Though they are in fact machines, each and every aircraft type, by virtue of its design, its purpose and its history, carries with it a unique signature which gives it its own personality. This personality, when coupled with the old adage that states that an airplane flies as good as it looks, can make an airplane a pilot favourite, a crowd favourite, or even a legend.
The Supermarine Spitfire wears a thoroughbred, aristocratic countenance that made it the poster-child for the Battle of Britain and by all pilot reports it flew as beautifully as it was designed. Despite all its history and success and its angry moniker, the Spitfire never exuded menace. It was an airplane to love, admire, rally round - but never to have nightmares about.
The P-51 Mustang looked and flew like an Indy racer - and its under-slung radiator scoop gave it a gunslinger appeal - like a holstered six shooter strapped to the leg of a sheriff. Speaking of gunfighters, the F-8 Crusader (nicknamed 'Gunfighter" by its pilots), with its gaping maw, its far forward cockpit and flying planes far to the back, just looked the part of a pilots' aircraft ... and was.
Then there is the whole genre of aircraft that simply look mean - for various reasons. The Messerschmitt Bf-109, with its warts, bulges, boxy canopy and big ass cannon-cored spinner looked about as mean and utilitarian as could be. The F-4 Phantom is a personal favourite, with its locomotive size, cranked wing and down-angled tail surfaces. Someone once said that the Phantom looked like the designers had it halfway out of the hangar when someone slammed to door on it. It exudes meanness and snarl. The more utilitarian a fighter appeared, the more menacing it seemed - the utility being death.
For my tastes, a whole slew of American twin-engined medium bombers from the Second World War fit right in that mean, badass category - the B-25 Mitchell, B-26 Marauder, the A-20 Havoc and the A-26 Invader named the B-28 postwar. Their names alone save the Mitchell (which was named to honour Billy Mitchell) convey their abilities down low - Marauder, Invader, Havoc. An image of nasty, vile-smelling, fast-riding Mongol or Vandal hoards overrunning a small village on the Steppes comes to mind.
Only one of the three lived on as a bomber into the 1990s - the A-26 Invader - as a highly capable, highly maneuverable, low-level, forest fire bomber capable of operating in and out of tight situations with a reasonable payload of fire retardant. It must have been superb at this job, for two of the great Canuck fire-fighting outfits - Air Spray and Conair - flew them for decades and kept their mystique alive.
Recently I had a chance to chat over the telephone with 86 year-old Don Hamilton, the founder of Air Spray (let it be know, I found him at the office at 86) about the capabilities of the A-26 Invader as a fire bomber and why they chose to own 17 of them over the years (there are several Central American air forces that would envy those numbers). Firstly, Don explained, they were cheap to acquire for they had limited use as anything else. There was a company that overhauled A-26s to turn them into executive transports, but turbines and jets soon made that idea a short-lived one.
During the Second World War, the B-26 was in fact another aircraft - the Martin Marauder. Invader aircraft built and deployed during the war were known as A-26 (the A standing for Attack). After the war, the Marauder was taken out of service and the Invaders, which continued on for a decade claimed the B designation. Air Spray pilots and maintainers have always called them B-26s
Once fitted with a water/retardant reservoir in the bomb bay, they could carry 1,000 gallons of liquid which could be released instantly with hydraulic doors. They were darn fast too, with cruise of 230 knots and a top end at 300. Their big Twin Wasps were relatively reliable, and the pilots loved to fly the Invader as they were definitely high performance.
Recently a couple of photos were sent to me showing an Invader in an RCAF-esque camouflage paint scheme flying with a Harvard done up like a Spitfire. Frankly, though their markings do not reflect historical fact (Canada never operated A-26s for instance), they look darn sharp. Armed with these few photos that came from the owner of the two aircraft, Manitoba entrepreneur Ross Robinson, I scoured the web to find other images of the Invader from past lives, talked to a few folks, sweet-talked some international photographers to let us use their images and was able to mash together this photo history of the Invader from Manitoba.
invader Serial Number 44-34778 (Construction Number 28057) was built by Douglas Aircraft at their Tulsa, Oklahoma factory. Number 44-34778 was apparently part of a construction lot (44-34754 to 44-34775) which had its contract canceled, but many were completed and sold on civil market. This aircraft was sold to the Raytheon Manufacturing Co. of Bedford, Massachusetts (Registered N67943). Raytheon operated a number of the type to test radars and missiles in the decades following the war. After her service with Raytheon, she was purchased by Air Spray, a much-respected forest fire fighting enterprise based in Red Deer, Alberta. Rathyeon, at the time of sale to Air Spray, had indicated that it was an ex-US Navy airframe. Today, C-GWLT operated by Manitoban entrepreneur Ross Robinson, wears the impressive but spurious markings of postwar Canadian Sabres of 439 Sabretooth Tiger Squadron. Looks cool, so, if you want it to be authentic, then get your own Invader. Photo by Andy Graf
When Don Hamilton went out to the Boston area in 1974 to pick up the A-26, he brought two Air Spray mechanics and a trailer with a spare engine as the Invader he was about to buy was an engine short. The seller was Raytheon Manufacturing of Bedford, Massachusetts and for years, they owned a pair of the bombers for testing missile and radar systems. How these aircraft were employed by Raytheon was of little interest to Don, and seeing that he had to pass heavy security on a civilian airfield, it was best not to ask anyway.
Raytheon had acquired the Invader from the United States Navy who, after the Second World war, took 150 surplus A-26s (designating them JD-1
s) for use by land-based utility squadrons as target tugs and later, drone directors (designated JD-1D
) and general utility aircraft. In 1962, the JD-1 and JD-1D were re-designated UB-26J
It took about two weeks in Boston to get the engine on and tested, and then Don and his copilot few the Invader to Chino California, via West Virginia, and Elko, Nevada where they took pains to enjoy the local lifestyle.
The earliest photo of C-GWLT that I can find comes via the Warbird Registry website. In this photo she appears to have a slightly different Air Spray scheme than the following photo with light blue cowling flaps, with different fuselage and nacelle cheatlines. Air Spray purchased and registered C-GWLT on May 13, 1975, so perhaps this dates from that time. If anyone can shed light on the inscription beneath the cockpit glazing, I would appreciate an e-mail - thank you Bill Ewing, who tells is that it says Portage La Prairie beneath the cockpit.
In Chino, it was fitted with fire-bombing equipment and flown north to Red Deer, Alberta where it was registered as C-GWLT. For the first months of its life, painted in a two-tone blue paint scheme, C-GWLT operated from Air Spray's bases in the Yukon Territory as Invader 7. Air Spray's main base in the Yukon was at Whitehorse, but they also operated from Dawson City, Watson Lake and Ross River.
Pilots who flew her requested that she get a new tail number that reflected her days in the Yukon and chose "98" in reference to the famous "Trail of 98" which fed gold-rushers from Skagway, Alaska up over the Chilkoot Pass and into the Klondike. in addition, Robert W. Service wrote a novel called The Trail of 98
, which immortalized the event. Old 98 was the logical number to commemorate her Yukon Service! It's reassuring that this reference to the Klondikers of the 19th century (and now her fire bombing history) is still maintained by Ross Robinson, her new owner.
An early shot of "old 98" at Red Deer by Wild Bill Ewing shows a close-up of the Trail of 98 nickname on the nose of C-FWLT - the source of her later tail number. Beneath that is the Territorial badge of the Yukon. Photo by Bill Ewing
Today, Ross Robinson, an enthusiastic warbird aficionado and proud supporter of the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg, continues to put his home St. Andrews airfield on the warbird map. We applaud his efforts and would welcome that badass old airplane of his to invade, pillage and conquer the warbird world.
Below, you will find a number of photographs that help tell the rich history of this powerful and historic aircraft. Read on.
Here we see Air Spray A-26 Invader C-GWLT and a sister ship in an later two-tone blue livery at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory on August 9th, 1992. Later, Air Spray Ltd would paint their large fleet of Invaders a much more visible bright, school bus yellow. Photo Pete Davis
Another Canadian operator of the Invader was British Columbia's Conair - Air Spray purchased some of their Invaders when that company switched to Grumman Firecats (A Tracker equipped for firefighting). Here we see an example of a Conair liveried Invader outside at the British Columbia Aviation Museum at Sidney, BC
From the History section of the Air Spray website comes this lovely photo of C-GWLT (No. 98) warming her engines outside the Air Spray hangar. For more information on this innovative and much-respected forest fire fighting company visit their website.
You know you have badass airplane when someone chooses to make a model of it. Here, Geoff McDonell executes a superb 1/72nd scale rendition of Air Spray's Invader 98 in her original two-blue scheme. Photo and model by Geoff McDonell
Another angle of McDonell's model and we see just how big the Invader's props were. Photo and model by Geoff McDonell
Not only do Canadians and model aficionados understand the beauty of the much loved C-GWLT, but the ubiquitous Philippines mahogany aircraft model machine has created one for sale, should you need a desktop model.
Invader C-GWLT touches down in this rare operational shot from its later life. Photo by Dennis Deagle
With such a slim waistline, it's hard to see much of a payload for fire retardant. This ground test of bomb bay doors on one of the other Air spray invader reveals a considerable quantity of water mixed with retardant. - 1,000 gallons to be exact. Also, to see a hilarious video of some visitors getting a surprise dunking from another Air Spray Invader, click here. Photo by Michael Besenthal at http://www.bessential.be/fire
Wrapped and without her propellers, she is photographed in August 2004. AirNikon Collection, Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, AZ
C-GWLT is sealed up tight against the tendency of starlings to nest in any available crevice. We can see that at this time she still had her port propeller attached. Photo by Ralph M. Petterson taken on August 21st, 2004
The line up of Invaders at Red Deer was a mandatory stop for warbird enthusiasts and aviation photographers from all over the world. Photographed in August of 2004 by Ralph M. Petterson
More than a year later on September 18th, 2005, not much had changed in her situation or her condition. Photo by Ralph M. Petterson
A superb shot of Invader C-GWLT at Red Deer, Alberta awaiting her future in 2007. The little black starling perched on her starboard propeller seems un-intimidated by the big yellow bird. Photo by Dietmar Schreiber - www.vap-group.at
Pulling back from the proceeding photo we are given a good view of the Invader's massive 53.5 foot wingspan and mid-body cantilevered wing. The starling still is unperturbed. Dietmar Schreiber - www.vap-group.at
It looks like the plastic wrap that once sealed her port engine from starling invasion has been removed and her starboard propeller has been reattached - perhaps in anticipation of her sale to Ross Robinson. Dietmar Schreiber - www.vap-group.at
A beautiful shot at St. Andrews Airport in Manitoba, north of Winnipeg. Seemingly modeled after the paint scheme found on 439 Squadron Sabres of the 1950s, a closer look tells us more. Instead of the Canadian Red Ensign that was our flag back then, we see that Robinson, a proud Manitoban, has substituted the present day Manitoba ensign. And a nod to her days with Air Spray can be found in her fuselage numerals - 098.
Another view of C-GWTL sitting outside the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg reminds one of the old description of the Bristol Beaufighter - "a fuselage in hot pursuit of two engines". Photo by Pierre Victor, France
Ross Robinson sent us this photo of his Harvard leading his Invader across a lake. Photo via Ross Robinson
A nice shot of Ross Robinson's other warbird. The Harvard is CF-WWO/C-FWWO, c/n CCF4-52, ex-RCAF 20261, owned by Walt & Eva Lannon (hence the EV squadron code) from 1981 to 2006, and sold to Ross Robinson/Air Ross Inc., Calgary, on 19 May 06. Prior to its sale to the other side of the mountains, CF-WWO had been a warbird in B. C. from 1968 - 2006. Photo via Ross Robinson
The extremely long wing of the B-26 Invader is evident in this image taken June 6th, 2009 at the Canadian Forces days Air Show, Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. Photo: Paul Linton, Flickr