1990s Firebomber Pilot

Recollections of a Firebomber Pilot

June 2022

During his firebombing career, Jim Buckwalter had a favorite airplane and that airplane was former American Airlines DC-6 N90739/Tanker 68. Jim recounts some of his experiences with T-68 in Arizona during the 1993 and 1994 fire seasons.

"My favorite airplane of them all was 1947 Douglas DC-6 N90739/Tanker 68. I worked for TBM out of Tulare, California in 1993 and these first photos were taken at the Grand Canyon Tanker Base that year. At that time, the water used to mix the retardant at Grand Canyon was trucked in from a water treatment plant. There was no water available to wash the airplane. You could wash the retardant off the belly of the plane with the treated water, but that was it. The result was that the airplane got really dirty with the crud on the nacelles and wings getting cooked on thus becoming very hard to remove. Anyway, this tanker was a delight to fly. She would carry 2,450 gallons of retardant, climb at 600-700 fpm and the controls were aerodynamically boosted with servo tabs that made for easy flying. The props had a single lever control with a button to push for syncing the engines. Four big BMEP gauges instantly let you know if an engine was missing. The P&W 2800 engines were very reliable... man, those pipes could sing!"
"We got sent down to Prescott, Arizona and made a few trips to a fire. The fire service would hold the tanker to see if the ground force needed more mud. While we waited, out would come the cleaning supplies and I would attack the filth with unlimited clean water!"

"Here we are pulling up to the load pit at Cutter Aviation at Phoenix, Arizona. Cutter was more of a biz jet FBO and I wondered what they thought of those big old tankers. The tankers would drip oil on their ramp, then taxi through it and leave tire prints of oil on the ramp. They would even roll out a red carpet for us! Every time I got out of the airplane, I would do a walk-around particularly around the engines for an inspection, walking through the oil, then tracking it down the red carpet. They never said anything. The girls were beautiful in their neat uniforms, always smiling and happy. Anyway, that is me at the door where itís about 110 degrees in the shade. Iím about ready to pump 1,500 gal of avgas into the tanks. One of the girls took this photo. Those girls would also bring out some nice box lunches for us. Nice place, but Phoenix Airport was way too busy to run tankers out of there."

"Here is a nice shot of T-68 dropping on a fire west of Phoenix. Del Hunt was captain on T-68 from the time Hank Moore bought it till the USFS cancelled all the piston tanker contracts in May 2004. Del was by far the best mud slinger I ever flew with. He could stand that DC-6 up on a wing and slid that big airplane down in a canyon and drop right on target. It would scare the crap out of me. I watched him perfectly box a small lighting strike up next to a 900í cliff. He would fly right next to the cliff and bank away in a steep turn slipping to lose altitude and drop two doors. Come around and get the other side of the fire with two more doors, then easily connect the two lines into a perfect square with the fire in the box with one load. Unbelievable performance! Heís still flying, only now in the DC-9. I watched a YouTube of a DC-9 do an incredible drop down a mountain side and thought that has Del Hunt all over it. I got a hold of him later, and yes, it was him doing that drop. Del would take the first landing each day, then after the drop gave me the airplane for the rest of the day. I would get 7-8 landings on some days. I got very handy with the DC-6 that summer."
"Here's a shot of DC-6 N666SQ T-47 going out of Silver City Tanker Base in NM in 1987. At least this baby 6 (what folks called the early DC-6) is still around. T-68 got hacked up and stuffed in some dumpsters. I was on T-68 summer of 1993, and 94. First year was slow, only got 75 hours. But 94, we did over 400 hours! We may have set a record for hours flown in a season. We were neck and neck with an Aero Union crew. We turned over 50,000 airframe hours on that six that summer and the only engine problem we had during that 400 hour year was a dropped exhaust valve requiring a cylinder change. What a great airplane that one was!"

(Editor's note: I've added two photos of N666SQ taken in May 2019. For its current status, check out this May 26, 2022 news item.)

Jim Buckwalter
June 2022

Photo Credits: Jim Buckwalter, Tom Story. Ralph M. Pettersen

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----Created 21 June 2022----