Conair’s Convair airtankers have been supporting BC Wildfire Service for nearly 25 years parked at Penticton Airport and ready to go the moment a new fire erupts. This fire season will be their last.
Tanker 44, 49, and 55 will wrap up their deployment Sept. 6 and be officially retired after helping fight hundreds of wildfires and help stop flames before they get out of control.
Their last day will be Sept. 6 where long-time Convair pilot Grahame Wilson will be giving the air tankers and Penticton a proper farewell.
Wilson will do one final drop and fly over Penticton before the three planes will be flown to Abbotsford.
“It’s an end of an era,” said Shannon DeWit, communications manager for the Conair Group. “They have been a fixture in Penticton for a long time and a lot of people have an infinity to them. I’m sure people will appreciate a proper goodbye.”
However Conair will still be on guard at Penticton Airport with their new air tankers, the De Havilland Dash 8 Q400, which is very familiar to Penticton residents as the airliner that Westjet and Jazz use for flights to Calgary and back.
The Q 400 carries 25 per cent more retardant and cruises 100 mph faster than the Convair.
“The Okanagan will be well looked after,” she said.
Wilson flew a Convair 580 – tail number 44 – for about 10 years, taking it as far north as Anchorage and all the way down to Texas. Then he got, as he put it, “a new girlfriend” – another Convair, this one tail number 55. And now he’s getting set to say goodbye to the plane that has become a familiar sight in Penticton.
Retrofitted in the mid-60s as turbo props, the Convair planes carry a load of 8,000 litres of retardant and have a top speed of 300 MPH. While based in Penticton, the planes have the capacity to fight fires – quickly – throughout the entire Okanagan, up to Williams Lake and across the Kootenays.
They were used heavily during the 2021 wildfire season in South Okanagan with the Skaha fires, Nk’Mip and Thomas Creek.
The air tankers were converted from commercial airliners with all the luxury stripped out. The planes are a skeleton in the cabin, with everything designed to maximize the load the planes can carry.
The Corvairs still do the job as they offer excellent visibility and steep descent capability in B.C.’s mountainous terrain.
“The Convair is from the age before computers were designed. It’s extremely rugged and overbuilt for safety. If the Air Tractor is like a Swiss Army knife – can do anything – the Convair is like a sledgehammer. Anytime you have a plane with more power than you need, the pilot is happy,” explains pilot Anthony Ussher.
“Airplanes nowadays are quite automated, which just didn’t exist in the 1950s,” explains Wilson.
What Penticton will see in 2023
The new planes will have hydraulic steering and autopilot, where as the Convair planes are manual and the pilot is two hands on the wheel the whole time. “It’s like driving without power steering,” Wilson remarked.
And if you’re wondering what might happen to the planes, there’s some good news. Discussions are underway for one plane to be displayed at the Kelowna Flight Centre Museum and another at the BC Aviation Museum in Victoria.
The Convairs are scheduled to leave Penticton for the last time on Sept. 6, 2022, unless the contract with BC Wildfire Service needs to be extended.
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