Greybull’s Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting sheds light on planes’ past

Grainger Russell

Before its closure in the early 2000s, Hawkins and Power Inc. sent out planes filled with fire retardant and water to combat forest fires; however, the planes weren’t always used for fighting fires. Those planes, which can still be seen at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting in Greybull, have seen the hot flames and destruction of war, too: many of them are retired bombers and cargo planes from the Second World War.

During the war, such planes were invaluable to the U.S. Air Force, but when peacetime returned to America, the planes that were once invaluable sat idle. After buying the planes — whose propellor blades are larger than a full-grown adult — for pennies on the dollar, companies like Hawkins and Powers modified the aircraft to hold water and flame retardants, and fight fires too big for manpower alone to stop.

Resident expert Buzz Collingwood spends his summers educating visitors of the birds’ history alongside pilot Robert Hawkins, son of Dan Hawkins, the co-owner of Hawkins and Power, Inc.

“All of these planes have long history,” Collingwood explained. “After World War II, there were so many planes that weren’t getting used, so they would be turned into firefighting planes. We have a nicer set-up than most. There’s a C-119 that visitors can go into to really get a feel for them.”

As the museum’s curator, Hawkins feels a certain affinity to the machinery.

“The company was started in 1967 by Melvin [Mel] Christler. He bought a J-2 Taylor Cub and taught people around here to fly, then he partnered with Morris Avery and they started buying some of these bigger planes, [which] is how we started getting them,” Hawkins recalled. “There was a fire near Cody, so Mel talked the Forest Service into letting them go take a plane and dump water on the fire with it, and that’s kind of how they got into the firefighting business.”

After the business faced a series of accidents, Hawkins and Powers decided to shutdown the company in 2005. To preserve some of the aircraft for historical purposes, the Greybull Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting was established to educate future generations on the history of aerial firefighting.

“We always want it to be more, to be better. It needs more younger people to come in, they’re more energetic than me!” Hawkins said. “We’re trying to preserve firefighting history, which is still being made.”

The Berlin Airlift Foundation recently loaned a Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter to the museum, which Hawkins and Collingwood hope will be ready for display by next season.

Visit the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting Monday through Saturday, from 9am to 5pm, weather permitting, at 2534 Hiller Lane, from mid-May through October 1, 2024.