Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Ransom Tony Schultz, Interview 1

Ransom Tony (R.T.) Schultz made this recording of himself on July 6, 1981 in Fairbanks, Alaska. He speaks about the role of aviation in forest firefighting operations around Alaska, including the types of airplanes used and what conditions were like.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 91-03-04

Project: Pioneer Aviators Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Jul 6, 1981
Narrator(s): Ransom Tony Schultz
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Sections

The Hawkins & Powers operation in Alaska

The most efficient plane for firefighting has been the PB4Y–2

Hawkins and Powers worked with other companies

Firefighters need to be prepared

The logistic difficulty of dropping Borate from planes

The dangers of aerial firefighting

The aerial firefighters are all on call

Efforts began in the 1940s to control fires in Alaska

The economic benefit of setting up a pulp mill or shipping wood over seas

The efforts of the federal government

The high expense of shipping freight to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island

Siberia and the international situation in 1981

The advancements in mail services

The necessity for transportation of goods to distant communities

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Transcript

R. T. SCHULTZ: This is R. T. Schultz July 6, 1981. I just want to relate a little bit about Hawkins & Powers' operation. At this time, Hawkins & Powers have been in the forest firefighting business in connection with the United States Department of the Interior, BLM, for the last 20 some years that I know of.

And they have done a fine job of, shall we say, doing the work as specified in the contract. They've been pioneers in developing airplanes from surplus World War II airplanes, making them carriers or droppers of Bornite, or Borate, I should say.

Which is a mixture of chemicals which when dropped will help put out the fire. And then further, shall we say, utilized by the soil as a fertilizer.

And this mixture is made out of these chemicals and water and it's kind of a sludge. And it's reddish in -- brick red in color, and you can see where it's been put on a fire by the smudge of reddish mud that hangs on to the foliage.

This -- they've used quite a few different airplanes in the past, but the -- the backbone of their fleet or the one that's been most efficient has been the PB4Y–2. Which was used during World War II and referred to as the B–24. Or the Navy version which had the single rudder on the tail.

Either one of these have been, shall we say, wonderful airplanes for this type of operation. They had plenty of room in the fuselage for the tanks for the Borate, and structurally they were strong enough.

Consequently, the pilots were able to get into the fire and dump their loads and get out again with reasonable accuracy.

Gene Powers has been, shall we say, the man who has been the contact man for the Hawkins & Powers in Alaska. And he, in addition to, shall we say, being very much the man who does the -- or gets the engineering work done, he is also excellent from the standpoint of public relations.

I cite the example of his company having a -- on various people from the Bureau of Land Management come to visit them in Wyoming.

And they've helped, shall we say, maintain a high level of understanding of the problems that Hawkins & Powers face. For instance, a few years ago Don Gilbertson wanted to put a DC–6 on as a Borate bomber, and the only place that they could get the work and the engineering to go with it is at Hawkins & Powers Greybull, Wyoming shop.

And I haven't been there myself, but I have, shall we say, talked to the -- the men and to Gene Powers, so I have a pretty fair understanding of how they operate.

And here again, makes one feel good to know that we, shall we say, can move forward in this area where, shall we say, they need to be prepared in the case of a fire.

It's too late to try to, shall we say, get something done after the fire's started. And in fact, with a little wind blowing, it gets to be pretty difficult.

And even for the men, I can personally speak of cases where the wind has changed, and if they didn't have support, about the only thing they could do was find a puddle or something and run to it and get soaked up to stay out of -- wet enough to be protected until they got air coverage.

It sounds easy to try to stay away from a fire, but when you -- when it's a wind blowing of 20, 25 miles an hour, and -- or you have a sudden wind change and this wind picks up, the fire goes to a crown fire, the men are out there, and it --

in one case at Eagle, they had to drive right up to or walk right up to and get in the river to keep their clothes wet enough so that they didn't catch fire from the burning embers that were flying around.

And so here again, they were so far away from town and the smoke was so thick, they weren't able to give them the air support. I personally in that case picked these men up myself, and I know what it has to be like to be caught under those conditions.

They did not salvage any of their tools or even the food. They just, shall we say, were running to stay ahead of the fire to get into the river to get damp enough so they wouldn't -- their clothes wouldn't catch fire.

And this is -- while we're on the subject, you can imagine how difficult it would be for someone to drop this Borate on a fire and have it -- the smoke and the heat is pretty concentrated, and it's pretty difficult to know, shall we say, how effective your load is that is dropped on a given area. Click here to view film of aerial drop.

Consequently, sometimes you have to swing around or allow the evaluator or the chase plane to evaluate where they want the next load to go so that they can get as good a coverage as possible.

And get the big aircraft out of the concentrated area of flying, that is because of the fire there'll be -- there'll be a focal point for all the aircraft coming and going. Click here to view film of helicopter water drop.

And of course, when this happens, they do not want other aircraft coming in there to observe this because they just become a further problem and pretty hard to remain in contact with them. Click here to view film of airplane scooping water from a lake.

This -- they also use their own frequency, I believe, in the past for their purposes they used channel 122.9. And they may have upgraded it recently, but if they have, they haven't told me about it.

But these are the -- these are the problems that one is faced with doing this type of work in Alaska.

And just today I received some copies of photos of one of their airplanes that had an engine catch fire in the air. In addition to the engine catching fire, they also had a load of jet fuel that they were going to drop for their helicopter operations, I believe it was 2 -- 2,000 gallon rubberized tanks.

And you can imagine the problems they had. One, trying to get rid of this load. And the Forest Service men that were on the airplane, fortunately they all had parachutes, and even the copilot jumped out of the airplane leaving the captain alone at the captain's orders.

Captain elected to be the only one to stay in the airplane, and he picked the sandbar to get it down. He was already so low because they were planning to drop this fuel that they didn't have time to climb to a safer altitude.

And consequently, the airplane was making a belly landing because the hydraulic and electrical systems were out, skidded along on the sandbar.

Fortunately, even the captain was able to get out of the airplane and without any major injuries.

This is, shall we say, quite an accomplishment. It's real easy to talk about, but when you're up there and the pressure is great, it isn't -- things don't work that well.

I also want to point out at this moment that when those six men and the copilot jumped out of the airplane, they had an estimated 400 feet. Normally, they like to have 800 feet when they jump with a parachute.

And you can bet that they were pulling the ripcords probably before they jumped out of the airplane, just to be sure they got -- it had time to open before they got -- hit the ground.

I'd also like to add at this time that it's real interesting to see how they operate, because last week, or 10 days ago, everything was rush–rush because the season was dry and there were numerous cumulus clouds and lightning had set fires in the -- this dry brush. And these fires with the winds were racing across the country.

And a great effort was made to check the fire. And just about the time that these fires were under control, the weather cooled off and it started raining.

And it has rained ever since, so that the fires are basically, except for some smoldering spots, completely under control.

And this is an interesting thing about fire control that one never knows what day the fire's going to spring up and how long it's going to burn.

And once fire gets going sometimes with the wind with it, it's pretty hard to keep under control. Click here to view film of forest fire.

In the -- before BLM and Hawkins & Powers got in the fire control business, it was a standard procedure to let the fire burn.

Efforts were made as early as the late '40s to get men on a fire to try to control them, but almost always they had to depend on nature and the weather to help. And the contour of the country, of course.

But up to that time, fires would burn unchecked for many, many months. And sometimes a great portion of Alaska would be burning or smoldering for a good portion of the summer season.

This, of course, had its good and bad points. One of the good points, of course, is that when this fully burns and burns off all the underbrush and twigs and so on, consequently, it will take and make good pasture for the moose and other wildlife that will move in.

However, our philosophy and the needs of the world and the people in it are drastically changing because now we need all the fiber and roughage for many, many things.

And in the foreseeable future, it's reasonable to say that we will further need to protect this resource that we have.

For instance, it would be possible to make paper and other wood products that will be needed elsewhere in the world, and it could even change our balance of payments.

All of these things, of course, are strictly things that -- projections in the future, but that doesn't mean that they won't come to pass because I can foresee these -- some of these things.

In fact, the Japanese, I looked over our, shall we say, forest or heavy tree growth and with the idea of setting up a pulp mill or shipping this stuff to Tokyo for use there for food, fiber, and --

It would change our balance of trade just to have some of these things going, plus the fact that it'd keep many men working, which is one of our problems. We are forever faced with the problem of unemployment.

And then while we're on the subject of unemployment and finances, all of these things affect the airplane and its operation, also.

Consequently, when we -- people don't have the money either to travel or to -- they travel on credit, in either case, the operator has only a limited time to operate until they, shall we say, have to pay their bills.

And so this on even a short–term basis quickly pulls in the air taxi operator because he's not able to operate without a subsidy.

And in the case of the subsidy in Alaska, it's been the Post Office and the CAB felt that by keeping the subsidy on, it allowed the local level of the income or money to be kept in the community for other worthwhile projects, or for whatever at least the individual wanted to spend it for.

For instance, the freight would have probably been double what it was actually in the earlier days at least.

And that this would have kept the individual from progressing. In fact, in some cases they'd have probably starved to death because of the lack of food, and the lack of food was caused by the lack of dollars.

So the Federal Government took the stand that they were, shall we say, making a big contribution to the community through the CAB and better mail service and lower transportation costs.

And of course, in the early days, we were thinking in terms of whatever could be put into -- through a small airplane door as being the things that they could use or afford.

I cite the example of some -- on Gambell on St. Lawrence Island wherein one of the Eskimos made the remark to me that the freight rate from Seattle to Nome on Pan American in 1965, or thereabouts, when they were still operating to Nome, was 24 cents a pound.

And that the freight rate from Nome to Gambell was 46 cents a pound, that made the total cost of an item 50 cents a pound.

So that you can understand why it was so difficult to get even small parts by airmail or air express or air freight, however you want to put it.

But of course, they did get them and here again, it was a case of how much they could afford. The dollar entered into the picture.

And their -- their income was very, very low, and they were able to sell seal skins and a few pieces of ivory -- carved ivory, and ivory tusks. And there was no other dollar income from that area.

And many of the residents of the island, St. Lawrence Island, were on welfare, so to speak, for the basics that they could receive through the cooperative store.

And here again, the store was faced with the same problem of either getting this stuff or the high cost of the stuff that they did get by air, which frequently happened when the boat could not get in.

And the cost by air was regulated by the fact that they had a very short runway, and the weather conditions were not favorable a great deal of the time, and a lack of communication to find out when one might go weatherwise.

So, all this all entered into the picture. And of course, this has drastically improved in the last few years until it operated practically on a schedule, except for those days when the wind and the weather make a trip not feasible.

Please bear in mind at this point that Gambell is only 30 miles from the coast of Siberia. In fact, the Russians shot down -- damaged one and shot down another PV2N.

There were five of these aircraft who had left Australia on a 9,700 planned flight on a curved route to circumvent -- circumvent the route around the great circle route to Washington, D.C.

And they were planning this to come by St. Lawrence Island and Nome, and then possibly over Fairbanks, and then swing on to the east.

And the Russians saw these airplanes flying up the coast there and challenged them. They probably were a little off course.

And since there wasn't any place for them to land, they shot one of them down. Which part of the wreckage of that aircraft is still on the island approximately 4 miles south of the airport at Gambell.

One soldier lost his -- or a serviceman lost his life and another was injured.

However, the -- most of the crew were able to get out of the aircraft. This is how close we are to Siberia, and -- and the international situation.

While I'm on the subject of Gambell to Nome operation, I'd like to state that the early -- first early mail service was established from Nome to Gambell. Landing on the sandy beach using a Stinson A Tri–Motor.

This aircraft didn't have much performance, however it would fly on two engines.

And consequently, it would leave Nome and go to Gambell and have fuel enough to return.

And they did use it on that run in the years about 1940, '41.

And then Alaska Airlines took over Merrill's operation, and I believe that it was continued, then, for the next several years.

And in the interim following that period, I don't remember what kind of an airplane was used. However, their runway was never very satisfactory until it was paved in the '50s.

When this was paved, then it allowed them to use a DC–3, C–46 type, which here again, increased the business in the community.

For instance, while I in this particular case I helped the baker by naming a certain Eskimo as his agent there, and he shipped over four or five cases of canned bread.

I mean, big bread and cookies and fresh bakery goods would be the best way to describe it.

And this, in turn, was sold by this Eskimo. And to give you some idea of the demand for these things, the airplane landed there probably about two or three o'clock in the afternoon, and by nine o'clock that night, every single package of these bakery goods had been sold.

And this is how, shall we say, business and the community food chain could be changed or is changed by the airplane.

And of course, they have certain not so good side effects, such as too much sugar and flour and salt, which gives the Eskimo some of the White Man's disease. However, the other effects are, shall we say, we offset this to a marked degree.

And I can assure you that the village of Gambell has grown in many ways, population has increased drastically, and that they're living in far better houses and because of their -- the knowledge that has come with the communication and transportation, which, of course, have been brought to them again on a subsidy basis.