when the Rattlesnake Hearth broke out 28 miles northwest of Willows. Fifteen younger males, largely 20-something missionaries serving as volunteer firefighters, misplaced their lives once they turned trapped in a canyon by flames that raced towards them at 15 miles per hour. One of many males who died that day was a Forest Service ranger. It was the worst lack of life within the historical past of the U.S. Forest Service till 19 firefighters perished within the Yarnell Hearth in Arizona in 2013. In response, the Forest Service and different companies established Operation Firestop, a program to search out workable concepts to combat fires. Within the spring of 1955, Ely acquired permission from his supervisor to discover the opportunity of utilizing water drops as a part of this system.

Dropping water from airplanes onto fires was not a brand new concept. It had been thought-about way back to the Nineteen Twenties, however not one of the varied strategies examined after World Conflict II had been applied. Ely’s concept was to make use of the agriculture pilots in Willows to do the job. Based on Ely’s handwritten account, “I took the air tanker proposition first to Lee Sherwood, the Airport Supervisor, and maybe some others, however they have been searching the window. Anyhow Floyd (Velocity) Nolta, of the Willows Flying Service caught hearth actual quick. All I needed to do was comment that he positive had loads of expertise dropping supplies out of airplanes onto farms and did he suppose he may do the identical factor on a forest hearth. He stated to return again in per week.”

Nolta’s fleet of agricultural airplanes await on the tarmac in a photograph from the Nineteen Fifties. (Courtesy of Bob Fish)

Ely had different issues on his plate per week later, so he requested a colleague to satisfy Floyd and Floyd’s brother, Vance—additionally a pilot—at Nolta’s non-public airstrip close to Willows. Nolta had reduce a gap within the backside of his Boeing-Stearman Mannequin 75 Kaydet biplane and put in a 170-gallon tank with a hinged gate, a snap and a pull. Vance flew the aircraft over a managed burn for demonstration. “Vance came visiting low and pulled the rope and put out the fireplace,” Ely later wrote. “The air tanker was born.”

A couple of months later, Vance Nolta turned the primary pilot to make a free-fall water drop when he assisted a crew on the Mendenhall Hearth within the Mendocino Nationwide Forest on August 12, 1955. And so it started.

Ely established the Mendocino Air Tanker Squad (MATS), the primary aerial tanker unit on this planet, in 1956. The squad of native agriculture pilots consisted of the Nolta brothers—Floyd, Vance and Dale—Ray Varney, Frank Prentice, Lee Sherwood, Harold Hendrickson, L. H. McCurley and Warren Bullock. Apart from the Nolta brothers’ Stearman and Lee Sherwood’s Tri-Pacer monoplane, the fleet of seven planes have been Naval Plane Manufacturing facility N3N-3 biplane trainers. Sherwood flew his monoplane with a Forest Service observer onboard. Later Ely recalled of those pioneers, “The native pilots have been the final of the silk scarf and leather-based helmet boys and they might attempt something.”

Pilot Ray Varney (with two unidentified loaders) readies himself for a flight in an N3N biplane. The previous Navy trainers fashioned the core of the Mendocino Air Tanker Squad in Willows, California. (Courtesy of Gary Hendrickson)

The MATS pilots fought 12 fires in August 1956, their first month of operation. They spent 5 days in September aiding with a hearth close to Lake Arrowhead within the San Bernardino Nationwide Forest. As a result of agriculture planes didn’t have radios till the 1957 hearth season, the tanker pilots initially needed to get their instructions whereas they have been on the bottom taking up retardant. Though it isn’t clear once they first used an remark airplane, the fireplace prevention officer for the forest reported that the pilots have been ultimately directed by “a radio-equipped Cessna used as a hen canine.” That position later turned generally known as “Drop Coo” for Drop Coordinator. The pilots “can scramble on the crackling of a spark to their planes,” stated an article within the Sacramento Bee from October 1956.  “Their biplanes resemble a World Conflict I pursuit squadron as they wing to a goal with liquid ‘bomb masses.’ They fly by means of smoke, warmth and wind storms created by the blaze to drop water and chemical substances from solely 30 to 90 toes above flaming tree tops.” Including to the army ambiance, pilot Hendrickson’s 11-year-old son, Gary, added nostril artwork to his father’s airplane, which he named Mr. Mendocino. The paintings depicted Smoky the Bear in a biplane’s cockpit.

The agricultural flying season led to June, simply as the fireplace season started, offering many extra months of labor for the MATS pilots. Pilot Frank Prentice recalled that they have been paid $60 an hour (round $575 an hour at the moment). Ely additionally had a $4,000 price range to pay for standby time, however the pilots remained so busy incomes flight pay that the standby funds remained untouched.

Phrase unfold to state and federal forestry models that in the event that they wanted firefighting airplanes, all they needed to do was name dispatcher Charlie Lafferty in Willows. Lafferty would then name the pay telephone in Lee Sherwood’s hanger. An unwritten regulation was that nobody may make prolonged calls on the pay telephone in the course of the hearth season. 

Lila Prentice, Frank’s spouse of 71 years, remembers she had a crystal radio tuned to the Forest Service frequency. When she heard two watch towers report smoke in the identical location, she would name the hanger to alert the pilots. Her husband would then notify pilot Harold Hendrickson within the neighboring hanger and they might be able to go by the point dispatcher Lafferty known as with the coordinates for the preliminary water drops.

Agricultural flying and aerial firefighting each require flying near the bottom, however the newly minted MATS pilots discovered that the similarities ended there. Fairly actually, that they had a baptism by hearth. As Prentice recalled, firefighting required “orbiting down within the gap” (maneuvering the plane into deep canyons) and “the marksmanship to hit the goal and to not overshoot it.” The pilots needed to fly over mountains and thru smoke whereas battling excessive winds and quickly rising air currents. They flew as little as 5 toes above treetops and straight towards mountains, studying that the air flowing over ridges may power their airplanes down. Over time the pilots discovered learn how to time every water launch to hit the appropriate spot whereas permitting them room to clear any ridges. An N3N weighs simply over 2,000 kilos, so when an airplane launched 1,200 kilos of water it leapt up, serving to with clearance over any oncoming heights.

However the pilots and Ely found one other problem: evaporation. They realized that on scorching days little or no water truly hit the bottom. The answer was to combine water with sodium calcium borate, producing a substance that not solely made it to the floor however had a melting level twice as excessive because the 900 levels ignition level of a forest hearth. As a result of the white substance caught to brush and mirrored warmth, the pilots dropped it on a hearth’s flanks to manage unfold. They quickly realized, although, that shortly after being dropped, the sodium calcium borate blended in with the vegetation so they might not see the place that they had deployed it. Borate additionally sterilized the soil, so it was quickly phased out. The identify “Borate Bombers,” nevertheless, caught.

Among the many replacements of the unique firefighting biplanes was this brightly coloured Japanese Plane TBM-3U Avenger. (Courtesy of Bob Fish)

Harold Hendrickson’s son, Gary, joined the sector in 1972 because the copilot of a Boeing B-17 aerial tanker and he later flew Grumman AF Guardians and TBM Avengers in addition to Douglas DC-6s throughout a 40-year profession. Based on Gary, the Forest Service required that retardants “needed to be viscous, brilliant coloured as a way to use prior drops as a reference level, nonetheless present fireproofing as much as three days after being dropped and include fertilizer to advertise regrowth.” These necessities led to compounds reminiscent of Bentonite, a clay that swelled up and caught higher, however generally got here down in a piece as an alternative of a sprig. By the Nineteen Sixties, the firefighters have been utilizing a retardant with diammonium phosphate.

The thicker retardants’ viscosity made them a problem to combine and cargo rapidly into airplanes. Ely discovered one other native resolution with Wim Lely of Lely’s Orland Manufacturing Firm, who developed a tool that might combine a thousand gallons of retardant and pump it into an airplane in a matter of minutes. Lely equipped his gear to the Forest Service for years.


The MATS pilots have been quickly preventing blazes throughout California. Among the greatest fires they fought of their first 12 months have been in Southern California. To search out their manner there they’d merely comply with U.S. Freeway 99. Usually the pilots could be gone for days with no strategy to contact their households besides by means of dispatcher Lafferty, on whom they might all the time rely to name their wives with information from the entrance.

Even below such primary situations the MATS pilots made an affect. One hearth boss for the 1956 McKinley Hearth within the San Bernardino Nationwide Forest wrote, “The fireplace was crowning within the heavy brush, however the chemical drops saved knocking the fireplace down in order that the sector staff and 50 males have been capable of full their line. I don’t consider this may be potential with out the drops.” A examine carried out on the finish of 1956 recorded that MATS assisted in 23 Forest Service fires and that plane have been a deciding issue for controlling 14 or them and a particular consider aiding floor crews in 4 extra. They made no impact on one other 4, and have been detrimental in a single, once they by chance extinguished a backfire the bottom crews had set to cease a hearth’s unfold, inflicting a lack of management.

Others have been experimenting with aerial firefighting across the identical time. Floyd Nolta’s former Military Air Forces boss, Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz, did some casual testing in 1953 and formal experiments as a part of Operation Firestop in 1954. He carried out simulations at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. There he deployed sensors to measure dispersal, wind drift, effectiveness and different components. Mantz did additional checks for the California Division of Forestry, however his work didn’t turn out to be operational till 1958, 5 years after he first investigated it. In distinction, by bypassing forms, Joe Ely and Floyd Nolta had an operational plane prepared in a single week, and inside a month they have been already serving to put out harmful wildfires. 

Following that first historic season of firefighting with tailored biplanes, bigger plane started becoming a member of the combat, together with warbirds reminiscent of Grumman TBM Avengers, Consolidated PBY Catalinas, Boeing B-17s, Grumman F7F Tigercats and different surplus army planes. When loaded with hundreds of gallons of retardant, the heavier airplanes misplaced some maneuverability, Prentice recalled. The intense lack of weight that got here from dropping the payload didn’t have an effect on the bigger airplanes as a lot, however that additionally meant they didn’t get the identical “bounce” the biplanes exploited to clear approaching ridges. TBM pilots discovered to drag the airplane’s nostril excessive whereas persevering with degree flight and let the wings pull the airplane up. Sadly, Prentice recalled, that “the mountain would occur earlier than they gained altitude and we misplaced loads of them.” The primary aerial firefighter pilot to lose his life was Joseph Anthony, who crashed on August 19, 1958, making a retardant drop close to Sequoia Nationwide Park whereas flying for Paul Mantz Air Providers. Anthony was on the controls of a TBM Avenger that Mantz had used for his checks at Camp Pendleton. By 1973, 11 extra TBMs crashed whereas firefighting, killing the pilots in all however one incident.

Extra pilots joined MATS in 1958 and a few unique pilots went on to signal contracts with the California Division of Forestry. Preferring lighter planes, Prentice purchased an N3N from Florida and spent one winter assembling the airplane after it arrived in items lashed to a pickup truck. Prentice flew the N3N as his personal private air tanker till 1963. Floyd Nolta remained energetic within the flying service till his loss of life in 1974. His legacy lives on by means of his invaluable contribution to the career of aerial firefighting. The Forest Service Air Tanker unit continued to be primarily based on the Willows-Glenn County Airport till 1982.

Joe Ely ultimately retired from the Forest Service and handed away in 2006. His son, Frank, stated that his father had been extremely motivated to search out higher strategies to combat fires after the devastating lack of life within the 1953 Rattlesnake Hearth. He sought methods to scale back the severity of fires in order that “males may get to them safely.”

Summing up the early days, Frank Prentice stated, “Willows had the appropriate mixture of airplanes, pilots and excessive hearth zones, as did different areas just like the San Joaquin Valley, however solely Willows had Joe Ely and Floyd Nolta.” Prentice was the final surviving member of the Mendocino Air Tanker Squad when he died on July 16, 2020. As if in tribute, dry lightning strikes a month later began quite a few fires in the identical space because the Rattlesnake Hearth of 1953. The ensuing August Advanced Hearth took practically three months to include. It was the biggest hearth in California historical past—and aerial firefighters helped battle it, following the lead of the scrappy pilots who as soon as flew out of Willows.


Ted Atlas is a 4th-generation Californian. After a profession with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Division, he turned his curiosity to writing about California historical past. He revealed his first ebook, Candlestick Park, in 2010. He first turned conscious of this story in 1986, when his brother and sister-in-law purchased a home that Floyd Nolta had owned in Willows. For additional studying, Atlas recommends Hearth Bomber into Hell: A Story of Survival in a Lethal Occupation by Linc Alexander.

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