Photos © Ruud Leeuw


~Chico CA~



Crossing the mountains, driving from Reno,NV into California we were -finally!- treated again on sunny, warm weather. We had taken the long way, scenic byways through the Sierras. Occasionally stopping, it took me longer than I had hoped before I arrived at the airport of Chico,CA.

I had not realized that Aero Union would clock out at 4 pm. Also, the person I was supposed to meet here, wasn't here this week. Bummer.
In short, no one could accompany me on the ramp to have a look at Aero Union's plane. I did see a Spanish P-3 in maintenance in the hangar, but I had to leave that until the next day. Retired in a disappointing Super 8 Motel and waited for things to come.
So, bright and early (8 am, 29May08) I reported again and stated my request. I waited until 'key figures' would end their meetings for an approval, but this went on and on.

So I ended up in Terry Unsworth office and put to him my credentials and my request to take some photos of his aeroplanes.
It is never a good thing when you have to face a CEO with a trivial matter like this and indeed I only got half an ear ('Cannot grant a request from anyone arriving here from the Eastcoast, without a full background check', while I told him 20 seconds ago I was from the Netherlands, but then he wouldn't be the first Yank not to know where that country sits on the map), gave me a pompous story about security and sensitive contracts.
In short: go away...
Clearly the days of appreciation for aviation enthusiasts are over at Aero Union.

British-born Terry Unsworth died 04Feb09, aged 55, from natural causes.
In 2005, Unsworth had become the president and chief executive officer of Aero Union upon the retirement of Victor Alvistur. The company was purchased in 2005 by Lake Union Capital Partners of Seattle,WA.

I was generously allowed ('cannot stop you from taking your pictures from over the fence') to take some photos. But no access to the ramp, nor into the hangar. Aero Union's 'skunk works': their hospitality certainly stank!

Aero Union's bird dogs

N927AU tanker 27 Tanker 27: Aero Union's Lockheed P-3A Orion N927AU (c/n 5082) sitting on the ramp.

Tanker 20
Tanker 20 is P-3A N920AU (c/n 5039). I had come across this one at Alamogordo,NM in 1993 when it was still in Spanish Air Force colours and there were problems with its documents to certify it to Aero Union. I was told that this ramp position is usually reserved for OV-10 AA 210 is usually parked.

Derelict P-3 151377

Tanker 16
Tanker 16 is N716AU, a Lockheed P-2H Neptune (c/n 6065).
As all Neptunes have been replaced in the active firefighting role with Aero Union,
I have it last active on San Bernardino,CA in Sep.2003.
N716AU was reportedly sold in Oct.2007 to Bravo Airlines. I was told the paperwork is with Jim Ricketts, with whom the trade was initially made. He is trying to find someone to get them flying and out of Cheeko.

When all firefighting contracts were cancelled after the two H&P tankers crashed in 2002, Aero Union almost went under. New investors came in, but the crash of N926AU on 20Apr05 saw the company on the brink of bankruptcy again. On 17Oct91 N924AU had crashed too.
This has led Aero Union's owner and Terry Unsworth to the conclusion that they would be better off converting these Lockheed P-3's, doing modifications and maintenance checks, and moving away from the active aerial fire fighting contracts. The company is still fighting for its existence and the tone in some company publications (read them while waiting for Mr Unsworth to see me) were as such.

If I understood correctly, Aero Union was working on Spanish P-3's which were to go to South America (Brazil?)

Tanker 18

tanker 18 N718AU tanker 18 (c/n 7214) was also reported to be sold last year to Bravo Airlines.

In 1960 Dale Newton and Dick Foy participated in their first fire season with a surplus B-25 Mitchell.
Newton & Foy operated this season under the name Western Air Industries.
The following year they purchased their first two B-17 Flying Fortresses and changed their name to Aero Union.
In 1962 the company moved their operations from Redding,CA to Chico.
[Source: Wikipedia]

The P-2 Neptunes belonging to Bravo Airlines were scrapped early-2010 and here is why:
"These aircraft scrapped were not owned by Aero Union.
They were sold in 2006 to a gentleman who subsequently went bankrupt and abandoned the aircraft. The aircraft were leaching oil and hydraulic fluid into the soil. Aero Union was ordered to pay US$13,500 to clean up the area (as we rent the property) despite not owning the aircraft. The EPA threatened to fine the Company if the aircraft were not removed within 30 days. So, unfortunately, we were left with no time or option but to dispose of these aircraft ASAP.
Yes, we were approached by people who wanted parts, but, given the short time frame, part salvaging was also not an option."
Britt Gourley, CEO
Aero Union Corporation

All that remains...
All that remains of 151377 and 151355, both P-3A's.
A good website to read about P-3 Orions is P-3 Orion Research Group

The owner of this Grumman AF-2S Guardian (former air tanker) sold it this summer to Jimmy Leeward in Ocala,Flarida.
Meanwhile, it should be on display at the Chico Air Museum for a while. Identity??? See below, read on..
Information on the AF-2 Guardian on Wikipedia.

Jimmy Leeward also owns a flyable Grumman AF-2S Guardian, which he got from the EAA Museum after it had been donated it to them. It was suggested to me that this is N9995Z (ex Tanker 21), but I came across N9995Z earlier this trip: at Pima Air Museum in Arizona. Then again, information on Air-Britain's AbPic has it that this 'actually is N9994Z (BuNo.129233 c/n 321) painted as N9995Z for Pima air museum."
When I checked (Sep08) on FAA's N-inquiry website, I found N9995Z to be a valid registration for AF-2S Guardian (serial 126792) with owner 'Bahia Oaks Inc dba' of Ocala,FL; strangely, there is no date for Issue of Certification. Are there 2 N9995Z's: one in Arizona and one in Florida? Again, read on...

Posting on the Warbird Information Exchange forum (WIX) provided the following reply:

  • N9993Z, Bu# 126731, is currently owned by the CAF.
  • N9994Z, Bu# 129233, has been obtained by Pima Air Museum (mis-marked as N9995Z)
  • N9995Z, Bu# 126792, is owned by Jimmy Leeward in Ocala,FL
  • N3144G Bu# 123100 (Tanker number 30), restored and given to the Naval Aviation Museum in Florida
  • N3143G, Bu# 123088, the first 'production' AF built after prototypes, but NEVER used as a tanker even though it once had a mockup 'tank'. Recently purchased by Jimmy Leeward, a/c is still in Chico temp "display" at the Chico Air Museum, see above (info dates from Sep.2008).

  • Below is some information on Jimmy Leeward, who flew his P-51 "Cloud Dancer" at the Reno Air Races..
    Jimmy Leeward


    Upon the demise of Aero Union (more on that at the bottom of this page) Air Spray of Canada stepped in.
    Air Spray took over the old Aero Union hangars in Chico,CA (around 2012) and their Electras have been briefly contracted by the states of Oregon and California in the past couple of years.
    They expanded into the USA to grow the company; now (2017) it is used as a maintenance base for about 8 Air Tractor AT-801F and FireBoss aircraft, for deployment in Washington and Oregon.
    They have also used it for their BAe 146-200 conversion program, which has progressed very slowly because of a change in certification requirements for new air tankers.
    (The above insight was provided by Ken Swartz, 14Apr17)


    It so happened there is a museum here too, though it never really did became 'fully grown'.
    The idea was to have on display a few planes here, dedicated to the aerial fire fighting services, and a building with memorabilia of the air tanker industry all that it entails.
    But policies and budgets changed with Aero Union. So the building was never put there and all that remains are a few random planes chucked behind a fence. The original founders have abandoned support of this initiative.

    N183PL is a Howard Super Ventura (c/n 5492), a great plane which deserves a better fate than this one.
    This plane flew with the US Navy (34602) and joined Aero Union in 1974.

    A good website to read up on the socalled Lockheed Twins is Michael Zoeller's website.

    Purchased by T. Ramey of Stockton, California in 2002.

    In Aug.2018 I received following update from owner Taigh Ramey (when I found on Google Maps that the compound this 'museum' was occupying had been emptied): "The airport didn't like it there. Square miles of empty ramp and we sure can't have this PV-1 sitting here at Stockton! We moved it off the airport. Craned it over a couple of fences and it's down the street."

    Google Maps showed me (sep.2018) the new location:
    Howard Super Ventura N183PL location

    Antonov An-2


    Lockheed SP-2H Neptune, BuNo. 147968 / PL. ex/ Patrol Squadron VP-67



    Fleet JP2008
    From JP Airline Fleet 2008/09

    UPDATE JUNE 2010:
    'Aero Union executives confirmed Monday that its operations are leaving Chico to settle in Sacramento starting in the fall and ending by summer 2011.
    A press release issued Monday morning indicated the company is moving in stages to McClellan Air Park in Sacramento, the former McClellan Air Force Base.
    Employees were told Friday by the company, which has been in Chico since 1964.
    In a press release, the company said it is moving to Sacramento "to be closer to our key customers and suppliers, to streamline our operations from nine buildings to two, and to have access to broader labor markets."
    The company transforms former military aircraft into aerial firefighting tankers domestically and internationally, as well as leases firefighting aircraft to the federal government.
    The move to Sacramento puts Aero Union closer to its biggest customer, the U.S. Forest Service, Aero Union chief executive officer Britt Gourley said Monday.
    The press release indicated the growth of the "aerial fluid tank manufacturing business" is driving the change.
    It also noted that "nearly all" of its current employees from this area will be invited to go to Sacramento over the next 12 months. There are about 100 employees here now, and about 20, including pilots and others, live outside the area.
    "Everyone who's here will be working for us in the foreseeable future," said Gourley, adding no major layoffs are planned. Employees have until Friday to tell the company if they're interested in relocating.
    Gourley said, "We need a bigger plant, deeper labor pools and additional experienced people," said Gourley in a media conference call Monday afternoon. Gourley said Aero Union has had difficulty finding expertise from the local area as well as recruiting from outside the area to Chico.
    Aero Union plans to maintain a "secondary satellite facility" at 77 Piper Ave. at the Chico Municipal Airport. Gourley said Aero Union will continue to lease that large hangar from the city for the flexibility it offers for occasional projects, but it won't be staffed unless a project is occurring.
    Gourley said the city has been very accommodating, but moving to Sacramento offered opportunities not available here.
    Aero Union chose McClellan over other California and out-of-state locations because its reputation as an aerial firefighting base, and Sacramento County's and California's continuing commitment to aerospace manufacturing and aerial firefighting, a press release indicated.'
    By: Laura Urseny

    UPDATE 30JUL2011:
    Aero-Union was shut down for the second time this year, by the Federal Gov't.
    Tanker T22 was out on a contract (Abilene,TX) and was making her way back home base, to McClellan Field (Sacramento).
    All other P-3s were supposed tol be returning to Sacramento as well (their locations 29Jul: T22 @Abilene,TX, T17 @Alamogordo,NM, T23 @Cedar City,UT T25 @Ogden/Hill AFB,UT, T21 @Rapid City,SD, T00 @San Bernardino,CA.
    Shutdown was repeated because Aero Union was not compliant with USFS regulations.
    (Source: Airtanker forum on Yahoo)
    The USFS in a statement: "Because of the extraordinary stresses placed on aircraft during aerial firefighting and to prevent catastrophic failures and ensure safety, the Forest Service adds requirements to its airtanker contracts that are specific to the agency’s firefighting mission. The Forest Service will not use aircraft that do not meet its requirements." (Pdf doc)

    UPDATE 13AUG2011:
    "Aero Union closing; Chico workers lose jobs
    Chico employees of Aero Union who were commuting to Sacramento were told Friday their jobs are gone and the air tanker business is being closed.
    They were told they could pick up their final checks on Monday, according to an employee's wife, who contacted the Enterprise-Record. Employees were told that the entire company was closing, according to the email.
    Aero Union, which relocated from Chico to McClellan Field in Sacramento, converted military aircraft to aerial firefighters, and operated some of the planes under contract with the federal government.
    The Enterprise-Record was unable to contact anyone from Aero Union's management Friday.
    However, former Aero Union CEO Vic Alvistur of Chico, who retired from the company several years ago, confirmed the information.
    He said he had received calls from a number of the Chico employees Friday about the news.
    In July, the U.S. Forest Service canceled its contract with Aero Union, citing unsafe aircraft."
    By LAURA URSENY - Staff Writer
    Posted: 08/13/2011 12:13:46 AM PDT

    Update March 2014:
    I have it on good authority that United Aeronautical Corporation, which has a salvage yard near the Pima museum in Arizona, are the ones who bought all eight Aero Union P-3s last September. And N922AU (Tanker 22) was handed over to Buffalo Airways (of Yellowknife,NWT) this month - it is rumored it will continue its airtanker career there.
    Tanker 22 was reported at McClellan,CA on 10Mar2014. These tanker were spotted: #17, #21, #22, #23, #25 and #27. Maybe #00 was there too.
    Alas, parts of #20 were reported in one of the yards at Davis Monthan,AZ.

    Update from, by Bill Gabbert (Posted on August 24, 2018)
    "The P-3’s changed hands when UAC/Blue Aerospace acquired seven of them after the [Aero Union] bankruptcy proceedings. Buffalo Airways then purchased T-22 in 2014 which for much of this year [2018] has been parked at McClellan.
    Airstrike is leasing it and bringing it back into compliance."

    Update Aug.2018:
    I noticed Tankers 22 and 21 at McClellan Air Park in April 2018; T22 had Buffalo titles on the fuselage and T21 still had Aero Union titles. This month I also read that T23 was worked on and expected to be put in operation soon. And T25 had a photo shared in a tweet plus the information 'Airstrike Firefighter LLC' had signed a contract with the State of Colorado in Aug.2018. According to their website, 'Airstrike Firefighter LLC' is refurbishing 7 P-3's for aerial firefighting contracts.
    Tanker 21 was reg'd to Airstrike on 07Aug2018.
    See my CALIFORNIA 2018 (McCLELLAN) Report and updates on Airtanker Id's.

    Chico Municipal Airport on

    The Road Goes On... back to US Southwest 2008

    Reactions / comments welcomed.