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As jets take charge of fire-bombing missions, the 62-year-old piston-powered Tanker 60 takes its last flight over Oregon

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren   

As jets take charge of fire-bombing missions, the 62-year-old piston-powered Tanker 60 takes its last flight over Oregon
  • As jets take over as fire-bombing aircraft, the piston-powered Douglas DC-7 plane, aka "Tanker 60," is going into retirement.
  • This Eastern Air Lines plane was built in 1958 and spent its early years flying up and down the East Coast and to the Caribbean.
  • In the 1970s, the plane was gutted and refit to be a air tanker and fire bomber, used to drop fire retardant from above, and has since spent over 40 years fighting fires.
  • On October 14, Tanker 60 took to the skies for its last, 180-mile flight from Medford to Madras, Oregon.

A deep blue sky stretches overhead as a plane christened "Tanker 60" gleams in the southern Oregon sun at the Medford Air Tanker Base, a hub for aircraft fighting wildfires along the West Coast. Its rounded tail looms over an otherwise empty ramp, emblazoned with its radio call sign: a big, green "60." Four piston-powered engines, with their propellers synced in near-perfect alignment with one another, look especially sharp. The bulbous orange fire-retardant tank sticks out conspicuously, while its pointy white nose feels decidedly aggressive.

It's a bit hard to believe at first sight, but this piston-powered Douglas DC-7, owned by Erickson Aero Tanker, was the crown jewel of the airline industry in the 1950s before being converted to fight wildfires — work that jets have increasingly taken over in recent years.

Captain Ron Carpinella, a decades-long veteran of the airplane, walks confidently around Tanker 60, busily performing a preflight check. His eyes dart around at an efficient but attentive pace, looking for any issues that might crop up during flight. His hands do the follow-up work: giving the barn-door-sized flaps on the right wing a little wiggle; stopping to add a hit of WD-40 to the aging landing gear. It is a ritual he has done hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

"But today is probably going to be its last hurrah," he says from the cockpit, surrounded by a dizzying array of buttons, dials, and circuit breakers.

The airplane looks like a relic, inside and out, because it is one. Built more than 60 years ago, it is one of only a handful of four-engined, piston-powered airplanes left in the world. And among the DC-7 family, it is the last airworthy copy altogether — at least for a few more hours.

Sleek and fast, the DC-7 was, when it debuted in 1953, the flagship of the US airline industry. It cut its teeth flying the first coast-to-coast nonstops in the US, connecting New York to Los Angeles at a then-record pace of eight hours one way.

It soon took its prowess for speed across the oceans too. By 1955, airlines like Pan Am flew the plane from New York and Boston to London and Paris in less than 10 hours, almost two hours faster than most competitors.

Tanker 60 in particular started its life with Eastern Air Lines in 1958, and likely spent its early years flying up and down the eastern seaboard and into the Caribbean. A photo of a postcard featuring the plane, pinned in Erickson Aero Tankers' Medford office, shows as much: Tanker 60 on layover in Miami, adorned in its original Eastern Air Lines "Golden Falcon" livery.

For all of its achievements, the reign of the DC-7 was short-lived. Tanker 60 rolled off the line only three months before Douglas' first jetliner, the DC-8, began flight testing. Boeing's game-changing 707 was in service by the end of the year.

The new jets cut flight times dramatically. Transatlantic crossings went from nine hours on the DC-7 to six on the jets; New York to LA dropped from eight to five. Seemingly overnight, the airplane's main claim to fame — its speed — evaporated. The line shut down in 1958.

"The DC-7 is the Zenith of piston-powered commercial air travel," co-pilot Scot Douglas said. "But the next step moved onto the jet." Not long after the DC-7's life began, the reign of the piston-powered passenger plane was over.

Airlines seemingly couldn't ditch them fast enough, and by the mid 1960s they were largely gone from mainline US carriers. Tanker 60 wasn't an exception, and saw its exit in 1966.

The DC-7 likely would have been relegated to a mere footnote in aviation history had it not stumbled into its calling as an air tanker in the 1970s, a job in which the airplane excelled.

"It's a rock-solid airplane," Carpinella said. "Very strong, over-engineered, rugged, and durable."

The DC-7's airline roots meant it was built with far more safety features than tankers from the military. A total lack of popularity with the airlines by that time made the plane cheap to acquire, too.

Of course, the transition from airliner to fire bomber required some changes to the plane.

"It was gutted," Carpinella said from inside the Spartan cabin. The airplane's ribs are plainly visible for all to see, while control cables and wiring course across the ceiling. Notably absent are any creature comforts.

Only a pair of small, metal cage fans in the cockpit remain to keep the crew cool while working long days over summer fires.

"No heating, no air conditioning; that's all gone," Carpinella said. "No pressurization. It gets pretty hot."

Most of the soundproofing is gone, allowing loud engine noise to permeate into the plane. The lounge in the very back, which once ensconced chatty, cocktail-sipping passengers bathed in cigar smoke, has long since disappeared.

"But somebody decided to leave part of the first-class section intact," Carpinella said, referencing four of the original eight caramel brown seats that remain. The section is a shadow of its former self, yet the luggage rack is still there, full of manuals and other smaller items. The passenger overhead panel is there too. Surprisingly, the reading light dutifully brightens at the flick of a switch.

Behind that, the plane is full of the tools of the tanker trade: ladders, to make repairs and to enter and exit the plane; oil barrels, in case they need their own oil for an emergency; personal effects, since crews don't necessarily know where they'll end up for the night; and spare tires.

Other systems specific to aerial firefighting were added, namely a giant, 3,000-gallon retardant tank. The cockpit looks largely unchanged, filled with dials, gauges, and circuit breakers. Besides the tank-control additions, the only modern pieces are a Garmin GPS system, a new radio, and an iPad flight-bag attachment — essentially, a digitized version of a flight bag, which pilots used to carry maintenance manuals, checklists, and maps.

The plane is, Carpinella said, basically "a really big crop duster."

Carpinella and Douglas estimate that since its conversion, the airplane has made thousands of drops, in which a crew pours a mix of red retardant slurry ahead of and onto wildfires.

"Nothing like putting a line between a fire and a home and seeing that it saved it," Carpinella said.

But money, politics, and the simple evolution of the industry have come to draw the curtain on Tanker 60. After more than 40 years in the air, saving countless lives and homes, the fire service has declined to renew the airplane's contract into 2021 — which, as Carpinella said, meant this recent flight back to its home base in Madras, Oregon, would likely be its last.

A small model of the plane, made by a few former Oregon state forestry department coworkers, sits just inside the fence at the Medford base. Its orangey-red streamers, mimicking a retardant drop, sway gently in the breeze as a small group gathers around it a few minutes before sending the real airplane off for the last time.

"I want to switch out the streamers to a hot pink, touch up the paint a bit," one of them remarks before noting the time: 3:45 p.m. Tanker 60 has to be out in 15 minutes, so it is time to go.

The engines puff and chug to life at Carpinella and Douglas' command, belching out white smoke before settling into a noisy, chattering idle. The ground crew wave it goodbye as Carpinella releases the brakes and rolls the plane off the tanker ramp.

Taxiing out to the runway, it is apparent that both the plane and the pilots have achieved minor celebrity status over the course of many summer fire seasons.

"It's a kind of icon during the summer," Carpinella said. "I think to some folks, it means a lot to see it there in Medford."

Commercial flights slow-roll by, their pilots staring out the window as long as they can to gawk at the four-engined vestige of another era. The airport tower, along with other flights in the area, call in to thank the crew for their service over the past season.

Tanker 60's last season was a particularly brutal one, especially for its home base of Medford. Two major fires burned in or near the city in September, both easily visible from the tanker base.

"I feel we get a bit more credit than we deserve," Douglas said. "The real credit goes to those on the ground, who literally fought the fire at arms length."

The suburban Medford towns of Phoenix and Talent, Oregon, were devastated by the Almeda Fire.

"It was one of our last assignments," Douglas said, adding that it's also where he and his family live. "When we did our first drop, I could see my wife and daughter in our yard hosing down the house. At that point, I just assumed the house would be gone."

Douglas' house survived, but fire leveled much of his neighborhood. All told, it killed three people and destroyed more than 2,800 homes and businesses, according to local officials.

"It consumed the bulk of the town," Douglas said. "To see those efforts and to hear about the challenges the folks on the ground faced while attempting to save the lives and property of strangers; that is what gives me a cherished sense of pride."

The engines throttle up to a dull roar, tongues of fire spitting out of the exhaust stacks and across the wing as Tanker 60 accelerates down the runway. The smell of oil — normal in such airplanes — is unmistakable, and the cabin shakes with bone-rattling vibrations.

Carpinella eases the airplane into the sky, tipping the wing toward the tanker base in a nod of thanks to the hard-working crew.

It is a short flight to Madras, only 180 miles as the crow flies, and both plane and pilots settle in. Carpinella and Douglas point out locations of previous fires along the route, recalling drops from days past. The late-afternoon sun casts glorious golden light across the forests, fields, and mountains below.

The airplane lumbers low over Crater Lake National Park, the deep blue water sparkling. It isn't hard to imagine the tourists down below stopping to gawk.

"No one ever complains about our noise," Carpinella said. If it weren't so beautiful, the flight would otherwise be downright pedestrian for a plane that normally flies over literal fire.

Thirty minutes later, Madras comes into view through the windshield. Carpinella lines up Tanker 60 with the runway but stays high, executing a maneuver known as an "overhead break" with a graceful bank over the airport before looping around to land. It is a maneuver common to homecomings, dating back to World War I aviators returning to base from a mission.

Carpinella and Douglas put the plane down gently, rolling to the very end of the runway as if on a leisurely stroll.

There is no water-cannon salute, and no crowds. Only a few people from Erickson Aero Tanker and an aviation enthusiast who drove up from Bend, Oregon, are there to greet it as it rolls to a gentle stop in the waning light of the day. The engines shut down, and the cabin noise fades to nothing. Carpinella stretches out a sore back before unpacking, while Douglas finishes the last entry in Tanker 60's logbook.

For the end of an era, it feels remarkably anticlimactic.

"To lose it is to lose a bit of history," Douglas said on the drive into town. "I feel like I'm watching evolution.

"I don't want to get too cosmic, but I feel like I've witnessed it take place; watching one thing come to an end."

Erickson Aero Tanker plans to keep the plane in tip-top shape over the winter, just in case fire officials reverse course. The company estimates it has enough spare parts to keep it going for another five to 10 years.

"Regardless of whether it comes back next year, or the year after, its days are numbered," Douglas said. "And I feel privileged to be a part of it."

Still, barring a small miracle, its contract will end and its flying days are done. Because, in a rather cosmic way, the fire service is doing the same thing now that the airlines did 50 years ago: moving on to jets.


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