few years back I was fortunate in 1989 to stop at Air Spray’s maintenance facility in Red deer, Alberta Canada.
At the time I was working for Canadian airlines and found it that although it was a very good company,
the work was just not that interesting and I was hoping to get back into maintaining “round engines”.
Airspray had a few employees go the other way and leave them to work for the major airlines but they thought
I was unique or crazy and hired me.
That began my maintenance career on the A-26 and it never stopped.
Airspray moved onto Lockheed Electras throughout the late 90’s and early 2000 and as you know retired
the Invaders a few years ago. When I began with Airspray we operated 3 Invader groups in the province of Alberta, (2 groups had 4 Invaders
with Cessna 310 birddogs and one group operated 3 Invaders).
the Alberta groups, we had 5 Invaders working the Yukon Territory
with 2 Piper Aerostar birdogs.
A birdog is the lead aircraft dispatched to the fire with air
tankers. It will generally do the initial runs and lead ins due to it’s better maneuverability than a loaded Tanker
looking for rising ground and best attack scenarios.
operated from an ex WW2 hangar which was large enough to shelter a combination of 4 Invaders, Cl-215 Air tanker and numerous
smaller aircraft throughout the winter depending on our maintenance schedules. The mechanics and pilots would leave with their
group generally for around 100 days and rarely had the opportunity to go home throughout the summer months. This was a good
situation for single guys looking for excitement but hard on people who had family lives and had to miss the few good months
of weather that Canada can offer. Depending
on the group, this sometimes meant personality clashes being in close quarters for the summer, but generally they were a great
bunch of guys.
Of course in the very early days of Air Spray there were some
pretty wild stories, Invaders spinning circles on the ramp due to a mechanic trying to adjust carburetor with no one in the
cockpit, engines running, (the engine throttled up with him hanging out of the nacelle) to name a few .
Air Spray began in 1967 and received its first tanker #1 around 1975. So like most aviation companies it
was run on the ragged edge at times of both finances and patience.
The owner of Air Spray, Don Hamilton, is still in the driver’s seat today and is a true success story,
for it to be the size that it has become and still today, still retaining an owner / president.
Air Spray was
always regarded as the tanker company who could get the job done no matter the obstacles. Arguably we managed to meet most
of those goals, sometimes not pretty but usually effective.
Last minute call outs to remote areas with
4-5 airplanes that were sometimes not ready, flight crews untrained, and lack of support equipment in 50 year old airplanes
were fairly normal for a few years depending on the early spring conditions. Fortunately Airspray employed people who met
the challenge and as bad as it sounds brought it all together.
Alberta and British Columbia governments recognized the need for reliable Air tankers and as time progressed gave more lucrative
contracts (via the taxpayer) Like most companies as time goes by, the contracts hopefully get better and you are able to spend
more money to update the equipment and life becomes a little more easy. This would be the beginning of the story of how
tough I feel this airplane is. It is complex yet simple and largely forgiving in most cases (both flight and maintenance).
This being true though it had some unforgiving traits. It is noted in many books about the weakness of the nose landing gear…in
my opinion it is not weak (we operated many years in some very rugged environments), but when the shimmy dampener got low or weak on fluid or you happened to put on a nose tire that had a bad
recap or severely out of balance sometimes led to pilots returning to the hangar with their teeth nearly rattled out. The
original 36” SC rubber could give a little trouble with this and we tried to balance wheels/tires the best we could. There have been replacement wheels on a lot of the Invaders
now with 34x9.9 rubber (Convair main wheel/tire, Neptune Nose); this is a better solution
and stronger/long lasting.
As most A-26 stories go it operated
in so many areas and did so many different things that a lot of it is largely forgotten. We operated as many as 17 one summer
with pilots that came from everywhere…some good, some not so good, maintenance being no different with sometimes limited
skills in both areas. One summer I kept track of down times etc and in operating 16 Invaders logging 1350 flight hours we
kept a 99% reliability.
That is tough to reach with any aircraft.
That wasn’t to say they were
trouble free, many times we managed to keep operating with numerous problems trying to deliver retardant to the fire. Possibly
inoperative boost pumps, rough running engines and always with radio problems.
The A-26 is notorious for eating
radios due to the propellers being beside you and the extreme noise experienced in the cockpit. We operated some early Bendix/Collins
airline radios and when these worked right you could talk to the moon but general equipment King, Narco were weak unless you
had a very loud talking pilot and tight cockpits for wind noise.
The On-Mark modified aircraft were
better due their sound deadener insulation in the cockpits and a few, like tanker10 you could possibly take your headset off
and talk loud enough to hear each other, otherwise the noise was unbearable.
a trip I made with Doug Gerrard, we delivered Tanker 2 to Brisbane Australia. On the 10 hour legs we had to start taking Tylenol after 4-5 hours to
ease the headaches from exhaust gas and long term noise in the cockpit and when you arrived at the destination it was like
a bomb had gone off and you couldn’t hear anyone for a couple hours.
The R-2800 is a very
reliable engine also. All of our Tankers operated the stock “B” series engine. We operated the engines to a TBO
of 1400 hours. Of course quite a few didn’t make this time for various reasons but a good percentage did. The main wear
area of these are the exhaust valve guides which were originally brass. Most original documents show the engines to be changed
at 500 hours in their military service. Following this time frame you would have very little work to do on these engines short
of keeping ignition systems up and working. But since everyone gets a lot more hours from these now, once your into the 6-700
hr range there is generally high oil consumption through these guides along with other areas, internally and externally. We
had used original canned engines from the military for many years, finally running out in the mid 90’s. After these
were gone we had Precision Engines do our O/H’s and they installed Cast Iron guides similar to the CB series. Once this
was done the oil consumption drops drastically where after a 4 hour firefighting mission nearly no oil was required for the
first few hundred hours.
Basically if the valve guides were upgraded, good parts used in
the ignition system (whether it is a General Electric or Bendix/Scintilla), new Champion spark plugs and proper pre-oiling,
these power plants can give many years of reliable power. At Air Spray we always provided hot, clean pre-oiling to these if
they sat for any time at all. This contributed to long years of service. In contrast today few people take this effort either
with cold oil from the tanks via feathering pumps or worse.. not pre-oiling at all, following this procedure will lead to
final years of the operation we had a group of 6 Invaders (called the “Super Group”), when everything was going
right it was an impressive sight to see that many R-2800’s turning. The ground shook and a great feeling of pride was
had by all…on the other hand if the fire was close and the airplanes would do their turnarounds in 15 –20 minutes
(time to and from the fire) it was quite a balancing act with 6 A-26’s working out of sometimes small tanker bases,
marshalling in and out of the loading pits became tricky. This was usually handled by a 2 man maintenance crew directing aircraft,
monitoring loading, fixing problems as they
arose, handing pilots water, sandwiches or whatever it took to keep the show performing. Once again this gave great pride
but after a few days would wear people down.
Through out the years and to try
and imagine the flight hours, landings and operations in and out of dirt/grass/
gravel and pavement ,occasional loaded landings in 30 degree C heat in as little as 4500 ft strips will make you appreciate
what this airplane has achieved . The airplane did it and would still continue to do so. Unfortunately there were variations
that could have been done to increase the load carrying, but these mods were not implemented, depending on the configuration
our retardant tanks had more capacity but due to Gross weight restrictions (35,000 lbs) it was generalized across the fleet
to carry aprox 800 Imp gallons. But if fires were close by and fuel could be kept lower, then more retardant could have been
carried. This fact is huge when everything boils down to cost / gallon delivered to the fire. But this was happening in the
final years of A-26 operation and pursued with little interest. STC SA44RM Lynch is an amendment to the
gross weight increasing it to 38,000 lbs take off a few companies in the early years operated at this with the Rosenbalm tanking
systems which would carry up to 14-1500 US
gallons. Showing once again the ruggedness of the aircraft. If you look at early records or one of the Invader Load adjuster
slide rule (sometimes available on Ebay) you will see 40,000 lb gross. Current limitations (non military) tighten center of
gravity range from 221fwd and 234.75 aft (military) to 223 and 232.75. Once again in fire fighting situations and rushed circumstances
with loading, tools and support equipment these were stretched (I couldn’t imagine what happened in military years just
seeing what went on in fire fighting) Operations in the Yukon for a couple years meant that maintenance crews would travel
with the aircraft in case of changing operations bases, therefore we would carry all of our tools, spare parts (cylinders,
starters etc), ladders or even personal gear, TV’s and stereos! Depending on how hurriedly this was all loaded (or never
unloaded) sometimes exceeded aft limits, but to the pilot he enjoyed the handling of the airplane better with aft loading.
For many years retardant was a blended mixture from bags of powder added to water and put through a large mixing hopper before
entering the large storage tanks.
Depending on the skill of the mixmaster (the guy mixing) and valve
positions you were never sure of what may be going into the aircrafts retardant tank, so imagine if when an Invader pulled
up to the loading pit to take on 800 gallons and the mixture is supposed to weigh aprox. 11.2lbs / gallon once mixed with
water before entering the tank bringing the aircraft to gross with full fuel and instead taking on a pure load of retardant not blended with water at aprox 14lbs / gallon….you’ve easily gained an extra ton
and won’t know it until trying to clear the trees at the end of the runway. Takeoffs from Loon
River in Northern Alberta a 5000 ft gravel strip
inevitably took you over rows of stacked logs immediately off the end of the runway( for some reason always stacked so the
tops were on the runway centerline). Pure retardant, and a hot day made for strained nerves .As I mentioned earlier though,
luckily our governments have taken huge strides in Tanker base development and crew comfort and safety.
As the years progressed the fleet was made
better , more reliable and due to the skill of the employees Invader operations managed to keep being extended until 5-6 years
ago. The height of operations were the late 90’s/2000 . With forestry threatening to not renew contracts the support
and people began to leave and the final year of operations were filled with breakdowns,
problems and the unfortunate crash of Tanker 11 off the end of the runway in
High level ,Alberta due to an aborted take-off/ engine problem.
A very sorry way to end an impressive career of the fleet and the long term Airspray pilot, Butch Foster receiving severe
injuries. In it’s early years Airspray suffered a few fatal incidents but was relatively trouble free from 1988-2003.
A landing due to lack of fuel 1 km short of the airport in Grand Prairie, Alberta. This ended Tanker
3 which the pilot escaped injury.
Along with fire fighting Airspray operated
an F-86 Saber for target towing at Cold Lake
weapons range this was headed by a great manager, Rick Covlin which offered an Invader for a similar mission. We mounted a
tow target under the L/H wing on the hard points.
The target system was manufactured by Hayes
Targets, Alabama and was a cylindrical fibre glass tube (Dart shaped) which when released extended out on 12,000 feet of stepped
wire ( 3 stages of .100, .060 and .032 if I remember right) once released it took aprox 25 minutes for the target to reel
out. We flew at 13,000asl ft. the target drooped to approximately 5000 asl. Once extended we flew patterns over army ADATS missile launchers or shoulder mounted laser guided
to try to shoot at the target once it approached them. This was a 3 day trial and unfortunately failures of the wire and launcher
(leaving 12,000 ft slinky toys of wire on the ground) hampered success. But was fun and proved the Invader as another platform
for us , although already well noted as a target tug from previous years.
Around 2000 cracks were noticed in some of the A-26 wing rear spar
lower attach lugs. This has been an ongoing problem of the Invader since it was produced and specifically noted in Maintenance
manuals. Generally most airplanes have not been prone to it and through extensive NDT inspections can be monitored. We were
caught at the beginning of the fire season with an airplane (tanker 11) which had landed in Manning Alberta and broke this
rear attach point. (the wing is held on by 4 large knuckles which accommodate hardened steel pins.) so there were only 3 out
of 4 attach points remaining. The pilot had felt a loud bang and the aircraft shake slightly enroute to Manning from Red deer,
ground crews examined the aircraft at Manning and found the lower wing fairing slightly buckled and after removing found the
An interesting note to this was the same situation
occurred in flight one month prior in the Yukon. Once
the pilot had heard about the Manning incident he told maintenance that he had experienced very similar sounds then . Maintenance
removed the fairing s and found exactly the same situation with total failure of the lower rear attach point. The difference
though was this aircraft (Tanker 32) had flown 29 hours during this time, on fire fighting operations….with 3 attach
points holding the left wing on. These 2 incidents required quick action to try and get the airplanes back to flying condition
and a wing was taken from a spare aircraft in Red deer up to Manning and changed
(no small chore) and Tanker 32 being very remote up in the Yukon we devised a reinforcement plate with 1” cable wrapping from the lower spars of each wing through the bomb bay area, connected by a large turnbarrel
in the bomb bay (this allowed us to fly with the bomb bay tank in place). After all the airplane already had flown all these
hours anyway but this gave added reassurance and was even Transport Canada approved. The A/C was ferried to Red Deer where the wing was later changed.
It was during the wing Change
of #27 that we experienced the large hangar fire in Oct.2000. Readying the A/C for wing pull in the hangar a fuel line was
disconnected with residual fuel falling to the floor onto an electrical cord/ trouble light. A mechanic went to remove the
cord from the pool of fuel, the movement sparked at the connection and ignited the L/H Nacelle area quickly engulfing the
wing Aircaft and hangar. Unfortunately the Engineer doing the work, Vance Braden passed away 2 months after due to extensive
consumed 7 airplanes, various major assemblies and all of the Invader inventory, rooms full of parts from decades of storage.
The Hangar was an old wooden air force hangar and of course was virtually gone within a couple hours. This and the fact of
loosing Vance was the beginning of a terrible year to try and keep the company going. Luckily the owner Don Hamilton wanted
to carry on and Forestry gave us a lot of grace in meeting our contract requirements. To start a small company is a challenge
but to start a company the size of this (30 aircraft) with no support, parts
etc overnight was difficult. People wanted to move on due to unsure employment, the prospect of the company and many uncertainties,
having no hangar to work out of. Luckily Buffalo Airways, Joe McBryan rented us his hangar and gave huge support to our people.
I don’t know where we would have been otherwise. Airspray’s new hangar was already under construction but was
a year away from use. By the following spring we had airplanes ready for their contracts
and carried on. Many people asked me about the fire and what could have been done differently. Something so easily
corrected as an electrical connection not being on the floor , having the plugs etc on small stands 16” above the floor
and out of the vapor areas can save many fires and would have changed Airspray’s history.
We were able to branch out (albeit
very briefly) into offering flight training in the Invader , where a couple crews trained and also David Lane came up in 1999
for training to operate his newly aquired aircraft. This small sideline was very interesting teaching people unfamiliar with
the aircraft but it also taught new experiences that assisted our training methods. This of course also made long term friendships
with these people even today.
the past 5 years since Airspray has had it’s aircraft for sale, they have flown all over the world to new homes.
#4 & #10 Hillsborough, Oregon
#32 Grimes Field, Ohio
#98 Winnepeg, Manitoba
#36 Shafter, California
#12 Reynolds museum, Wetaskiwin,
#14 & #26 Australia
Leaving #’s 1,13,20,56 and
58 still for sale In Red Deer.
Through Air Spray’s perseverance it is now housed in enormous state of the art hangars and is
a true success story. The years following the hangar fire were already fading for A-26 operations and the fire made that certain
in both Forestry and management’s eyes opting for L-188 Lockheed Electra
bombers along with Conair’s Convair 580’s. It must be considered the shear
length of duty and scope that for nearly 3 decades the A-26 served Air Spray
and the Alberta
government well and provided income for many families. Many books and articles have been written on the Invader but rarely
touch on what it did for just one small company named Air Spray.