First Airtanker Drop – 1955, Mendocino N.F. California

This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Jul 2020


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 what the outcome will be. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?


(Content used with permission from the Early Aviators website at

The first "air drop" was made on the Mendenhall Fire, August 12, 1955, on the Mendocino National Forest.   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. 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. 

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, so 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 SEATs (Single Engine Airtankers) and Large Airtankers have become a staple for wildland fire suppression.

Discussion Points:

Historical black and white photo of the first airtanker – Mendocino 1955Airtankers 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 lbs and retardant approximately 9 lbs. SEATs can be dropping up to 800 gallons and Type 1 tankers up to 3000 gallons.  Ground personnel can be injured by being dropped on.   

  • Have all participants in this safety briefing refer to the IRPG page 56. 
  • Discuss as a group how to avoid getting dropped on.
  • Discuss what you will do if you cannot avoid getting dropped on.
  • It is not enough just to know where the aircraft are. An understanding of aircraft capabilities, effective use and tactics will help crews be able to keep clear of the drops.
  • Discuss IRPG pages 57-59 to become more familiar with airtankers.

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.


Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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