Arizona DC-4 Firebombers

March 2001

This article was originally published in the Spring 2001/#86 issue of Propliner Magazine.

Ryan Field, located ten miles southwest of Tucson in the Arizona desert, is home to ARDCO, Inc, a company specializing in aerial firefighting for the U.S. Forest Service. I'd noticed ARDCO's DC-4's on previous trips to Tucson but had been more interested in Henry Oliver’s L749A N608AS, which is parked nearby. Last fall, I decided I would attempt to get close-up photos of the old Lockheed and contacted the Tucson Airport Authority to make the necessary arrangements. They suggested I contact Meegan Garrett at ARDCO and, after contacting Meegan, I realized that ARDCO would make an interesting topic for a Propliner article. After checking on specials at Southwest Airlines, we scheduled a visit for Saturday March 24, 2001.

ARDCO's roots go back to 1976 when Gary Garrett, three other pilots and two mechanics left Hawkins and Powers to form their own firefighting company, which they named Waig Aircraft. The unusual name was the result of using the initials from the last names of each of the four founding pilots: Kenny White, Clyde Alfred, Roger Iverson and Gary Garrett. The first aircraft, N96449 #118, was joined in 1979 by N406WA #119. Tragedy struck on December 2, 1980 when Waig Aircraft's two DC-4's were involved in a midair collision which resulted in N96449 crashing five miles north of Indio, California with the loss of co-founder Clyde Alfred and his co-pilot. The crippled N406WA, piloted by Kenny White, with Gary Garrett in the right seat, made an emergency landing in Palm Springs. What's ironic about the accident is that it occurred during the ferry flight back to Tucson after completion of the 1980 fire season. The aircraft were flying in formation for a photo shoot when the accident occurred.
The surviving partners formed ARDCO in early 1981 with the remaining Waig Aircraft DC-4, N406WA. Kenny White retired in 1991 and in 1996, Gary and Meegan bought Roger Iverson's share of the company, making them sole owners. Today the company has three active DC-4's which have been modified for aerial firefighting with the installation of 2,000-gallon fire retardant delivery systems. These aircraft are N406WA (#119), N460WA (#151) and N9015Q (#152). In addition, ARDCO owns DC-4 N49451, which is parked on their Ryan Field ramp and a spares DC-4 parked at Chandler Memorial Airpark. Neither has been modified to include a retardant delivery system. The company moved into its new home at Ryan Field on January 1, 2001. This facility consists of three newly constructed buildings housing office space, workshops and a parts storage area. Their previous home, an historic WW2 wooden hangar built in 1942, had been destroyed by a violent windstorm on July 23, 1998 with significant loss of both equipment and spare parts.
Friends often ask me why I travel around the country, at my own expense, writing about "old airplanes" for a British magazine called Propliner that none of them have ever heard of. My normal response is that, in addition to satisfying my "airplane thing", I get to meet and talk to some really interesting people. The Garretts definitely fit that category and, in addition, they are two genuinely nice people.

Gary grew up on a ranch in northern Wyoming, near the small town of Big Horn. After getting out of the Navy in 1968 and returning to Big Horn, he realized that there had to be something better out there than ranching in a part of the United States where it routinely hits -40 degrees F in the winter. He had served on both C-130's and C-121's in the Navy and decided to give flying a chance. In January 1969, he began flight lessons at a small airport in Sheridan, Wyoming and earned his private pilot's license a month later. In the spring of 1970 he met Gene Powers, of Hawkins and Powers fame, and with little more than a commercial ticket and a years worth of flying experience, he found himself in the right seat of a H&P PB4Y-2 Privateer heading to Alaska to fight forest fires. Since that time, Gary has accumulated almost 7,000 hours in round-engined aircraft including PB4Y's, C-119’s and DC-4’s. Of these, over 5,000 are in DC-4's.
Meegan's story is even more improbable than Gary's. She started out working for the U.S. Forest Service as a member of a fire crew. She loved the excitement of this job but realized, after fifteen years, she needed to move onto something else less physically demanding. At the age of 33, she became the assistant airbase manager of the Chester, California tanker base. She was promoted to airbase manager at Chester and began taking flying lessons. She met Gary at Chester and, to quote him, "he married her and brought her to the desert". Since making that move, she has earned her multiengine and commercial tickets, graduated with honors from the University of Arizona with a teaching degree and raised two sons. After she and Gary became sole owners of ARDCO in 1996, she became a full-time employee and is Gary's co-pilot on N406WA. In addition to her co-pilot duties, Meegan does the company's bookkeeping, contracts, and parts ordering. While “on the road” during the summer fire season, Meegan runs the company’s business using a laptop that she carries with her. Meegan is a true devotee of classic propliners and loves nothing more than talking about “round-engined” airplanes.

The Garretts own a ranch twelve miles west of Ryan Field where they relax by riding their horses. Gary, at age 61, still enjoys roping cattle. Their two sons were brought up around the company but neither has caught the "flying bug" yet. Travis, 19, is currently enrolled at the University of Arizona studying genetic engineering while Tyler, 16, is quite interested in the mechanical end of the company and has worked for the company during summer vacations. Whether either will continue in the family tradition has yet to be determined. Meegan’s grandmother flew bi-planes in the 1930’s while her mother wants nothing to do with flying. Sometimes these things skip a generation!

All three of ARDCO’s active DC-4’s were flown by the USAF, as C-54’s, well into the 1970’s before being retired. N406WA and N460WA were purchased from local scrap dealers in Tucson while N9015Q, a suspected drug runner, was purchased at government auction. I was given a tour of N406WA and N460WA and it is obvious that Gary and Meegan take great pride in their operation and maintain their aircraft to the highest standards. N460WA had just been painted in the new ARDCO color scheme and, during my visit, N9015Q was in Kingman, Arizona being painted in preparation for the upcoming fire season. These aircraft have state-of-the-art computer controlled retardant delivery systems that can be programmed for a number of delivery options. In addition, these aircraft have been upgraded with DC-6 wheels and brakes while N460WA has R2600 engines installed in place of R2000 engines, normally found on DC-4's. Waig Aircraft performed this conversion in 1977, under an STC originally developed by Charlotte Aircraft Corporation. Meegan believes that N460WA is the only R2600 powered DC-4 still flying and she would be most interested in hearing from any reader who might know of any others. In addition, all three aircraft have had Garmin 430 GPS navigation units installed.
Gary and Meegan fly N460WA and they love its performance, as compared to a normal DC-4. While limited to 2400 rpm, due to the propeller, the larger R2600 engine provides maximum continuous power of 1300 hp to 8,000 feet, which represents significant improvement over R2000 powered DC-4s. The only problem ARDCO has encountered with the engine has been exhaust stack cracks, which are the result of the start and stop again nature of firefighting operations. In their search for a solution to this problem, they contacted Charlotte Aircraft, which developed the STC in the 1950’s. Much to their surprise, they found an employee who had been involved in the project nearly 50 years ago. He confirmed what they suspected and the problem has been minimized by selectively fitting exhaust components and the repair of cracked components by a specialty welding shop located in West Virginia.
ARDCO aircraft are assigned to fire bases in Redding and Lancaster, California. Each normally flies 200-250 hours a year and is assigned a flightcrew, consisting of a pilot, co-pilot and flight mechanic for the entire season. The crew of N9015Q includes pilot Gary Towle, co-pilot Pierre Delvoix, and flight mechanic Terry Wood. Steve Howland, with Todd Tompkins serving as co-pilot and Dave Lahn as flight mechanic pilots N460WA. The Garrett's flight mechanic on N406WA is Barry Sandberg. The aircraft and crew must be self-sufficient during the fire season with each crew responsible for performing maintenance and other functions required to keep the airplanes in the air. Gary Towle recently developed software for managing the maintenance of each aircraft. It tracks engine times, parts installation, AD’s, flight times, fuel, oil, and other related parameters. In the field, each aircraft crew is issued a laptop with Gary's software installed for managing their aircraft. Back at Ryan Field, all aircraft maintenance is also managed with the software under the watchful eye of Pete Taylor, ARDCO's Director of Maintenance. Pete has over forty years of round-engine experience and is responsible for keeping the company's three DC-4's in impeccable condition.
What do Gary and Meegan see in the future for ARDCO? They run the company as a family enterprise and don't want to grow any larger. Their focus is on running a first class operation using first class equipment with a goal on continuously improving both operations and equipment. For the time being, Gary claims that the future of his DC-4's is secure since they can deliver fire retardant cheaper than any other aircraft. Spare parts are not a problem since they have enough parts on hand in their storeroom for at least another ten years of operations. Gary showed me "new" pumps and magneto coils that had been manufactured in 1945 and still packaged in original cartons. I asked Gary what he thought about other companies replacing their piston-engined fleets with turbo-prop C-130's and P-3's. He replied that he felt ARDCO's DC-4's were superior to these aircraft types in firefighting operations and, again stressed he had no plans to replace the company's DC-4's.

After spending an enjoyable morning with Meegan and Gary, I had to admire them for what they have achieved. Working together as a team flying a classic propliner seemed to me to be a very nice way of earning a living. I asked Gary how long he planned on continuing flying and his response was "As long as it continues to be fun". Sounds like a great answer to me.

Ralph M. Pettersen
March 2001

Photo Credits: Ralph M. Pettersen

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