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Invaders From Red Deer (1994)

The World's Largest Private A-26 Fleet (part 1 of 5)

Story & photos by "Turbo" Tarling unless noted


A-26 Invaders From Red Deer In Early spring 1944 war was raging in Europe, and America is building warplanes at an impressive rate. At the Douglas aircraft plants in Long Beach, California and Tulsa, Oklahoma, A-26 Invader attack bombers are rolling off the production lines; in all, some 2,500 will be built before the war is over. An order for 4,000 more Invaders will be cancelled, victim of the fledgling jet age.


Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres to the north, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan is operating pilot and aircrew training schools all across Canada. In Alberta, No.36 Service Flying Training School at RCAF Station Penhold is making its contribution by churning out new pilots for the Allied war effort. The circuit is filled with yellow twin-engine Airspeed Oxford aircraft; their pilots are training to fly bombers.


Located midway between Edmonton to the north and Calgary to the south, Penhold had gently rolling countryside, nearby lakes and the beautiful Rocky Mountains just a short hop to the west.


It was also subject to those wonderful, warm Canadian chinooks which often cascaded down the east clopes of the Rockies in the dead of winter, bringing a few hours of respite from the cold.It was small wonder that the air trainees preferred this idyllic location to other more isolated, often barren and sometimes dustbowl-like training stations.


Closed at the end of World War II, the Station once again opened for business as No.4 Flying Training School in 1953. This time it was to train RCAF and NATO pilots on the venerable North American Harvard as Canada's contribution to postwar NATO expansion. For 12 years the yellow Harvard would be cock-of-the-walk until it, too, gave way to the new Canadair Tutor jet trainer. The RCAF ceased flying operations at Penhold in 1965. CFB Penhold is now fenced off from the airfield, which is called the Red Deer Industrial Airport.


Air Spray Douglas A-26 and Cessna 310 fleet
Air Spray Douglas A-26 and Cessna 310 fleet at Red Deer in early 1980s

The airport has the usual complement of modern hangars and a terminal building, but our destination is farther on at the original World War II hangars. No longer in pristine condition with manicured grounds, they are, nevertheless, solid, functional and, best of all, occupied and busy. Emblazoned on Hangar 2 is "Air Spray (1967) Ltd. Forest Fire Control".


In the spring of 1994 aircraft are parked everywhere - yellow and red Canadair CL-215 amphibian bombers, Cessna 310s and 340s, Piper Aerostars and an impressive array of 1944 vintage yellow and black Douglas A-26 Invaders. There are, in fact, 18 Invaders, making this the largest privately owned Invader fleet in the world.


Sixteen were built in 1944 and are celebrating their golden anniversary this year; the other two are 1943 vintage. Two of them are wearing an attractive two-tone blue and white colour scheme and, with three others, are slated for operation in the Yukon at Whitehorse. Eleven are assigned to the Alberta Forest Service, and the remainder are available as spares and make-up groups, as required, during the regular fire season.


Walking through the old hangar we can see activity everywhere as the aircraft are made ready for the fire season just a few short weeks away. Air Spray's 18 full time engineers have been kept busy since the season ended last fall, inspecting, painting, repairing and overhauling the four CL-215s, 18 Invaders and support aircraft.  The CL-215's are owned by the Alberta Government but maintained and flown by Air Spray; the entire Invader fleet is maintained to the same high standard. This year, Air Spray also acquired an L-188 Electra, C-FQYB, in Brazil.


Overseeing the work are Bob Mains, Director of Maintenance, and Kirk Carleton, Chief Engineer. Operations Manager Gordon Peel is responsible for co-ordinating everything: pilots, aircraft, scheduling and Liaison-a substantial task when you consider that many of the 39 pilots reside anywhere from Vancouver island to Ontario in the off season. Chief Pilot Neal Fix and Training/Check Pilot Perry Dancause are responsible for the training, proficiency and flight checks of the pilots and for ensuring that all Transport Canada requirements are met.


Headquarters for Air Spray is at the Edmonton Municipal Airport in the Hamilton Aviation hangar. Owner Don Hamilton and his daughter Janis are both current in the company's Cessna 310s and 340s and are frequent visitors to Red Deer and the Air Tanker Bases (ATBs) around the province. This is also a busy time of the year for Don, Janis and the office staff.


Back at Red Deer, the two-day ground-school refresher training is underway. For the pilots who only fly during the fire season, it is a welcome review of aircraft systems, bombing procedures, air regulations, company and Forestry policies. For everyone it's also a good time to renew old friendships, catch up on the latest news and slide into an Invader cockpit, checklist in hand, to commune for a while.


The pilots will return later in small groups for refresher flying training, with priority being given to those who are scheduled to deploy on the earlier groups. To provide the most economical, effective firefighting capability in Alberta, a three-plane group deploys April 26, a four-plane group on May 20 and another four-plane group on June 1, each on a 93 day contract. Whenever possible, pilots are assigned the same aircraft each year, resulting in a kind of pilot-plane bonding. Air Spray has a six dual-control A-26s, and for awhile they’ll be kept busy.


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