We see them from the road, a scattering of old birds, their fuselages bright under the Wyoming sun. Their liveries are simple. Just a few splashes of blood orange on cowl and wing tip, the rest left to bare and brilliant aluminum. We don’t know what they are, or why they’re so close to the road, nosed up to a rest area like big, gleaming cows at a trough. Brandon comes over the CB:
“Do you want to go back and check it out?”
The answer should be, “No.” We’ve strung a week’s worth of long days together, pushing hard for the west coast, and spent most of the morning tending to necessaries in Ten Sleep. We’re barely an hour down the road, and we’ve got plenty more ground to cover before the day’s over.
“Absolutely,” is what I say.
We turn around. Pull in as a busload of Korean tourists flood the rest area. The sign says, “Museum of Flight and Arial Firefighting.” It points us to a gate in the chain link, past the restrooms and vending machines and pamphlets for tourist traps scattered far and wide. There’s a small trailer on the other side; we take the "Open" sign at its invitation, and find all that’s left of Hawkins & Powers Aviation. The bones of the company that pioneered buying up surplus World War II bombers, fitting them with massive tanks full of fire retardant, and dousing forests and fields from 150 feet up at 140 mph.
We pay our $2.00 per head and walk out onto the grass. There, napping in the weeds, sits the center section from a Pratt & Whitney radial, a big 14-cylinder job. It looks like it was pulled from its cowl and plopped there, rods and pistons flopped out, tops still caked in carbon, it’s splines still ready to take a prop. It’s wonderful.
There’s a scattering of planes, including a pair of PB4Y-2 Privateers, cousins to the iconic B-24 but with a longer belly and a single, massive tail in place of the Liberator’s twin rudders. I can’t get over how massive they are—can’t fathom what it must have been like to hear four 14-cylinder radials cough to life and fire. Biblical.
Hawkins & Powers got off the ground in the early ‘60s, snatching up planes and the retired crew necessary to keep them in the air. Bored pilots and mechanics all trained on Uncle Sam’s dime and in desperate need of something to do now that they were out of the service. At its peak, the company employed some 200 workers, and had one of the largest collections of operational World War II bombers in existence.
There are a pair of C-119 Boxcars, too. Big enough to live in, I wager, their twin-spar tails sailing off behind them. The desert’s a brutal place. It’s taking its toll; shreds of canvas whip in the cold breeze above us, exposing bare the bare aluminum beneath. The museum leaves one of the big Boxcars open, and we take turns trundling through the back, imagining what we could roll through those big clamshell doors at the back. Motorcycles, or a CJ2-A, more likely.
The one that hangs in my heart is the Beech. A Model 18. It’s a more beautiful Electra. Even on its flat tires, even with its Plexiglass sunbaked and hazed, it’s stunning. Something about having its nose in the air, maybe. It’s a thing that whispers, “I will take you anywhere.” I do not often pine for money, but standing there in the Wyoming scrub, I want enough to take that plane home. To take it apart. Put it together. Learn to use it. Go where it wants.
Fighting fires from the air is a brutal thing, both for pilots and for their planes. They’re always half a breath from stall speed, coming in low and slow, dumping their tanks, then pulling up and away. It’s hell on an airframe. Hawkins & Powers had a reputation for keeping accidents to a minimum. Complied with all inspections. Kept things safe—or as safe as they could.
In 2002, a couple of dramatic crashes brought the company to its knees. First, in Walker, California: A C-130A came apart in the air, its wings separating from the body of the plane, killing everyone on board, the disaster captured by local news stations. Then, a month later in Estes Park, Colorado, a PB4Y-2 like the ones sitting here lost a wing, as well. No one survived that one, either.
The Forest Service stepped in. Mandated new standards for firefighting aircraft. Overnight, the government grounded most of Hawkins & Powers fleet. The company struggled on for a while, racking up debt to pay pilots and mechanics to keep their birds on the ground. By 2006, H&P gave in and sold everything to a liquidation company to pay off its debts.
Standing there among what’s left, most of it privately owned and on loan to the museum, it’s hard not to feel a pang. For a second, these planes were still in the air. Not parked and rotting. Not cut up for scrap. Working, as they were built to do. Not destroying the world beneath their wide wings, but preserving it. Not taking men’s lives, but buying them precious seconds. Enough to evacuate a home or dig a fire line. Enough to matter.