An Ode to Air Spray
By: Jade Modry
2023 was declared the worst year for Canadian wildfires on record. The wildfires burned the most area in recorded Canadian history and the impact was far-reaching. Smoke engulfed the West, and quickly became widespread. However, the wildfires could have been far more destructive if not for the efforts of those who fought them. Aerial firefighting is one of the most effective methods at combating wildfires, and earlier this year I learned about a notable aerial firefighting company that has its roots in Edmonton called Air Spray Ltd. A loan to the museum in the spring permitted us to digitize 850 photographs taken by Air Spray employees between 1980 and 1998 for the museum collection. They were from the personal photo albums of Bill “Turbo” Tarling documenting his time piloting tankers for Air Spray.
Air Spray Ltd was originally incorporated as a crop spraying company by Dave Harrington of Wetaskiwin in 1954. Shortly after, he signed a contract with the City of Edmonton to use Air Spray aircraft for mosquito control, and in 1958 with the Province of Alberta for aerial fire suppression. Early efforts used common agricultural aircraft, including Boeing-Stearman biplanes and Snow S-2 (Thrush Commander) low-wing monoplanes. These proved too slow and ineffective, leading Air Spray to switch to converting WW II-era Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers, but these too proved unsatisfactory. Several operators looked to the Douglas A26/B26 Invader, The Invader was significantly faster, carried two engines, making it safer to fly, and it had an ideal bomb bay to fit a 2,000-gallon fire retardant tank. Retired from military service, the Invader was readily available at the time. However, Dave Harrington was running into difficulties, which led him to briefly shut down the company.
Reincorporated in 1967, Air Spray purchased its first B26 and began converting it to hold fire retardant, but still needed significant financial help to realize their dream. Don Hamilton recognized the potential of aerial firefighting and in 1969 he partnered with Dave Harrington to operate Air Spray. Don was a bush pilot and entrepreneur and had several aviation-related businesses here in Edmonton. By 1971, Don was the sole owner of Air Spray. When a large hangar fire destroyed much of the Air Spray fleet (something about irony) in 2000, 76-year-old Hamilton committed to rebuilding the hangar and fleet. Since his death in 2011, his daughter Lynn Hamilton has continued his legacy.
There are multiple aircraft used during aerial firefighting. Generally, there are up to four aircraft in flight, with the tankers following a leading “Bird Dog”. The bird dogs in the Air Spray fleet during Turbo’s time were often Cessna 310s. These aircraft direct the operations of the airtankers through radio communications or leading formations to target fires. Air Spray operated 12 Cessna 310s, with a fleet of 22 A-26/B-26 air tankers.
Throughout the albums, many other aircraft were pictured. In 1986, Air Spray began operating and maintaining the Alberta Government’s fleet of Canadair CL-215 water bombers. The purpose-built Canadair CL-215 are designed to scoop water up in flight then drop it rather than store fire retardant. The star of these photo albums was undoubtedly the Douglas A-26 Invader bombers. Turbo’s albums heavily feature his favourite Invader, #13 in Air Spray’s fleet (C-FZTC). He documented its visitors, conversions, changes of nose art and all the various stages of its aerial firefighting.
Scattered throughout the photographs are many pictures of the Air Spray team having parties, hanging out, practical jokes, and spending time together. One of the pictures from the collection is of a makeshift pool that the Air Spray team is sardined into to beat the 30 degree heat, or a picture of one of the team members interviewing on TV captioned saying “Because I needed a job”, where underneath Turbo writes “Great interview Rooster”. There is an obvious camaraderie among the team, and many photos filled with laughter. There are also pictures of training, aviation expositions, engineering work, pictures in flight, and many more aspects of the hard work involved with aerial firefighting. Additionally, there are harrowing pictures of major environmental devastation and remembrances of aviation accidents and deaths. The pictures evoke a wide variety of emotions and illustrate the multifaceted nature of the job.
Air Spray Ltd is still fighting wildfires today. With its headquarters still in Edmonton, Air Spray now operates out of Red Deer, Alberta and Chico, California, USA. It is currently owned and operated by Lynn Hamilton, one of the daughters of Don Hamilton, who took over after his passing in 2011. The fleet today has evolved and consists of Lockheed L188 Electra Airtankers, Air Tractor 802F “Fire Boss” aircraft, Canadair CL-215, CL-215T, and -415 water bombers, and Aero Commander 690 and 1000 Bird Dogs. The photo albums have since been returned to Turbo. Many thanks to former Air Spray Bird Dog pilot Dave Dalke for coordinating the loan of these important albums.
Additional fun facts I learned this year:
- Don Hamilton was one of the investors that saved the Edmonton Oilers hockey team in 1998.
- Douglas A-26 invaders become A-26B invaders when their noses are converted to solid noses.
- In 1987, fire retardant was dropped over a home in the Edson area and turned the entire house and land bright pink
- Fire retardant in aerial firefighting is also called Slurry
For a detailed biography of Captain William M. “Turbo” Tarling, CD please see the New Brunswick Aviation Museum’s profile at https://nbaviationmuseum.com/biographies#57baa461-f74e-40e9-a445-7e185f27d6a7