How an Ex-Hollywood Stunt Pilot and a Park Ranger Invented Aerial Firefighting

    Were it not for the efforts of two men who settled in the town of Willows, California, the August Complex Fire, the largest in the state’s history, might have devasted even more than the million acres it ravaged during the seemingly endless fire season of 2020.

    Those two men were Floyd “Speed” Nolta and Joe Ely, and they pioneered the use of airplanes to drop water on forest fires. They had contrasting backgrounds—Floyd from a blue-collar timbering family in Oregon and Ely an Ivy League Midwesterner—but together they provided an example of American ingenuity at work.

    Nolta was already a highly regarded mechanic at 17, when he enlisted in the Army after the United States entered World War I. The Army sent him to Rockwell Field near San Diego to serve as a mechanic. (While at Rockwell, Nolta met Jimmy Doolittle, not yet a legendary aviator, and the two men became lifelong friends.) Nolta had his first airplane flight while in the Army, and he learned to fly after the war when he settled in Willows in Northern California’s Sacramento Valley. There he formed the Willows Flying Service to provide crop dusting services.

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