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Glory Days

by Don Havel (Fairbanks '66) |

I trained in Fairbanks in 1966. I guess you could say it was a good year for me. First of all, I made 21 jumps. Secondly, I put in my first year in Alaska, and they say that after one year in Alaska you are hooked; you can’t stay away, the country becomes part of you and you of it. And so it happened to me.

Often on a fire jump I would stand looking over the country and tell myself that I was standing on a spot where no one had ever stood before — well, maybe a mastodon or saber-toothed tiger.

Moose, dall sheep, gold, the Yukon Valley, Eskimos, Anaktuvuk Pass, Denali, and grizzlies. The rivers: Yukon, Chandalar, Anaktuvuk, Noatak, Kobuk, Unalakleet, Iditarod, Anvik, Nulato, Koyukuk, Tanana, Chena, Goodpaster, Kuskokwim. The Brooks Range, the Wrangells, too. Yes, I can still feel all of this.

I have many memories of my five years of jumping in the Last Frontier, but 1967 is notable to me for two reasons. The Bureau of Land Management had a section of the Fairbanks International Airport reserved for our jump ships, retardant planes, and various other aircraft. The spring lineup included B-25s, B-17s, PB4Ys, two Grumman Gooses, two DC-3s and some helicopters.

One sunny day what should come roaring out of the blue sky but one noisy little bird, practically spitting fire. It was a P-51 Mustang. It was painted pink and it was called the “Pink Lady.”

The owner introduced it to our BLM bosses with the idea that it could be used to fly over a lot of country, like following a lightning storm across the Yukon valley looking for fires and then reporting those fires back to base.

They gave it a try. If I recall, I think it was found to be not too effective. And again if I recall, the pilot cart-wheeled it down the runway at McGrath. The only jumper to ever ride in it was the late Larry Cravens (FBX-64), who hopped a ride from McGrath to Fairbanks.

The grand event, though, was when another aircraft came settling onto the airstrip. It didn’t evoke excitement in me like the P-51 did, but rather mouth-open awe. It was a World War ll A-26B Invader attack bomber.

The dual engines thundered and the props were as big as a full moonrise across an October prairie. The tricycle gear shifted down, and the plane taxied to a spot in the BLM lineup. The clamshell canopy opened and the pilot stood up and stretched.

This aircraft, too, was brought to us to see if it could fit into our firefighting efforts. There were a lot of ideas presented, but one thing was for sure: nobody wanted to give it up. So a plan was developed to outfit it as a jump ship and, because of its speed and range, it would be loaded with jumpers and used to patrol likely lightning-strike areas.

It would stay out and not come back until the load had jumped. If we ran low on fuel, we landed at a village dirt strip, rolled out 55-gallon drums of fuel and fueled up. Sometimes, we could fuel at the Air Force base at Galena. I remember the old-timers gathering around it there to marvel. I’m sure they had their memories, too.

Our new jump ship was designated N600WB and it has a documented history. The original A-26s came off the assembly line in 1944 and were sent to the European Theater of the war. A second run was designated the A-26B, which was an improved model. It went to the Pacific war effort.

Our plane was delivered to the Army Air Corps – predecessor to the U.S. Air Force – in May 1945. There were 2,452 A-26s produced, of which 1,355 were A-26Bs.

It was 50 feet long, had a wingspan of 70 feet, and was 18 feet, 3 inches high. The engines were Pratt & Whitney R2800-27 double-wasp radials at 2,000 horsepower each. The maximum attack speed was 355 mph with a cruise speed of 284 mph. The range was 1,400 miles without wing tanks. The rate of climb was 1,250 feet per minute. It would go from the ground to 10,000 feet in 8.1 minutes. It held a crew of three: the pilot, the navigator/bombardier/loader, and the gunner. It cost $192,457 in 1945.

The A-26B was the only combat aircraft that was used in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There were several configurations of armament used. One consisted of eight Browning M2 50-caliber machine guns mounted in the nose, 4,000 pounds of bombs in the bomb bay and 2,000 on each wing.

It could be rigged with as many as 18 50-caliber machine guns. Picture that coming at you at a 355-mph strafe. It could also be outfitted with a cannon and rockets or a mix of any of the above. During the Vietnam War it had a capability added to detect the enemy at night.

Our N600WB – serial number 44-35617 – was eventually converted for the military to a RB-26C, which was a photo recon aircraft. It was retired from the military in 1958 and had several civilian owners after that. At some point it was converted by On Mark Corporation into a luxury plane.

It was owned by Mid America Air Transport in 1966 and sold to Red Dodge Aviation of Anchorage in 1969. There were other owners after that. It was impounded by U.S. Marshals in 1983 during a drug raid in California and was found to be loaded with marijuana; a federal judge ordered that it be turned over to the Air Force in 1984.

It is now at the Hill Aerospace Museum at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. There it was restored to its original military configuration, and its new designation is “The Devil’s Own Grim Reaper.”

Only a few of us trained to jump out of that plane. I don’t remember many of the names of those jumpers, but Chuck Sheley (CJ-59) told me he made his first fire jump in Alaska out of the A-26B. I also think the late Gary Dunning (FBX-66) jumped out of it.

In my log book dated June 11, 1967, I noted that I jumped Fire Y-32 out of it. We left on patrol at 1640 and jumped at 1800. Don Gordon (MSO-59) was the fire boss. I believe we hauled six jumpers and a spotter, plus the gear. If I recall, we jumped one-man sticks out of a small doorway, in which we sat with our feet dangling alongside the plane, and when the spotter slapped us, we merely pushed ourselves off. The plane didn’t slow up like a DC-3 or a Goose, but we were tough.

I hope you all enjoyed this story. I’ve read many references — well, I guess about 7,236 – to the Missoula fellows jumping out of that old Ford Trimotor, and I guess I have to admit I would have liked to have jumped out of it, too. But we had the A-26B Invader attack bomber. We flew it, we ate our C-rations in it, we slept in it, we soared, we dove, and we jumped out of it. Glory days.