A tale of air, water, and fire: A peek at the aeronautical activities of Hoffar Motor Boat Company of Vancouver, British Columbia, 1915-27, part 2
Greetings and salutations, my reading friend. You will of course remember how the first part of this article ended. Something about the beginning of a new phase in the aeronautical history of Hoffar Motor Boat Company of Vancouver, British Columbia. Are you ready? Let us begin.
Would you believe that, in 1909, William T. Cox, Assistant Forester of the United States Forest Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, allegedly wondered if aeroplanes could be of use in forest fire control? Yea, he allegedly did, after seeing a Wright biplane up in the air.
In July 1911, the supervisor of the newly created Selway National Forest, in Idaho, Frank Alfred Fenn, predicted that aeroplanes and wireless telegraphy / radio would soon play important roles in the protection of the great forests of western North America. That statesman / soldier / newspaper owner / lawyer / newspaper editor / conservationist was of the opinion that an aviator could survey in a few hours an area that 20 or so forest rangers would need a week to cover. Fires could therefore be detected earlier, and extinguished earlier, by ground-based teams of firefighters. Those teams would be alerted by wireless telegraphy or some other means, using message streamers for example.
While most foresters and forest supervisors tended to think that powered flight was too immature a technology to be of use, the forest supervisors of New Mexico and Arizona disagreed. Indeed, at their first annual meeting, held in Texas in November 1911, they resolved “that the use of aeroplanes for fire patrol be given consideration.”
On a more whimsical note, a forest ranger penned a poem entitled “Tomorrow’s Forest Fire” which came out in the February 1912, issue of The Sierra Ranger, a bulletin published by the staff of the Sierra National Forest, in California. John M. Farley waxed lyrical about the bold if unnamed pilot of a “fireoplane” whose chemical-filled bombs smothered a blaze after some hair-raising manoeuvres. Fighting forest fires from above would after all reduce the hard labour and many dangers associated with fighting forest fires from the ground, and…
You have a question, my puzzled reading friend? Will this second part of our article on Hoffar Motor Boat be devoted to aerial fire fighting? Yes, of course. What were you expecting? A peroration on cooking methods that employ live fire and smoke? Barbecue season is over, at least in the northern hemisphere, and this until 2024. Let us now return to the main thread of our story, shall we?
Yours truly would love to tell that the first aerial fire detection patrol took place in the summer of 1913, in California, near Los Angeles more specifically, and that the people involved were aviator Howard Gill and forest ranger S.V. Parnay. Sadly enough, that historic flight never happened.
This being said (typed?), in early January 1912, an Armenian American forest ranger by the name of Serope Yotnelpire Parnay, born Parnag, I think, had been chosen by his superior, the supervisor of the Angeles National Forest, in California, to join Howard Warfield Gill in an aerial jaunt designed to see whether or not aeroplanes could be useful in detecting forest fires. Parnay was deeply disappointed (or relieved?) when Rush H. Charlton informed him that the experiment had been postponed indefinitely, and this after he had written his last will and testament – and spent the better part of 2 days trying to get a large life insurance policy.
A brief digression if I may. Did you know that the… Charlton Flat picnic area, in California, was the location chosen to portray the village of Bozeman, Montana, where the brilliant and eccentric (physicist / mathematician?) Zefram Edark Cochrane met the crew of a Vulcan survey spaceship, in April 2063, a historic first contact for Earthlings, after meeting several senior officers of Starfleet’s time travelling U.S.S. Enterprise-E starship. (Hello, EP, EG and SB!) But back to our story.
As it turned out, the first aerial fire detection patrol on planet Earth might, I repeat might, have taken place somewhere in the western United States during the winter of 1912-13. The dynamic duo selected for that experiment had been in the air less than 10 minutes when they spotted a couple of fires in the distance. Unbeknownst to them, those small brush fires had been started deliberately to see if said duo would detect them. In any event, our aerial spotters promptly landed and reported their sightings. Better yet, the positions they reported matched the actual positions of the fires.
A thoroughly enthusiastic report of that successful experiment soon / eventually made its way to the main office of the United States Forest Service, in Washington, District of Columbia. And… nothing happened.
The idea of using aeroplanes to detect forest fires was certainly… in the air at the time, however. In the early fall of 1914, for example, the first State Forester of Minnesota, the aforementioned Cox, suggested that the United States War Department could provide several aeroplanes to see whether or not flying machines could be of use. Cox certainly thought so. A Norwegian American United States senator from Minnesota, a former governor of Minnesota in fact, Knute Nelson, born Knud Evanger, spoke to department officials on Cox’s behalf. Said officials did not say no but, in the end, nothing happened.
An American weekly newspaper, The Princeton Union of… Princeton, a small town in Minnesota, had this to say in May 1915:
It was a mistake on the part of the legislature not to provide General Forester Cox with a fleet of aeroplanes and Zeppelins for the suppression of forest fires. But it is barely possible that northern Minnesota may not all burn up before the next legislature convenes.
What was / is officially recognised as the first aerial fire detection patrol on planet Earth took place in late June 1915. The pilot involved in that historic flight was Logan Archbold “Jack” Vilas, the recently hired official aviator of the Wisconsin State Board of Forestry. That American pilot was at the controls of his personal Curtiss Model F flying boat, then based at Trout Lake, in… Wisconsin. And yes, the first State Forester of you know where, Edward Merriam Griffith, sat beside him on that historic day. Better yet, they spotted a forest fire. I kid you not.
Vilas went on to fly many times in… Wisconsin in June, July and August 1915. That independently wealthy gentleman did all that work on a volunteer basis. And yes, Vilas spotted at least one more forest fire.
It looked as if the Wisconsin State Board of Forestry continued to use at least one otherwise unidentified aeroplane during the 1916 and 1917 fire seasons. Yours truly cannot say who owned that machine, or who flew it. Sorry. This being said (typed?), said pilot could detect forest fires about 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) away.
Vilas’ flights did not go unnoticed. Nay. No later than August 1915, the State Land Commissioner of Idaho, George A. Day, urged the use of aeroplanes in his state, for example. The Secretary of the Public Domain Commission of Michigan, Augustus Caesar Carton, went one further around that time. He put forward the idea of dropping some sort of fire extinguishing compound on newly born fires, in order to contain them – the very essence of 21st century water bombing.
Officials in a few / several other states, among them state foresters or state land commissioners, or both, seemed equally interested. One only needed to mention the presentation made by the first Commissioner of the recently created Wisconsin Conservation Commission, at the annual meeting of the American Forestry Association held in Boston, Massachusetts, in January 1916. Vilas’ work during the previous summer was praised by Frank B. Moody.
One could also mention the reaction of a group of United States Forest Service people from several western states at a meeting held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 1916. They agreed with the Assistant Forester of their district, Arthur C. “Mac” McCain, in believing that trials should be held in their neck of the woods. This being said (typed?), the supervisor of the Beartooth National Forest, in Montana, Robert T. Ferguson, did not contemplate the use of aeroplanes in his own neck of the wood any time soon.
And then there was / is the following piece of news published with more or less details in 45 or so American and Canadian newspapers between January and April 1916, not to mention almost 15 Australian newspapers between April 1916 and January 1917: William Charles John Hall, superintendent of the Service de protection des forêts of the Ministère des Terres et Forêts of Québec, indicated that his service was going to use aeroplanes to locate forest fires.
Yours truly would not be exaggerating all that much if I told you I nearly fell off my beanbag chair when I read that. I had never heard of such a statement so early in the game. The tingling of my spidey senses led me on a quest to confirm that piece of news.
As it turned out, Hall had stated in the 1915 annual report of the Ministère des Terres et Forêts that aeroplanes would be very useful in detecting / locating forest fires. However, he also stated in that report tabled in January 1916 at the Assemblée législative du Québec by the minister responsible, the lawyer Louis-Jules Allard, that the cost of those aeroplanes would be prohibitive. Prohibitive at the moment that is. When that cost dropped to a sufficiently low level, the acquisition of several aeroplanes would be a good idea – or something to that effect.
Would you believe that the aforementioned Charlton apparently took part in an aerial fire detection patrol? In 1916, Charlton might, I repeat might, have joined a seasoned aeronaut in a (free or tethered?) balloon flight over / near the Angeles National Forest. He soon concluded, however, that balloons would not be useful in detecting forest fires.
In early June 1916, in Olympia, Washington, the State Board of Forest Commissioners, discussed the possibility of purchasing an aeroplane and hiring a pilot to fly it. The secretary of the board was asked to look into that possibility but nothing came of it.
In October of that year, in the United States, at an annual meeting of the Western Forestry and Conservation Association, in Portland, Oregon, an executive of a recently formed (July 1916) American firm read a paper drawn up by that firm’s president, who could not be present. Said president had written (typed?) that aeroplanes could definitely be of use in spotting forest fires in the northwestern United States. The executive was Edgar Nathaniel Gott. The firm was Pacific Aero Products Company. The absent president was a German American by the name of William Edward Boeing, born Wilhelm Eduard Böing. Yep, that Boeing.
At least one representative of an unidentified foreign country was present at that meeting. Yours truly would be willing to bet a few pennies, maybe perhaps even a nickel or two, that this foreign country was Canada.
Incidentally, the only Canadian forestry journal published at the time published an article by Boeing, “Finding Fires With Aeroplanes,” in its December 1916 issue. Indeed, Canadian Forestry Journal had published an article on Vilas’ activities in its April 1916 issue. That same monthly magazine published an article by the aforementioned Cox, “The Cost of Aerial Patrol,” in its March 1917 issue.
By the way, Cox’s article contained a brief analysis of the cost of a hypothetical team of 3 surveillance seaplanes responsible for an area of approximately 20 250 square kilometres (approximately 7 800 square miles) during a 6 month season, that is $ 12 430, a sum which corresponds to approximately $ 298 000 in 2023 currency. That team would have made possible a significant reduction of the size of ground-based surveillance teams. The amount of money thus saved was actually close to $ 25 900, a sum which corresponds to approximately $ 621 000 in 2023 currency, but I digress.
Interest in aerial fire fighting began to grow in Québec in 1917, possibly as a result of a meeting held in Montréal, Québec, in January, a meeting which had led to the creation of the Montreal Branch of the Canadian Division of the Aerial League of the British Empire. One of the topics discussed at the time and / or later was the roles aeroplanes could play in Canada after the First World War. And yes, the detection of forest fires was seemingly one of the roles mentioned.
In late March, that same Montreal Branch booked a large space in a posh hotel in Montréal for a presentation on “Aviation and its possibilities” by John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, a gentleman who, as we both know, had made the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered aeroplane on Canadian soil, back in February 1909. At the time, yes, in 1917 and not in 1909, McCurdy was a director of an American aeronautical giant, Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation.
Another guest speaker that evening was the chief forester of a Canadian / Québec paper pulp firm, Laurentide Company Limited of Montréal, the American Canadian Ellwood Wilson. The latter probably surprised quite a few people when he announced that aeroplanes would (soon?) be used in Québec, in the Saint-Maurice River region more specifically, to locate forest fires. Said aeroplanes would be piloted by Canadian military aviators who had returned home for some reason or other (disease or injury for example).
You do know that the First World War, the war to end war, was in full swing in 1917, now do you, my reading friend?
Need yours truly add that McCurdy was mentioned many times in our stellar blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since September 2017? I thought so.
Unsurprisingly, Canadian Forestry Journal reported in June 1917 that a group based in Québec, the St. Maurice Fire Protective Association of Trois-Rivières, wanted to conduct tests with an aeroplane to evaluate the usefulness of such vehicles in locating forest fires.
At a meeting of the Quebec Fire Protective Association held in Montréal in early February 1918, in a posh hotel, a Québec officer in the Royal Flying Corps of the British Army promoted the use of aeroplanes to detect forest fires. The address made by Major Kenneth Edgar Clayton-Kennedy was published in extenso, with a transcript of the question period, in the February and March 1918 issues of Canadian Forestry Journal.
The first Commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch of the Department of the Interior, James Bernard Harkin, who was present at that meeting, went further: “I may be visionary, but I think that it is possible to manufacture a gas that could smother fire. I have visions of aeroplanes dropping gas bombs on forest fires in the not too distant future.”
If one was to believe a news report published in June 1918, the St. Maurice Fire Protective Association had decided to use aeroplanes to locate forest fires. Indeed, that Québec association had already booked the services of two Canadian aviators who had fought overseas. Better yet, the association hoped to launch that service during the summer of 1918, and…
We have moved quite a distance away from our topic, have we not, my reading friend? I am afraid this digression will result in the need to conclude this article in a third part. Sorry about that.
Speaking (typing?) of a third part, if you have not taken in A Night at the Opera, yes, the 1935 American comedy motion picture starring 3 of the 5 Marx brothers (Leonard Joseph “Chico” Marx, Arthur “Harpo” Marx, born Adolph Marx, and Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx), not the 1975 album by the British rock band Queen, please do so as soon as possible. The contract scene is a classic. Heck, A Night at the Opera as a whole is a classic.
It even has aviators, I kid you not, Soviet ones mind you, I think, whose presence might make you wonder if the American rock band ZZ Top was active in the 1930s, but I digress.