From baseball stars to forest fires: Southeast Fire Centre water bomber has an interesting past

Tanker 489 in action. Photo: BC Wildfire Service
The Kay-O was the Los Angeles Dodgers team plane for most of the 1960s. Photo: Lockhead Martin
The Kay-O was immortalized in the form of a model airplane. Photo: HM HobbyMaster
Tanker 489 in action. Photo: BC Wildfire Service

There’s a new bird in the skies above Castlegar and it has an interesting history.

The Lockhead Electra water bomber contracted to the Southeast Fire Centre hasn’t always been putting out fires. It once carried the Los Angeles Dodgers from game to game.

Lockhead built 170 L-188 Electras in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The plane with the serial number of 1006 was originally owned by the General Motors Corporation. But Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had his heart set on an Electra for his team’s plane and offered to purchase the almost new plane from the corporation.

The plane would serve the team from 1962-70, carrying players and management to the 1963, 1965 and 1966 World Series and bringing them home as world champions in 1963 and 1965. Some of the most famous players from those years were Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton.

The plane underwent an extensive remodel to suit the team that included four bunks, six card tables, a lounge area, 66 seats and custom designed carpeting featuring baseball bats and balls.

During those years, the plane was known as the Kay-O, after O’Malley’s wife Kay.

The Kay-O was even immortalized in the form of a model airplane.

Eventually the Dodgers moved on to a new plane and the Electra was once again converted to serve as a passenger plane for a series of commercial airlines ending with Mandala Airlines in Indonesia.

That is where Neil Fix and wildfire suppression company Air Spray come into the picture.

In 1995, Fix flew to Indonesia on behalf of Air Spray to pick up the Electra.

The plane was converted into an airtanker that holds 3,000 US gallons of fire retardent and can land on paved or compact gravel runways.

Since then, the plane has helped put out fires across the province on contract with the BC Wildfire Service in areas such as Castlegar, Penticton, Prince George, Williams Lake, Kamloops and Prince George.

“But Castlegar is her favourite home,” said Fix, who has been the primary captain of the plane for most of its 25 years of fire suppression service.

When the plane, now known as Tanker 489, is contracted out to a fire centre, it comes with pilots, a maintenance team and a truck full of tools and parts.

Cristalle Fairbank, the other pilot stationed in Castlegar this year, happens to be the first female pilot of an Electra.

The former Dodgers plane is now the longest in-service airplane that Air Spray owns.

“It is very good at low-level operations and in the mountains of British Columbia,” said Fix. “It is a very useful airplane for getting large loads out quickly.

“It is very maneuverable and designed to work out of smaller airports and get off short runways.”

After more than 18 years of flying the plane, Fix has become very attached to it.

“She’s a very lovely plane, with a unique personality,” says Fix. “It is by far, everybody’s favourite.”

Tanker 489 will make Castlegar its home base until September, but may be moved around the province as required, depending on the nature and severity of the fire season.



betsy.kline@castlegarnews.com

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