National Wildfire Coordinating Group

First Airtanker Drop (California) – August 12, 1955


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?


The first operational airtanker was developed in Willows, by the Willows Flying Service, in 1955, at the request of the Fire Control Officer for the Mendocino National Forest (MNF). A Boeing Stearman 75 "Caydet" Agricultural Aircraft was modified with a 170-gallon tank at the Willows airport. This Aircraft, N75081, became the first registered free fall airtanker in the history of aviation. The first air drop was made on the Mendenhall Fire on August 12, 1955, on the MNF.

In 1956, seven agricultural aircraft were modified and formed the first operational airtanker squadron in the United States. Piloted by local aviators, this squadron operated out of the Willows Airport fighting wildfires throughout California. Initially, plain water was used as the fire suppressant. However, it was soon discovered that most of the water evaporated before reaching the fire. The practice was adopted of adding chemicals to the water to inhibit evaporation. Borate was one of the first chemicals used, hence the derivation of the term borate bomber.

In 1959, heavy airtankers, capable of carrying 2,000 gallons of fire retardant, were providing an effective tool in controlling wildfires. Today, the use of Single Engine Airtankers (SEATs) and Large Airtankers have become a staple for wildland fire suppression.

(Content used with permission from the Early Aviators website.

Discussion Points:

Historical black and white photo of the first airtanker – Mendocino 1955

Airtankers are a valuable asset in the control of wildland fires, but these aircraft can pose serious threats to the safety of air and ground personnel.

A gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds and of retardant approximately 9 pounds. SEATs can drop up to 800 gallons and Type 1 airtankers up to 3,000 gallons.  Ground personnel can be injured by these drops.  

  • Refer to the Aviation section (blue) of the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461 for Aerial Retardant Safety and Directing Retardant and Bucket Drops. 
  • Discuss as a group how to avoid retardant and water drops.
  • Discuss what you will do if you cannot avoid drops.
  • It is not enough just to know where the aircraft are. An understanding of aircraft capabilities, effective use, and tactics will help crews keep clear of the drops.

This Lessons Learned is dedicated to the first Airtanker pilots: Vance Nolta, Floyd (Speed) Nolta, Harold Henderson, Dale Nolta, Ray Varney, Frank Prentice, L.H. McCurley, Warren Bullock; Fire Control Officer Joe Ely, and the first Air Attack Lee Sherwood.

A commemorative plaque to the “Birth of the Airtanker Program” can be found at the Willows Airport.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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