When the Saskatchewan government dispatched one of its water bombers to
the U.S. last month to help fight the deadly and massively destructive
wildfires raging across Colorado, the grateful authorities there didn't
realize right away a notable piece of American aviation history had
temporarily flown home.
That's because the Saskatchewan environment ministry's custom-refurbished Convair C-131H -- painted in the official provincial colours of green and white and known in this country as Tanker 475, a workhorse that has fought forest fires across Western Canada since it was purchased from a U.S. company in 2008 -- was once identified by the most auspicious call sign in the world: Air Force One.Literally once. On Oct. 26, 1972, when then-U.S. president Richard Nixon required a slower, propeller-driven aircraft to deliver him to a West Virginia airport with a runway too short to land the Boeing 707 -- nicknamed "Spirit of '76" -- that typically served as Air Force One at the time, the lumbering giant of a plane now routinely used to dump thousands of litres of fire retardant on blazing Canadian forests carried the planet's most powerful politician to a campaign rally ahead of that year's presidential election.Remarkably, Nixon made specific reference to what was then a 28-year-old member of the U.S. executive aircraft fleet, a lavishly refitted cargo carrier that had for years been dubbed "Air Force Two" while carrying Nixon's vice-president (and soon-to-be successor) Gerald Ford to official events across the country."One thing I said to (then-West Virginia governor) Arch Moore when we were moving down the line here was that I thought this airstrip was a little bit short," Nixon told a crowd assembled at the City of Huntington airport on that day in 1972. "That is why we had to bring this Convair in. He said you were taking care of that. I just want you to know that as soon as you get a long enough strip, I hope to bring the Spirit of '76, that big plane, right into this airport."Nixon went on to praise the skills of renowned Air Force One pilot Ralph Albertazzie, a West Virginia native."Let me say the man who flew us -- and I would say this is no overstatement -- probably one of the greatest pilots of all time, is, of course, a West Virginian, Col. Albertazzie," Nixon said, according to a U.S. online database of presidential history. "Wherever we went, whether it was to Peking, halfway around the world, or Moscow, a third of the way around the world, or Warsaw, about a fourth of the way around the world, he was always on time, just as he was here tonight in West Virginia, his own state."Nixon won the 1972 presidential election but was subsequently forced out of office by the Watergate scandal, leaving the White House and the Spirit of '76 to Ford. The Canada-bound Convair later left the executive-aircraft fleet and went on to serve as a transport aircraft in the U.S. war on drugs, flying several missions to South America.Then, after several decades of relative obscurity, it was purchased by the Saskatchewan government -- for a reported $10 million -- to be used as a flagship in its provincial firefighting forces.The aircraft, stripped of its interior furnishings and other traces of its once-august role as a luxury ride for the American government's top two politicians, was substantially modified by a B.C. aviation-design company and equipped with a huge tank for carrying and dumping fire retardant on Canadian wilderness infernos.
Since then, said Steve Roberts, executive director of the province's wildfire management branch, the plane has been assigned to fight fires in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, B.C. and Alberta."This is actually the first time the aircraft has been back to the U.S," Roberts told Postmedia News, explaining how a bi-national mutual-support program allows American states facing major fires to request aerial resources and other assistance from their Canadian neighbours, and vice-versa.Roberts said Tanker 475 has been helping battle the Colorado wildfires since June 12, dumping huge loads of bright-red retardant on forested areas in the path of racing flames.Two people have been killed and more than 350 homes have been destroyed since the runaway fires began burning in the region about a month ago.Roberts said Saskatchewan officials first found out about Tanker 475's surprising provenance when U.S. journalist Thomas DeFrank -- a veteran political reporter who had covered the Nixon-Ford era in Washington -- traced the post-1972 history of Nixon's Air Force One-for-a-day Corvair while researching a 2008 story for Air & Space magazine.It was DeFrank, in another article published this week by the New York Daily News, who brought attention to the fact the Saskatchewan plane's presence in the U.S. southwest during a visit to the fire-ravaged region by President Barack Obama meant "two Air Force Ones" had briefly shared the same stretch of U.S. airspace as both aircraft "cruised the smoke-filled skies of Colorado."Source: Randy Boswell, Postmedia News
Gravity always wins!