GREYBULL — A World War II-vintage bomber flying low over a raging forest fire to drop flame retardant became a familiar sight in the Intermountain West, but four decades ago it was a radical idea.
Realizing that vision took the right combination of circumstances, including affordable planes, veteran pilots willing to take the risk, and a large, well-equipped airport close to forest fires.
That’s how Hawkins & Powers Aviation of Greybull grew to be an aerial firefighting pioneer and industry powerhouse.
At the height of its operations just a few years ago, H&P employed about 200 people and boasted the best fleet of aerial tankers in the business, according to former company executive Duane Powers.
Though a series of recent challenges — including two deadly accidents and more than $14 million in debt — may ultimately result in the dissolution of the company, it leaves behind a history rich in innovation and achievement.
Started with spraying
Hawkins & Powers was built from an earlier company.
Mel Christler and Morris Avery started Christler-Avery Aviation after World War II, offering aerial spraying services.
In 1961, Christler moved to Thermopolis, selling his interest in the company to Avery. With funding through local investors, Avery built a hangar and developed the facilities at the Greybull airport.
“Avery started adding helicopters to his commercial fleet” and was a pioneer in their commercial use, Powers said. “They would do spraying, search and rescue, survey of power lines and support mining operations.”
When Avery died in 1969, pilots Dan Hawkins and Gene Powers bought the company from Avery’s widow, Pelete.
“They flipped a coin to see whose name went first,” said Duane Powers, son of Gene Powers.
The partners still own the company, although neither is active in its daily management.
Protecting crops against pests such as grasshoppers, fire ants and spruce budworms became big business. The U.S. Forest Service paid pilots to spray herbicide on sagebrush.
“That allowed grass to grow and generated huge tracts of pasture land for cattle and sheep grazing,” Powers said of the program that opened much of the West to expanded ranching operations.
“Hawkins managed the helicopters and Gene operated the firefighting,” Powers said. “They also started doing the firefighting with small helicopters.
“Back in those days, they operated anywhere from three to four tankers and three to four helicopters,” he said. “Then Hawkins & Powers started a gradual expansion of their air tanker fleet, adding additional aircraft and additional helicopters.”
Helicopters were also in demand during the energy boom of the 1970s for moving oil and gas exploration and testing equipment to remote areas, Powers said.
During the 1980s, Powers said the company began converting C-130s — a military cargo plane also known as the Hercules — into air tankers.
It also created what remains the largest air tanker in the United States, a C-97 with a 4,000-gallon capacity.
“The C-97 had the world’s first computer-controlled retardant-delivery system,” an innovation that allowed pilots to more accurately drop retardant over a wider area with each pass, Powers said.
The company saw an expansion in the use of helicopters in wildlife capture and tracking programs during the 1990s, using them to assist in tracking and transporting wolves, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and even bison.
That era also brought an increased focus on improvements in the airport facilities and upgrades to the fleet’s electronics and avionics systems, Powers said.
The slow and steady growth that H&P enjoyed for more than 30 years was dealt a crippling setback in 2002, when two similar accidents involving its planes resulted in five deaths and the eventual grounding of all heavy air tankers.
The crashes made national headlines, as a Reno, Nev., television station captured footage of the wings separating from a C-130A before it crashed near Walker, Calif.
One month later, a PB4Y-2 owned by H&P lost a wing and crashed while fighting a fire near Estes Park, Colo.
The Forest Service, which had contracted for decades with H&P and a handful of other companies for firefighting services, implemented new airworthiness standards that did not allow the use of many of H&P’s older planes.
The move effectively grounded much of the company’s fleet, along with many heavy air tankers used by other aerial firefighting companies.
Federal accident investigators concluded that the accidents resulted from fatigue cracks in the metal where the wings were joined to the planes, an area that can’t be inspected without disassembling the aircraft.
Powers said the exhaustive federal investigations following the crashes were “a very intense period,” and he defended the company’s safety record overall.
“Hawkins and Powers has flown more hours of accident-free firefighting time than any company in the history of the United States,” he said.
“In every case, it was determined that H&P had met and exceeded all requirements of maintenance and safety,” Powers said. “There were no charges of wrongdoing or regulatory violations determined.”
Ralph Reiner of Emblem is a retired pilot and curator of the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting at the Big Horn County Airport.
Though he never flew for H&P, he said flying fire missions is risky business that places tremendous stress on the aircraft.
“You’re flying up and down mountains and valleys, in and out of fire, where you barely have enough room to pull up after dropping your retardant,” he said. “You’re flying just above stalling speed. There’s going to be trouble if anything happens.”
Support planes, helicopters and other tankers are also nearby, Reiner said, and the whole point of the operation is to get as close to the fire as possible.
Reiner had flown in both planes involved in the 2002 accidents, and said there was no way that inspections could have uncovered the stress fractures.
“After the accidents in 2002, the firefighting agencies started to downsize the use of the existing larger air tankers,” Powers said. “And then by 2004, they completely cancelled all of the large air tanker contracts in the U.S. for every company.”
Debt and sale
This left H&P scrambling to pay its bills and service the debt on equipment that was generating no revenue. Conscious of its importance in the Greybull community, H&P also continued to pay its pilots and mechanics, even though they weren’t flying airplanes or fixing them.
The company quickly accumulated around $14 million in debt, according to Jim Taggart, a turnaround specialist brought in last summer to restructure and manage the company.
To pay off creditors, H&P sold its fixed assets — everything from giant cargo planes to the last screwdriver — to a liquidation firm, Great American.
The company, which specializes in acquiring and liquidating assets of failed corporations, is in the process of selling about 50 planes once owned by H&P.
The last profitable sector of the company was a group dedicated to repair and refurbishing of aircraft like the C-130s used in firefighting and military operations.
“The board made the decision to go out of business and try to find a successor company” to take over the refurbishing operations, Taggart said.
Efforts to find that successor company continue, with around two dozen employees still working on a C-130 expected to be completed next month.
It is the last job scheduled for the remaining H&P employees.
“When that happens,” Reiner said, “Hawkins and Powers will have fulfilled all they work they were ever going to do. Period.”