Douglas A/B-26 Invader

Darcy Hankins - Ex Air Spray Invader engineer

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After a recent enquiry by myself on the STOL configuration on N119R back in the 70's, David Lane, owner and operator of N119DR wrote:
Hi Martin,
I have no information about the STOL (short takeoff and landing) A-26 wing tip mod but I know someone who might.  Darcy Hankins, pictured above, He is, in my opinion, the world's best authority on the A-26 and its modification history having been one time maintenance supervisor for Air Spray's fleet of Invaders. 
He is pictured here installing the co-pilot flight controls in my A-26 in 2008. 
The controls originally came out of one of the Viet Nam era K models which crash landed at Chino in the mid '70's after one of the props went into reverse as it approached the runway.  The controls were later installed in Whistler's Mother in the early 1980's.  Then after the purchase of Whistler's Motherits by Kermit Weeks, the controls were removed as the aircraft was being restored to factory specs. with its original single pilot controls plus these dual controls were not manufactured by Douglas rather by On Mark engineering Van Nuys for the B-26K.  Its a unique arrangement as the control column can be removed in flight to allow access to the C model nose section.... an mod engineered at the request of the Brazillian Air Force during the 60's... so that their co-pilots could also function as bombadiers.
Dave Lane




Above is N3328G ( C-FPGP) now owned by Randal W McFarlane, and seen arriving at Archerfield Airport, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia after her ferry flight in 2006.


Above is Darcy Hankins [engineer], Randall, Doug Gerrard [pilot] after the ferry flight.




The three shots above were kindly sent in by David Lane, who worked with Darcy at Red Deer during his flight training



Darcy writes:
A 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).

Besides 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.

Airspray 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.

The 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.

In 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 certain failure.

In the 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 failure.

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 burns.

The fire 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.

Over 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, Alberta

#2 Brisbane, Australia

#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.

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.


Thank-you  Martin, for the opportunity to write a short article on some of my time with Airspray and post it on your great website. These are only my experiences and written to the best of my knowledge solely for the enjoyment of your readers. I hope it gives some of your readers some information and background of it’s use.


Darcy Hankins


I would personally like to thank Darcy for this wonderful insight into how it was to be part of the A-26's team at Air Spray.




Darcy's personal album




Above, Tanker 32 reinforcement for ferry flight







Above, Dawson City, summer 1990





Above, Yukon Group 2, Dawson City summer 1990




We used Tanker 11 for all the target towing work (as pictured above). It was only a 3 day contract unfortunately and as I mentioned we had some problems with the target releasing and spooling the cable out. Generally once the target is realeased there is some means of softening the initial jerk of the cable before it starts to reel out the wire. There wasn’t a good system in place to do this and a couple of the launches immediately snapped the wire before it could start it’s spool out (with the target plummetting into the weapons range of course). The aircraft was crewed by Jock Mackay (a contract Air Spray pilot) and myself. Once realeased the target took aprox 25 minutes to reel out. After the session was finished a wire cutter mounted aft of the target reel would shoot a .22 caliber slug with a cutting anvil into the wire to realease the wire and target over which ever area was designated the abort zone.
All of this was done at Suffield Weapons range in Southern Alberta, Canada.
The aircraft used stock bomb shackles to mount the towing mechanism ( I will try to find some more pics for you ) and a simple switch panel was installed in the cockpit to allow release, cable cut and emergency cable cut (a secondary .22 cal cutter ). The reel system employed a tach generator/ writer to advise that the reel was turning and how fast the wire was being deployed..
The airplane handled all this very well of course other than being a little control heavy on that wing for takeoff.




The F-86 Saber ( Mk 6 ) with an Orenda 14 engine was used by Airspray for aproximately 6 years ( by my memory ) in it's target towing role ( they owned it longer ). It was used  with the F-18's operated by our military at Cold Lake Weapons range in Northern Alberta.
The 16 ft fibreglass dart was connected by 1200 of cable. Once deployed the f-18's would engage the target and try to shoot at it with their nose guns. There was an electonic sensor mounted on the target. Shells passing nearer the sensor scored higher and each fighter would recieve a score. Occasionally the target may be shot of the cable ( rarely ). after aprox 1 hour of sorties the F-86 would return to base and we would refuel, load and make it ready for the next mission ( aprox 3/day for 7-10 days ) in the spring and fall seasons.
After the contract was not renewed Airspray kept the airplane for a few years and it made a brief stay at Hillsborough Oregon with the owners of Tankers 10 AND 4.. today it is now part of the Golden Hawks in Eastern Canada with a beautiful new paint job and performs at Airshows





Above, two shots showing the fire of 2000