Many of the WW2 vintage bomber and transport aircraft flown by today’s warbird community can be traced back to a small group of firefighting and spray outfits that operated them well into the 1980’s. If it were not for companies such as Black Hills Aviation, Globe Air, Christler-Avery Aviation, Hawkins & Powers, Aero Union and Christler Flying Service most, if not all, of these aircraft would have been lost to the scrapper’s blade. B-17, B-18, PB4Y-2, B-25, F7F, TBM and Constellations were all bought for pennies on the dollar at military surplus auctions and converted to their new roles as sprayers and firebombers. The companies were typically small, family run enterprises that worked the aircraft hard and provided the “time bridge” which saw them evolve from just so much worthless junk to prized historic relics.
I recently interviewed Mr. Mel Christler at his home in east Texas. During his long career, Mel owned and operated PB4Y-2 Privateers, B-25 Mitchells, B-18 Bolos, C-121A Constellations and an assortment of other classic prop aircraft on spraying and firefighting operations. The MATS Connie, Dutch Aviodome Connie and Columbine II are three aircraft that once were owned and operated by Mel. In addition, many of the surviving Privateers operated by Hawkins and Powers can be traced back to Christler-Avery Aviation, a small spraying operation run by Mel and his partner, Morris Avery. Mel’s flying career began in 1936 in Michigan where he soloed in 1937 and earned his pilots license (#39164) in 1938. Shortly thereafter, he and his brother flew their 40-hp Taylor Cub, NC16310, from Michigan to the family owned Castle Rock Ranch in Cody, Wyoming. In the fall of 1940, Mel added his commercial and flight instructor ratings at Billings, Montana. By this time, it was obvious that the United States would eventually enter the war and the government established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPT). For six months, beginning in March 1941, Mel instructed for the CPT in Piper Cubs at Colorado Springs, Colorado. In September 1941, he joined Embry Riddle at Dorr Field in Arcadia, Florida and instructed for two and a half years in Stearman’s. Although he was still a civilian, he rose from instructor to flight commander during this time. Mel joined the USAAF in 1944 and flew C-109’s on the Hump between India and China from January to November 1945. The C-109 was a cargo version of the B-24 bomber and was used to fly gasoline to China based B-29 units flying bombing missions to Japan. The C-109 was not very popular with the flight crews who referred to them as “C-Dash-Crash” and “Charlie-Boom” for their propensity to blow up unexpectedly.
In early 1946, after being discharged from the army, Mel teamed up with Robert (Bud) Watson and formed Big Horn Flying Service which was based out of Greybull, Wyoming. Mel and Bud provided flight instruction in Cubs and Wacos until 1950 when Mel and Morris Avery formed Christler-Avery Aviation, which was also based at Greybull. They began operations with two war-surplus B-18 Bolos and eventually added two B-25 Mitchells, four PB4Y-2 Privateers, three Super Cubs, a Northrop Delta and three helicopters. Their main source of revenue was US Forest Service contracts spraying for grasshoppers, sagebrush, fire ants and spruce budworms. The four Privateers were purchased at auction from the US Coast Guard at Elizabeth City, North Carolina in 1958 and were joined by a spares airplane shortly thereafter. The four were fitted with tanks at Greybull for spraying operations during the winter of 1958-59. To mount the bomb bay tanks, Mel and Morris dug a trench and installed the tanks from below. They removed the top gun turret and, since they didn’t have a crane, installed the additional tank using a helicopter. Morris had recently received his helicopter license and the tank was attached to the end of a 100-foot cable. With Mel guiding it, they carefully picked up the tank and lowered it into the aircraft using their helicopter. Later on, the Privateers were fitted with additional tanks and converted to firebombers.
In 1961 Mel went to work for the Empire State Oil Company as a corporate pilot and sold his interest in Christler-Avery Aviation to Morris Avery, who continued operations as Avery Aviation Inc. In addition to flying a Cessna 310 for Empire State, Mel formed Christler Flying Service (CFS) that same year and purchased his first DC-3, N62374, from West Coast Airlines in 1963. The DC-3 was fitted with sprayer booms and began its long career with CFS. Mel flew the 310, and later a QueenAire and Jet Commander, for Empire State until 1970 when they shut down their flight department and he decided to devote his full attention to CFS. DC-3 N62374 was fitted with a 1,000-gallon belly tank for use as a firebomber. Mel designed the system and the tank could be removed or installed in less than an hour. It was successfully flight tested in 1963 and the FAA issued an STC but the design was never approved by the Department of Agriculture for use on their contracts. Mel is still puzzled over this since they had been kept abreast with the design and testing program and seemed to be very interested in its capability. It’s interesting to note that, forty years later, the Basler BT-67 turboprop DC-3 conversion is in service as a fire-bomber. The picture of Mel’s DC-3 taken in Cody, Wyoming in 1963 looks almost identical to the picture of Basler’s aircraft on their webpage.
During the early 1970’s, the U.S. Air Force was disposing of many prop aircraft and, in May 1970, five ex-Special Air Mission VC-121A’s (48-609, 48-610, 48-612, 48-615 and 48-617) were offered for sale at auction at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. Mel was looking for a suitable aircraft to allow him to bid on a Department of Agriculture fire ant eradication program and his “all or none” bid for the five aircraft was successful. Unbeknownst to him at the time, one of the aircraft he purchased was Columbine II (48-610). This aircraft had mysteriously acquired a L1049 Super Connie main landing gear assembly during its stay at Davis Monthan and Mel decided to use it as his “spares” airplane to keep the other flying. Thirty years later, Mel thinks he might have put a “monkey wrench” into someone’s plan for Columbine II. While one of the bidders had submitted a suspiciously high bid for this particular aircraft, Mel’s overall bid for the five aircraft was the highest and got the award.
The five Connies were in pretty sad shape, with parts missing, when Mel towed them to the Desert Air Parts yard adjacent to Davis Monthan AFB. Prior to submitting his bid, Mel had located a cache of surplus Connie parts in Tucson through a Trade-A-Plane ad. These parts, along with the many parts available from former airline stores provided ample supplies for Mel to operate the four aircraft. He told me that he would not have bid on the aircraft had it not been for the spares he located through Trade-A-Plane. One by one, each airplane was brought back to airworthy condition and flown out using a short 1,700-foot unpaved runway adjacent to Davis Monthan AFB. Back in the 1970’s, the Air Force would not allow the use of its long 13,600-foot runway but the lightly loaded Connies were off in less than 1,000 feet with plenty of room to spare!
N9466 (48-615) was the first aircraft to depart Davis Monthan and was flown to Twin Falls, Idaho where grain hoppers and hydraulically actuated augers were installed for the dispersion of the dry bait used on the fire ant program. Mel had hired a local Tucson company to get it airworthy and it took six months for them to get it ready for the ferry flight. After his unpleasant experience with N9466, Mel decided to bring his own mechanics to Tucson and N9465 (48-612) and N9467 (48-617) were made ready for their ferry flights in only six weeks. Both aircraft had hoppers installed by CFS at their base in Thermopolis, Wyoming. The fourth aircraft, N9464 (48-609) was never converted for the fire ant work and remained unairworthy at Tucson along with the spares airplane, N9463 (48-610). The Connies were not well suited for dry material and never achieved the dispersion Mel was hoping for. In the end, the four-engine Connies performed only marginally better than the two-engine DC-3.
After only two years, the supposed twelve-year fire ant program was cancelled due to environmental concerns. About this time, the Province of Quebec in Canada was looking for a solution to its spruce budworm problem and Mel’s Connies looked like the perfect solution. Since only three of the aircraft were airworthy at this time, Mel and his son Lockie loaded their pickup with tools and equipment and headed to Tucson to get the fourth aircraft, N9464, ready for a ferry flight to Casper, Wyoming. On their way to Tucson, they made an out of the way stop in Alamogordo, New Mexico to see Mel’s good friend Arnold Kolb, who operated Black Hills Aviation. Arnold loaned them five of his mechanics and they had N9464 ready for the flight in two weeks! She joined the other three aircraft in Casper, Wyoming where work had been underway removing the dry pellet systems and installing two 1,800-gallon internal tanks and sprayer bars along the trailing edge of the wing. The converted aircraft could carry 3,500-gallons of insecticide and were ideally suited for spraying operations. Flown at two to three hundred feet above the forest, they were capable of laying down a 3,000-foot wide swath of insecticide on each run of up to sixty miles. Mel claims that the Connies were the finest aircraft ever operated on spraying operations due to their stability and dispersion capability. With their hydraulically boosted controls, they could be flown for periods in excess of eight hours with minimal crew fatigue. In addition to the work in Canada, these aircraft were flown extensively throughout the United States on spraying contracts.
Perhaps the highlight of these operations occurred when all four Connies were flown on a grasshopper spraying job at Moses Lake, Washington. They were flown 750 feet apart in echelon formation and must have been quite a sight! Mel expressed his regret at not having taken some pictures of this truly unique event. While the Connies worked the main area, two DC-3’s were used to spray around the edges. This was the only time all four Connies were flown in formation. In addition to spraying, one of the Connies, N9466, was used in 1976 for the filming of the movie MacArthur. It was painted in full SCAP colors and it remained in that paint scheme for the remainder of its flying days at Christler.
During the summer of 1977, Mel was spraying for Dengue Fever in Puerto Rico with Connie N9465 and a DC-3 when, on the last flight of the contract, an inept flight engineer “trashed” the #1 and #2 engines. Mel searched for suitable spares and, at one time, considered L749A N1206, a long time resident of Salina, Kansas. He had worked a deal to trade a Cessna 172 for the Connie but ultimately decided against the deal because the engines would have had to been modified to accept the Curtis electric props installed on N9465. He then contacted Wright Aircraft in New Jersey where he was told they had two zero-timed engines that had been overhauled for a South American airline. The airline had shipped the engines to New Jersey but had never claimed them after overhaul and Wright was about ready to trash them. Mel quickly worked a deal and was able to purchase the two zero-time R3350 engines for a total of $700! The engines were installed in September 1978 and the aircraft departed Puerto Rico for the last time.
By 1978, it had become increasing harder to find spare parts for the old Connies and, Mel decided to retire the four active aircraft. Three aircraft, N9464, N9465 and N9467, were sold to Beaver Air Spray in Canada in April 1979 as C-GXKO, C-GXKR and C-GXKS. The fourth, N9466, was ferried to Miami in January 1979 and sold to the Dominican operator ARGO SA as HI-328. As part of the deal with the Canadians, Mel agreed to work with them to get their operation up and running and was actively involved for a number of years. Shortly after arriving in Canada, one of the aircraft, C- GXKS, was lost in a landing accident on June 21, 1979. It had experienced the failure of one of its hydraulic systems and, after landing long and hot, it rolled off the end of the runway and was destroyed. Luckily, there was no fire and all of the crewmembers escaped unharmed. A few days later, while a crew was salvaging the wreckage, a spark ignited the fuel and the aircraft was completely destroyed by fire. Although at the time of the accident the aircraft was carrying the markings C-GXKS, the official paperwork had not made it through the Canadian bureaucracy and the aircraft was still officially registered N9467.
The two surviving Canadian aircraft were registered C-GXKO and C-GXKR and were transferred to Conifair Aviation in January 1980 where they were operated on spruce budworm spraying contracts. Conifair operated the two aircraft until 1984, when they essentially ran out of spare parts and replaced the Connies with DC-6’s. It’s interesting to note that these aircraft had Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) installed and the flight crews flew their runs using this equipment. Mel said that it was like flying a VOR or ILS….just keep the needle centered and you were on the correct track.
In addition to operating the Connies, CFS was involved in a number of other operations at Thermopolis. They operated, at least, fifteen DC-3’s on spraying and Forest Service smoke jumper contracts. In 1972, Mel bid on two Forest Service contracts figuring he might win one. One contract was in Alaska and the other in Missoula, Montana and, to his surprise, he won both. He had to quickly obtain an additional six DC-3’s to supplement the original he had purchased in 1963. CFS operated an FAA approved engine overhaul shop for Pratt and Whitney R1830 engines and, over a twenty-year period, overhauled engines for their DC-3 fleet, and for other customers. In addition to the engine work, CFS operated an FAA approved DC-3 repair station where they performed major repairs, modifications and inspections. The DC-3’s were also flown on freight charters and, for a two-year period in the 1970’s, CFS operated a Part 121 scheduled freight run from Salt Lake City, Utah to Denver, Colorado. DC-3’s remained part of the CFS fleet until the final one was disposed of in 1980.
In 1980 Mel got a call from Robert Mikesh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum asking him if he was aware that his “spares” Connie (N9463/48-610), still stored in Tucson, was Columbine II, Dwight Eisenhower’s first presidential Constellation. By this time, the airplane was on its tail with most useful components long donated to its working sisters. Mel felt terrible about what had happened to this historically significant aircraft and set out to remedy the situation. In October 1985 Mel and Lockie attended the Globe Air auction in Mesa, Arizona and successfully bid ($5,000) on Columbine’s sistership, N608AS (ex-C-121B, 48-608). The plan was to ferry N608AS to Ryan Field in Tucson and use its parts for the restoration of Columbine. The effort to get N608AS ready for the short ferry flight began when Mel and Lockie teamed up with Mel’s nephew Cory Brummond, Tom Woodward and Tom’s brother. Although twelve engines were included in the bid, only one was installed on the airplane and the team eventually wound up building up all four engines used for the flight. With the aircraft now airworthy, its final flight to Ryan Field was made and it was eventually stripped of its usable parts for the restoration. This aircraft, historically significant in itself, was built in the same batch as the others but did not have a cargo door. It was originally named “Dewdrop” and was to be President Dewey’s presidential airplane. When Harry Truman won the 1948 election and chose a DC-6/VC-118 as his presidential airplane, the name Dewdrop was removed and the Connie was assigned to the USAF’s VIP squadron at National Airport in Washington, DC. Sadly, it was scrapped at Ryan Field in January 2002.
Harry Oliver entered the picture in the summer of 1989 and the restoration of Columbine II began in late 1989. After completion of the restoration in April 1990 Columbine II toured the United States in 1990 and 1991 and is currently stored in Santa Fe, New Mexico in near-airworthy condition. (See Propliner issue #91) Mel and Harry would very much like to see this historical aircraft preserved in a museum for future generations to see. One would think that the perfect home for this aircraft would be the Smithsonian’s soon-to-be-open Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport but little interest has been expressed by the museum.
Of the five C-121A aircraft purchased by Mel in 1970, Columbine and two others survive. The famous MATS Connie, N474TW, operated by the Constellation Group out of Avra Valley, Arizona is currently airworthy and flies regularly on the U.S. airshow circuit. N749NL, a longtime resident of Avra Valley, was recently restored by the Dutch Aviodome Museum and flew from Arizona to Holland in September 2002. (See Propliner issue #92) It is currently being painted in late 1940’s KLM colors at KLM’s paint facility at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. If the Aviodome Museum can obtain serviceable Curtis electric props for this aircraft, they plan on flying it on the European airshow circuit.
A number of other vintage aircraft, including some of the few remaining PB4Y-2 Privateers and the Castle AFB Museum B-18, owe their survival to Mel Christler. Mel is very humble about his accomplishments and, although he appreciates that these aircraft are very special, he also realizes that they were the tools of his trade. We all owe a debt of gratitude to this man for saving what little is left of a bygone era. His life-long accomplishments were recognized by the State of Wyoming on June 12, 1999 when he was inducted into that state’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
Constellations Operated by CFS
DC-3’s Operated by CFS
- 48-609 c/n 2601 – N9464, C-GXKO, N494TW – Currently airworthy and flying as the MATS Connie
- 48-610 c/n 2602, N9463, Columbine II – Currently stored in near-airworthy condition at Santa Fe, New Mexico
- 48-612 c/n 2604 – N9465, C-GXKR, N749VR, N749NL – Currently being painted by KLM at Schiphol Airport, The Netherlands where it was flown to in September 2002. Needs a set of Curtis electric props.
- 48-615 c/n 2607 – N9466, HI-328 – Crashed on approach to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands on October 26, 1981
- 48-617 c/n 2609 – N9467, C-GXKS – Destroyed in landing accident at Riviere du Loup, Quebec, Canada on June 21, 1979
I would like to thank Mel Christler and his wife Carol for the hospitality they showed on my visit and Mel for his patience on my many post-interview emails with questions. Mels son, Lockie Christler, also provided a wealth of detail about CFS operations.
- N344 c/n 19234 – purchased, together with N51041, for a smoke jumper contract at Redmond, OR
- N498 c/n 1903 – purchased for use as a sprayer
- N520 c/n 11851 – purchased for the Alaska smoke jumper contract. Originally leased from Remert-Werner and later purchased
- N12CA c/n 12332 – leased for the summer to replace N51041 at Redmond, OR after that aircraft was destroyed by fire at Redmond
- N101KC c/n 11639 – purchased for a Forest Service contract hauling firefighters. Based at Wanatchee, OR
- N101SF c/n 11674 – leased for the smoke jumper contract at Missoula, MT
- N2204S c/n 12798 – purchased, together with N86462, for a smoke jumper contract at Redmond, OR. Had previously been used for smoke jumper work and hauling turkeys and later converted to a sprayer
- N19922 c/n 4135 – purchased as a sprayer
- N51041 c/n19851 – purchased, together with N344, for a smoke jumper contract at Redmond, OR. Destroyed by fire at Redmond
- N62374 c/n 12534 – first DC-3 purchased and used as a sprayer. Later, used on the Alaska smokejumper contract
- N64766 c/n 27218 – leased for the smoke jumper contract at Missoula, MT
- N64767 c/n 10199 – leased for the smoke jumper contract at Missoula, MT
- N86462 c/n 19581 – purchased, together with N2204S, for a smoke jumper contract at Redmond, OR. Had previously been used for smoke jumper work and hauling turkeys
- N? - Wright powered aircraft leased from Basler for one summer in Missoula, MT. This was the only Wright powered R1820 DC-3 operated by CFS. All others were powered by P&W R1830 engines.
- N? - Leased for smoke jumper operations.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Mel Christler, Harry Oliver, Günter Grondstein, Carl Kramer, Bo-Goran Lundkvist, Ralph M. Pettersen
The Lockheed Constellation Series, Peter J. Marson, Air-Britain Publication, 1982
The Douglas DC-3 and its predecessors, J.M.G Gradidge, Air-Britain Publication, 1984
By Mel Christler - 1990In the early part of 1970, five C-121A type aircraft were up for sealed bid at Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ. The US Department of Agriculture, after ten years of trying to control fire ants in the Southwest, decided to eradicate the little buggers over a twelve-year period. It seemed like a reasonable idea to think about operating the C-121A on the fire ant work as they had large cargo doors and were capable of hauling 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of fire ant bait. After being awarded all five aircraft and towing them off the base to an area where they could be made ready to ferry, it was several weeks before the first one was ready to be taken to Twin Falls where Pete Lazeros installed a large grainery like hopper with an auger along the bottom that emptied into augers that extended the full length of the wings all operated by hydraulic motors.
In the late summer of 1970, we were awarded a small contract in Mississippi to check the feasibility of the aircraft and equipment. The aircraft flew real well and was easy to handle as all controls were hydraulically boosted. The hopper system had a few bugs and the swath was somewhat disappointing but it looked like over the winter most everything could be remedied. So the following fall, we were back in Mississippi with three rigs (aircraft) and a good sized area with twenty to thirty mile runs. All in all the Constellation did not lend itself well to dry material as we were never able to get a satisfactory swatch to justify the four engine airplane of that size.
The C-121A is a Lockheed Constellation with four Wright R3350 uncompounded engines of 2,500 HP and a three-man crew consisting of a pilot, copilot and flight engineer. As mentioned, the controls are all boosted and you can fly all day and not be tired. The engineer takes care of all engine and fuel details so the pilots can be outside all the time “tending the store”. Most of the time you are above all of the obstructions and it was a fun flying airplane. Some time in the winter of 1971 or 1972, we were contacted by the Quebec government in eastern Canada in regards to spraying for the Spruce Bud Worm. In the winter all the fire ant equipment was removed and two 1,800-gallon tanks were installed in each of the four aircraft. The fifth aircraft (48-610) was not converted to ag work and we used it for spares.
The Connie was really a fine spray airplane. It hauled 3,500 gallons and Canada worked it on a 3,000-foot swatch and it was not uncommon to have fifty to sixty mile runs. The Quebec government installed an inertial navigation system (INS) in each airplane. It was kind of like flying an ILS where you had to keep the needle centered. The airplane held its momentum well and was easy to control with most of the time you were cross wind and 200-300 feet above the trees to get a 3,000 foot swath. At first, a 3,000-foot swath seemed almost impossible but after two or three passes as you were flying back into the sun (the spray had red dye in it) you could see the entire area was in a red hue. It filled in completely. The Canadians were wonderful to work with and all the bases were set up about the same with up to thirty 1,000-gallon tanks for mixing. You could load four Connies at one time with two to three inch hoses and be off again in ten to fifteen minutes. It was not uncommon to spray three to five million acres with four Connies in three to five weeks depending on the weather each spring. It was a fun time.
The spraying in Canada was completed about the time grasshoppers started here in the States and one year we were awarded a one million acre job out of Moses Lake, Washington. It required four Connies and two DC-3’s. The area was pretty much square and we used the Connies in echelon formation with runs of thirty to forty miles. This was low volume spraying and the USDA allowed the Connies a 750 swath so it took four airplanes to get the same swath one wound up getting in Canada. We flew about 100 feet as most of it was open rangeland and you just eye balled it for navigation. We used the Connies for most of it and the DC’s cleaned up the rough edges. It was the only time we were able to use four Connies in formation and you know what? I never got one picture and I could cut my throat. Throughout the years we worked in most of the western states, Florida and the Southeast on mosquitoes. Sprayed all the towns in Puerto Rico one fall (1977). It was not hard to use 500 gallons of gas an hour working. The Connie held 5,800 gallons of gas, 50 gallons of oil in each engine and we would fly nonstop from Montreal to Casper, WY in nine to ten hours.
It has been ten years now since we sold the rigs (aircraft) in Canada and I still kind of miss it.
----Created 31 January 2004------Updated 9 March 2004----