On the night of July 9, 1953, 24 men were fighting the Rattlesnake Fire in Alder Springs area of the Mendocino National Forest when they descended a canyon to extinguish a spot fire. Thinking it was out, they sat down to eat and give thanks. The wind suddenly reappeared from the opposite direction, causing a rapid flare up in the thick chaparral brush. Nine of the men were able to escape the canyon, while the others ran down the slope. The flames raced down the canyon, overtaking, and killing the fifteen trapped men.
In addition to Forest Ranger Robert Powers, were fourteen men, most in their 20s, who were missionaries from a nearby training camp of the evangelical New Tribes Mission. 22 children were left fatherless, including the seven children of Harold Griffith.
Growing up in Chicago, Joe Ely developed a love of forests during summers spent in Montana. After earning degrees at Dartmouth and the Yale School of Forestry, Ely joined the U. S. Forest Service. Initially posted at the Lassen and Tahoe National Forests, he was promoted to Fire Control Officer of the Mendocino National Forest (MNF) in 1948. Ely was working a fire in Southern California during the Rattlesnake Fire but his son, Frank, said that his father was motivated to find safer methods to fight fires after that tragedy.
In 1954 the forest management agencies established Operation Firestop, a program in which any workable idea would be adopted to help fight fires. At a Zone Fire Meeting in Redding, the next year, Supervisor Neal Rahm of the Modoc NF suggested the use of local pilots to try water drops. Thinking of the ag pilots in Willows, Ely received permission from MNF Supervisor Robert Dasman, to follow up on his idea.
After getting no interest from the ag pilots at the Willows, Joe Ely drove a few miles up to Nolta’s Airport. According to Ely’s own handwritten notes, “…Floyd (Speed) Nolta, of the Willows Flying Service caught fire real fast. All I had to do was remark that he sure had a lot of experience dropping materials out of airplanes onto farms and did he think he could do the same thing on a forest fire? He said to come back in a week.”
Ely found the right man in Nolta. In 1928 he invented a way to sow rice seed from the airplane by putting a hopper on top of the fuselage of his biplane. The product dropped from the hopper into a box and then the propeller wash spread the seed over a 50’ wide swath. In the first pass, Nolta spread fertilizer, the field was flooded, and in the second pass, the rice seed was dropped. Nolta built a sliding valve, controlled by a threaded knob to drop the precise amount of fertilizer and seed. Ag pilots still use Nolta’s design to accurately control the amount of fertilizer and seed.
Nolta served as the manager of the Willows-Glenn County Airport and did stunt pilot work in Hollywood. During World War 2, he was a pilot in the Army Air Forces, assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit. This unit produced training and morale-boosting films. In 1944, Nolta flew a Mitchell B-25 bomber under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for a scene in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the story of the 1942 Doolittle Raid.
Nolta cut a hole in the bottom of his Boeing-Stearman 75 Caydet biplane, and added a water tank with a hinged gate and a pull rope. Vance Nolta flew the plane while Floyd lit the dry grass along the airstrip on fire. Ely wrote, “…Vance came over low and pulled the rope and put out the fire. The air tanker was born.”
On August 13, 1955, Vance Nolta became the first pilot to make a free-fall water drop on a fire when he assisted a crew on the west side of the Mendocino NF. After making several drops on that fire, he was directed to another fire in the same forest. The Nolta brothers assisted on additional fires that year.
The next year Ely recruited nine ag pilots to form the Mendocino Air Tanker Squad, the first aerial tanker unit in the world. The squad consisted of Floyd, Vance, and Dale Nolta who operated two Stearman Caydets from their airstrip just north of Willows; Ray Varney in Artois; Frank Prentice and Harold Hendrickson at the Willows Airport; L. H. McCurley in Corning; and Warren Bullock in Red Bluff. In addition to the Nolta’s Stearman, the others flew N3N Navy bi-plane trainers. Lee Sherwood of Willows flew a Tri-Pacer monoplane with a Forest Service observer.
Ely offered the services of the squadron to the other Federal forestry units as well as to the California Division of Forestry (CDF). The squad worked twelve fires the first month and were soon flying all over the state. The Forest Service paid the plane owners $60/hour ($575/hour in 2022.)
Aerial firefighting is more dangerous than ag flying as it is flown over mountainous terrain in smoke and turbulent air. High winds flow down the leeward side of the mountains and then quickly rise as the air heats up. They flew just above the treetops and directly toward a mountain with the air coming over the ridge pushing the plane down. They had to learn to time the release of the water so that it hit in the right spot. The immediate drop in weight at the release of the water, caused the biplanes to immediately rise and clear the ridge.
On a hot day, much of the water evaporates before it hits the ground, so they added sodium calcium borate to the water. The resulting white material, which has a melting point twice as high as the 900° ignition point of a forest fire, stuck to the brush and reflected the heat. It was used on the flanks of a fire to control the spread and give the men on the ground a safe zone to work in. Sodium calcium borate sterilized the soil so other compounds were tried but the name “Borate bombers” stuck.
The next retardant compound they tried was Bentonite, a clay that swelled up and stuck better than water but sometimes came down in a chunk instead of a spray. By 1963, they were using a retardant with diammonium phosphate.
In a study at the end of 1956, the aerial tankers assisted in 23 Forest Service fires. Of those, the aircraft was a deciding factor in assuring control in 14 fires, considered a definite factor in assisting ground crews in four fires, did not affect the control in four and was detrimental on one when they extinguished a backfire, causing a loss of control.
More pilots were added in 1957 and that year saw the addition of two-way radios and noise-canceling headsets. Previously the pilots received directions about where to drop when they were on the ground loading retardant.
Larger aircraft soon joined the fight. In addition to the TBM Avengers, there were Consolidated PBY Catalinas, Boeing B-17s, and other surplus military planes. Referring to flying in mountainous terrain, Prentice said, “the B-17 was highly maneuverable and could orbit with the N3s, ‘down in the hole’ but a TBM couldn’t do that.” Capable of carrying thousands of gallons of retardant, Prentice added, “heavier planes lost that maneuverability, but they compensated in other ways.”
CDF began signing contracts with pilots in 1958. Many of the pilots had contracts with both agencies. CDF had bases at Hoberg’s Airport in Lake County and Ukiah. During an interview more than 40 years later, Frank Prentice remembered putting on 30 pounds one season from eating the burgers and shakes at the Beacon Drive-in across from the Ukiah Airport.
The Forest Service Air Tanker unit continued to be based at the Willows Airport until 1982 when it moved to Chico.
Floyd Nolta remained active in the flying service until his death in 1974. Joe Ely retired from the Forest Service and lived in Chico, CA until he passed away in 2006.
Frank Prentice, the last surviving member of the Mendocino Air Tanker Squad, died on July 16, 2020. One month later, on August 16, dry lightning strikes started fires in the same area as the Rattlesnake Fire of 1953. The August Complex Fire, which burned over one million acres, is the largest fire in California history.
In 1983 Joe Ely wrote, “Our little tanker squad of half a dozen small planes, which began at the local airport at Willows, California, in the middle fifties, has grown, not only in the size of the ships but has spread all over the world. Today air tankers are being used on fires in Australia and in the Mediterranean region. In Canada, they have been modified to scoop water out of a lake without even stopping.”
“The important thing about the original air tanker operation was its enthusiasm. The conviction that “this idea will work” spread from the dozen or so pilots to the Forest Service and state people, who call the pilots back, again and again, to help put out fires all over the state. It spread to firefighters on the ground who kept saying, ‘Thanks, come back and help us again; you guys are great.’ It spread to the press and to the public, and to the people who would stop on the steps of the post office and tell us, ‘Hang in there.”
Ted Atlas is a 4th-generation California and a graduate of UCLA. After a career with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, he turned to his interest in California history. His book, Candlestick Park was published in 2010. He first became aware of this story in 1986 when his brother’s family purchased a home in Willows which had previously been owned by Floyd and Jessie Nolta.