Sept. 22, 1970, was a hot, dry, windy day in Berkeley, Calif. It hadn’t rained since June — which is not abnormal in the Bay Area, where people with convertibles can put the top down in the spring and don’t have to worry about putting it back up until the rainy season starts in the fall — so the eucalyptus trees and brush were dry as a bone. But that day, something was clearly wrong.
I’d like to say I remember it well, but all I really recall is that there were huge billows of smoke rising from the hills above town. I knew that was a big deal, but I didn’t know how big a deal it was until I heard the distant roar of 4,800 horsepower as a B-17 came lumbering out of a cloud of yellow smoke, dropping that red stuff they always dump on forest fires.
This wasn’t as big as the Berkeley fire of 1923; nor as destructive as the fire that would sweep through the Oakland and Berkeley hills in 1991, killing 25 people and destroying 3,000 houses; and it certainly wasn’t as devastating as the wildfire that destroyed the whole town of Paradise, Calif., last year, ending the lives of 85 people.
But you don’t call in a B-17 unless you’re in serious trouble, and this 1970 fire destroyed about three dozen houses. The wind blew flaming debris and made containment of the fire really hard.
What got me thinking about all this stuff was the B-17 that crashed at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2, with the terrible loss of seven lives. So I decided to look into its history. As it turns out, B-17 #44-83575 — first called Yucca Lady and later renamed Nine-O-Nine — was built for Boeing in Long Beach, Calif., by the Douglas Aircraft Company and delivered to Uncle Sam on April 7, 1945.
Too late to serve in World War II, #44-83575 instead saw service of a different sort during the Cold War, when (according to her last owner, the Collings Foundation, which operated the ship for years as part of its “Wings of Freedom” tour) she was subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions, something the government liked to do in those days.
After a thirteen-year “cool down” period (not that whatever radiation Nine-O-Nine had absorbed would have gone away in 13 years; more likely it was simply that people would have forgotten about that little detail after 13 years), #44-83575 was sold for scrap and then underwent a ground-up restoration. Damage to the aluminum skin was repaired, the engines were rebuilt, the wiring and instruments were replaced. Now she was ready for her next career: For two decades she would serve in the war against forest fires by dropping water and that red stuff on them.
Which naturally makes me wonder whether maybe — just maybe — the retired Flying Fortress I saw that day in Berkeley could have been the Yucca Lady, alias the Nine-O-Nine, which so sadly ended her service in Windsor Locks.
I’ll never know.
Finally, this, from the Collings Foundation:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley.”
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com