west on Wyoming’s Highway 14, a few miles past the town of
Greybull, sits the small and unassuming South Big Horn County Airport.
On an August day in years past the field would have been bustling
with taxiing aircraft, the arrival and departure of aerial water
tankers, and the sound of the maintenance run-ups of radial engines.
Today the airport sits in relative quiet with only the sounds of
the blowing winds and the nearby highway with cars and motorcycles
on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park.
Nearing the airport the tails of C-97 Stratofreighters, C-130 Hercules,
C-119 Flying Boxcars, P2V Neptunes, and PB4Y Privateers are clearly
visible in the field on the far side of the airfield. Closer, on
the tarmac, are the more recently active aircraft painted in the
white and red colors of the Hawkins & Powers Co.
Turning off the highway and into the airport you are greeted by
a pair of C-119’s, a P2V-7, and a C-45 Expediter that are
on display in front of what was once the H&P office buildings.
To the left is a Wyoming Department of Highways rest area, and to
the right is a small 10x14 foot log cabin with no running water
The log cabin was built in 1902 but today it is the temporary home
of the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting. Mr. Ralph Reiner,
an energetic man in his 80’s, along with his wife Lorraine
work tirelessly trying to raise funding and generate local interest
in order to keep the museum afloat. Despite pain in his back that
would require an operation on his spinal column a mere two weeks
before the Hawkins and Powers assets were to be auctioned off, Ralph
was still working diligently to secure funding to purchase some
of the historically significant H&P aircraft.
The museum may be working in sparse conditions today but Ralph hopes
that in the future it will be in a large building that is suitable
to display many of the aerial firefighting artifacts currently in
storage. When the museum was founded in 1987 it was housed and supported
by Hawkins & Powers and it was always assumed that retired firefighting
aircraft would one day make their way into the museum. When the
fortunes of H & P changed so did those of the museum.
40 years Hawkins & Powers flew and maintained a fleet of aircraft
for fighting the West’s seasonal forest fires. Their formula
was simple; take an aircraft designed to carry heavy loads, retrofit
it with water drop capabilities, and be available when needed. The
business also housed the facilities to support and maintain their
fleet of aircraft as well as provide maintenance and refurbishing
services to others.
The formula worked for H&P until one fateful day in June of
2002 when a C-130A Hercules fighting a fire near Walker, California,
had a catastrophic wing failure resulting in the loss of the aircraft
and the 3 crew members. Another aircraft, a PB4Y Privateer, was
lost along with its 2 crewmembers a month later near Estes Park,
Colorado, while making a retardant drop. The net result was a grounding
of heavy air tankers throughout the firefighting industry.
The cause of the accidents was suspected to be undetectable metal
fatigue, and H&P was cleared of any wrongdoing, but with its
key assets grounded debt grew and it was only a matter of time before
the business that was founded by in 1969 by Dan Hawkins and Gene
Powers was forced to declare bankruptcy. H&P shut their doors
at the end of 2005 and sold off their assets to the Great American
Group to satisfy nearly $15 million that it owed to creditors.
23rd & 24th of 2006 a multitude of bidders gathered at the Big
Horn County Airport to purchase what remained of the H&P assets.
Many airworthy assets had already been sold to other aerial firefighting
companies but there were still enough aircraft and parts left to
excite many aviation collectors, engine rebuilders, and aviation
Still available for bid were the only airworthy C-82 Packet, PB4Y
Privateers, an A-26C Invader, a C-97 that flew in the Berlin Airlift,
as well as the C-119 Flying Boxcar that was used in the 2004 remake
of the movie “Flight of The Phoenix” that starred Dennis
The C-82 Packet
fetched one of the highest bids, $127,000, and was purchased by
the Hagerstown Aviation Museum in Hagerstown, Maryland. The museum
was a fitting destination for this unique sixty year old aircraft
since it was originally manufactured at the Fairchild plant in Hagerstown
along with 222 others just like it.
Another fitting destination was the C-119 Flying Boxcar, which along
with the A-26C Invader, was purchased by the Lauridsen Aviation
Musuem in Glendale, Arizona. Glendale is 5 miles north of Phoenix
and the C-119L is the same aircraft that was used in the remake
of the movie “Flight of the Phoenix.” While the A-26
fetched $112,500 the C-119 was sold for $70,000 which also included
2 spare engines.
purchases made during the auction were the 3 KC-97 Stratofreighters,
a transport aircraft based on the fuselage of the B-29 Superfortress,
were purchased by aviation entrepreneur and pilot Clay Lacy. Two
of the aircraft are expected to be made flyable while a third will
be used for its parts. Also up for auction was truckloads of radial
engines, propellers, and other parts that were hauled away by engine
builders and museums.
Some of the
aircraft that were in long term storage may not fare as well. Two
of the P2V-7 Neptunes, a 1950’s era Navy Patrol Bomber, sold
for less than $6,000 each which was far below the scrap value of
Ralph Reiner and the Museum Board were left to wonder what, if
any, of the H&P legacy would remain in Greybull. Falling short
of his original goal of raising $900K in order to purchase 6 historically
significant firefighting aircraft, the museum instead had to accept
whatever was left over or not bid upon.
Once the dust
had settled the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting Museum
was left with the two C-119’s, C-45, and the P2V-7 Neptune
that were on display at the entrance. The museum will also retain
one of the KC-97 Stratrofreighters, a C-130 Hercules, as well as
at least one of the PB4Y Privateers that was not placed on the auction
Ralph has big
plans for the future. The museum has acquired a lease from the Big
Horn County Airport for land directly behind the Wyoming Highway
Department Rest Area where he hopes that a large display building
will be constructed as well as cement pads for the aircraft that
will be on display.
With the museum
located on a major tourist route between Interstate 90 and Yellowstone
National Park he thinks that many tourists will want to stop and
visit the museum as part of their vacation travels.
Ralph is in negotiations to procure a P-3 Orion, a P2V-7 Neptune,
and a DC-7 from another aerial tanker company that was not able
to re-certify them for firefighting. He also intends to spend the
winter applying for grants to purchase surplus aircraft that are
currently located in Arizona and New Mexico.
When Hawkins & Powers closed their doors an era of aviation
ended. Many of their aircraft are now scattered across North America
either to complete their life as aerial firefighters, on display
in museums, or into the hands of private collectors. The parts cache
that they maintained to support their air operations are now bringing
new life to other warbirds.
Ralph Reiner and the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting are
hoping that they can preserve a small piece of the legacy that Hawkins
& Powers brought to the Greybull area as well as the science
of aerial firefighting.