What makes a great pilot: heredity, environment, maybe dogged persistence? Whatever it is I know a guy who has it.
Bob Forbes is a man in motion. I’ve been pestering him to allow me to dig into his career and he stopped by Ukiah the other day and talked. I asked him to hang out and spend the night but the road called. Thinking about the talk we had the term “stream of consciousness” stuck in my mind and I looked it up. “A narrative technique in non-dramatic fiction intended to render the flow of myriad impressions”. That’s pretty close to the encounter without the “fiction” part.
Before Bob graduated from High School in 1958 he had started flight lessons with Bill Barnes in Rosamond, Ca. If the name Barnes rings a bell it’s because his mom was Poncho Barnes, legendary aviatrix and proprietor of the Happy Bottom Flying Club where guys like Chuck Yeager and Jimmy Doolittle hung out. Bob said he ran into her once at the Fosters Freeze in Rosamond. Bob’s father had taken the family to the club for dinner a few times before it mysteriously burned down in 1952. But lets get back on track.
Bob worked at Northrop Aviation where they were doing IRAN’s on F-89 Scorpions between his junior and senior years of high school. This was about the time he began flight training in a Luscombe that he had borrowed. He started training in February 57 under Bills tutelage. It was May when he had his first wreck at Rosamond Airport. He recalls the plane bouncing and Bill taking the controls. The Luscombe has heel brakes on the pilots side only and they ground-looped damaging the gear and costing a whole $112.00 to get it fixed. It would be March 1961 before he returned to training.
I think Bob got the flying virus as a child. His father had been in the Army Air Service and the Army Air Corps: the name changed in1926. He worked for Northrop in Hawthorn, and Lockheed in Burbank, during WW II. Bob recalled going to company events sponsored by the USO under large netting covers. After the war Bobs father worked on converting military aircraft to civilian aircraft. Bob recounted tagging along with him at Chino and Culver City airports where he stayed out of the way playing in all the old warbirds while his dad worked on and license planes.
Bob returned to the flight line as a gas boy at Van Nuys Airport in 1960. Part of the deal was a bargain price for aircraft rentals: $6 and hour for a Cessna 150 and $11 for a Cessna 172. Bob began to train again in March of 1961.
In this same time frame he got a summer job on a heliattack crew on the Angles Forest. He explained they had pulled weeds for two weeks when the helicopter pilot said he needed someone to drive the service rig. Bob took the bait without hesitation. He was based at Los Prietos, on the Las Padres for the next three fire seasons. With what little time off he had he got his airplane fix hanging around Golita Airtanker Base where Stu Kunge flew an F7F.
Jim Bette was the other pilot at Goleta flying a TBM. Bob said he saw Jim on a fire. He passed close enough to be completely recognizable with his canopy open and smoking a cigar. Bob said it was about the coolest thing he had ever seen.
At the time LA County had contracts twelve months a year for a pair of air tankers at Van Nuys. Jack Hennessy was based there flying tanker 77, an AJ-1 Savage. The plane had one pilot but a two-man crew. Somehow Bob talked his way on for a ride. They made him hide on the floor until they were unobserved and he went for his first tanker ride. After they landed they stopped in a remote spot and Bob deplaned.
Bob also worked at the tanker base washing the AJ tankers. An LACOFD fire captain named Frank Hamp had built a contraption to suck the powder into a mixer and the Hamp mixer was the prototype for today’s machines. Jack Hennessy later died in the AJ. Ironically he was going to an airshow when he lost an engine. He didn’t drop his load because a previously jettisoned load had resulted in a lawsuits. When he lost the second engine he put it into the only open space but the plane burned and no people or structures were harmed.
It was during this time that Bob was testing for different fire departments and was hired by the Ventura County Fire Department and ended being stationed in Piru, CA. Things were really slow at that station, although being able to do patrols up to the lake in the summer time had its advantages, but after a few wildland fires he still thought that the way of the Tanker pilot was his path. Admitting to himself it was probably the biggest mistake of his life he quit the fire department and got a job as a fireman for Douglas aircraft in Santa Monica.
While he was working as a fireman for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica Bob purchased an instrument flying course but it didn’t pan out for some reason. His next move was to Palmdale AF Plant 42 where he got a job on a crash, fire rescue crew. He also continued flight training in Lancaster and Quartz Hill, completing his Private, Commercial, and Instrument ratings.
It was 1968 and Bob decided it was time to make his move. It had taken him seven years to accumulate 1,000 hours. He knew a co-pilots job didn’t even require a pilot’s license, so with his pocket full of accomplishments he would be a shoo-in. He packed up determined to land a job in the tanker business with a plan to hit the operators until one hired him. His first stop was Tulare, TBM Inc. It would be home for a long time.
There wasn’t much of a straight stretch in any of Bob’s career and his start at TBM Inc was no exception. After getting hired he found out all the pilots had abandoned the place to make a movie, Catch 22. Hollywood was hiring anybody that could identify an aircraft on the ramp. Bob went to Orange County airport and Tall Mantz Aviation to see if he could get in on the action but was told he needed a multi engine rating to be a co-pilot. Bob turned around and drove back to Lancaster. With money borrowed on his car he hoofed it to Porterville and Coe Aviation, spent the rest of the day training and got his ticket punched the next morning. He returned that afternoon with multi-engine printed on his license but the window was now closed. The good news was he had his multi-engine rating.
It was spring and the road to the right seat of a tanker went through Colusa, California, rice country. Bob needed to please one Don Ornbaum. He would be loading Don’s plane for the rice run, and if Don was pleased Bob might have a job as his co-pilot on a B-17 for fires. Bob recalls loading 80# bags of ferric sulfate, fertilizer, into the planes hopper by hand. Losing 25 pounds over the coarse of the season. Deciding to go drinking with the pilots one night and missing the whole next day with a screaming hangover. When he returned to work the second day Hank Moore simply smiled all knowingly and said, “don’t do it again.”
For whatever reason Bob didn’t pass muster that season. Don already had a co-pilot and he decided to stick with him. Bob returned to TBM where he was offered an Air Attack job flying a Cessna 182. When opportunity knocks, open the door, even if you’re not ready. Floyd Wakley showed up to give Bob his check ride.
“Do you have your log books?” he asked.
“No,” said Bob.
“Do you have your approach plates?”
“No,” said Bob.
Being flexible, Mr. Wakley drew the approach on a napkin. Bob executed the approach. Kermit Hobbs was the captain at Porterville where Bob was to work. He asked Floyd if Bob was a keeper.
“I think so. But if you don’t like him you can fire him,” said Floyd.
Bob had his first job flying fire in the 182. Their radio package was a handi-talky. Kermit didn’t fire him.
Bob began his second year at TBM/Moore Aviation back in Colusa, tossing sacks into Don’s plane. At some point Don had fired his co-pilot. The man had been unresponsive when Don called for the gear up. Don took it upon himself to apply the back of his hand to the man, which in hindsight might have been a mistake, the individual was rather large and at first appeared enraged. Ultimately Don fired him and after two seasons of Don’s rice program Bob was offered the right seat of a B-17.
In some cockpits resource management was “gear up shut up.” This appeared to be Don’s approach at first blush. There was nothing subtle about the man. There also could not have been a better pilot to learn the trade from. To say he was all bark and no bite would be a mistake, but if you stood your ground you would have the opportunity to know a generous man with a big heart. Bob first tempted fate when he saw the need to apply power in a tight situation and pushed up power, unrequested. He wasn’t sure if Don’s long arm would reach across the cockpit and smite him. “Don’t just sit there and let me kill us,” was Don’s recommendation and commendation.
It wasn’t always roses. The drop system on the B-17 at that time was a jumble of manually activated switched operated by the co-pilot. The pilot called “now” to initiate the drop. Bob said they had a Forest Service ride along one time and he fumbled the switching popping open a couple of doors after the drop. Don said he thought about reaching across the cockpit but Bob had looked so crestfallen he knew there was no point in it. He just keyed the mike and told the whole world that his co-pilot had just dropped the rest of the load. After that maintenance installed an Aero Union intervalometer system. One time the system shorted out, smoke emanating from its entrails. The problem was the zipper on Bob’s flight suit. The solution was duct tape. Bob had been instructed to call traffic. When it became a distraction Don scolded, “If it’s not going to hit us I don’t want to know.”
I had the privilege of flying along side Don for two years out of Columbia ATB in the plane he loved to hate, the S-2. He talked about Bob one day at the pick-nick table.
“I use to fly a real tight pattern in the B-17, throw the gear and flaps down and pull the power, make a 180 and land. I gave it to Bob one day and he came in, a real tight pattern, and I thought, you dumb son-of-a-bitch. Well Bob threw down the gear and the flaps, pulled the power, wheeled it around and touched down as nice as you please.”
Bob flew with Don for three years. They remained fast friends and Bob has nothing but fond memories of the man counting himself most fortunate for the experience.
When Bob finished his second year with Don on returning to TBM he was given the keys to a T-6 and a credit card and told to go fly. They had decided to groom him to fly a TBM. After his three-year apprenticeship with Don, Bob got his TBM. TBM Inc had leased a TBM to HVFS and for whatever reason the pilot that they had was fired. Ornbaum said Hank has “sold you" to HVFS to fly their TBM. He went with the stipulation that he could come back to TBM at the first available time. Two week later he was back with TBM Inc. and went to Porterville. The Porterville pilot had gotten drunk and taken his TBM tanker up around midnight. On the radio he said he wanted to commit suicide and crash into the crowd at the Moonlight Fly-In that was on at that time. They negotiated with him for three hours finally convincing him to land. He was still inebriated. Bob stepped into the state TBM contract at Porterville for the next three years.
He related a ride in a T-6 with Hank Moore, aka, The Boss, doing his version of aerobatics. One maneuver he called a “pattern snap.” Bob recalled getting beat up by the plane and nearly blacking out in the process. Later he rode with Don. Don said Hank didn’t really know how to fly and proceeded to demonstrate how it was done with finesse.
In 1973 one pilot from each of the operators vying for CDF contracts went to North Island in San Diego for ground school in the S-2. Bob was there for TBM. Walt Darran was on-scene representing Hemet Valley. Walt had the clout to get them into the Tail Hook Club where they made friends with a retired Admiral who had flown Corsairs. The piston loving flag officer wouldn’t let them pay for a drink and good time was had by all.
Over the years Bob was typed in the B-17, C-119, S-2, F7F, and TBM. He had Forest Service contracts in the B-17 out of Broomfield, CO, Farmington, NM, Boise ID, and Coeur d’Elene ID. With CDF he worked out of Porterville, CA in the C-119 and relieved on the F7F at White River AZ. While all this was going on he learned to fly the H-34 helicopter and got another type rating. When TBM wanted to sell an F7F they tapped Bob to take it to the Reno Air Races to strut its stuff. There was no training and he had never flown the pylons but qualified at 308 mph. Cooler heads prevailed and he passed on the race and flew the plane to Harlingen Texas to the Confederate Air Force where it was sold.
Like a lot of tanker pilots Bob flew AG. TBM/Moore Aviation sent Bob to get checked out in a Stearman and he went on to fly a 600 Stearman in Colusa in 74 and 75. The company bought an AG Cat in Louisiana and handed him a ticket to retrieve it. After his second fuel stop around Bastrop Texas “it started to smoke real bad and loose power.” Bob found a straight stretch of road and put it down. The wing tips got removed in the process. The blower seal had failed and Bob spent more time in Texas than he had anticipated.
If you fly AG for very long you’ll have an impressive number of short stories. Bob had a bad day in Tulare once. While defoliating cotton a cylinder blew. He dumped the load and had to land across rows of cotton like speed bumps before coming to an abrupt bouncing stop, right side up.
The back up plane was pulled out of the barn and he went back to work. He lost the breaks before long but managed to keep it together. The master cylinders were replaced with another set from spare parts and he went at it again. When he landed after a load the first tire “chirped” when it touched down, when the second tire spoke he realized the breaks had locked up and he ended up upside down dangling from his harness.
Back in Colusa flying for Moore Aviation he had another blower seal fail narrowly missing a school bus as he was taking off through an opening in a line of bamboo. His option to land is a curved road around a levee. With popcorn sulfur pouring from the hopper gate he puts the plane down on the road. He said he had six inches from the wheels to the side of the levee when he came to a halt and a pile of sulfur and a pool of oil forming under the plane.
In another incident while working with two planes, landing under power lines on one strip and taking off from a junction on another strip, to expedite the job. The field next to one of the strips had been flooded and a section of the strip had sloughed off leaving a narrow spot. After consultation with the other pilot it was decided takeoff could be achieved by waiting to apply power until after maneuvering around the problem. As Bob rolled past the partially caved-in section and added power the dirt gave way slewing the plane toward a power pole. He over corrected entering a series of uncontrolled turns ending up once again dangling from his harness. He said the loading crew appeared disinterested in his predicament but eventually sauntered his way. He sustained his worst injuries riding the boom of the loader truck to hook up the plane and lift it from the ground and put it back on it’s feet. In his AG career there were numerous other engine failures and forced landings that only raised the blood pressure.
In 1986 Bob was tapped to do a proof of concept for the SEAT program that the BLM was trying to get started, flying an M-18 Dromedare, out of Kernville, CA. And again, in 1991, to evaluate the first 802 SEAT for CDF. Hank Moore and Leland Snow were good buddies. He did not give the 802 high marks. Mr. Snow was not pleased. It has since been improved.
Jets. Who doesn’t want to fly jets? Walt Darran gets a hot tip that Trans America, TA, is going on strike. He convinces Bob, Mike Pinketh, Buck Radcliff, and possibly others they need to fill the void. Bob takes a rollercoaster ride to Oakland for ground school on the C-130. After three weeks of ground school there are no C-130s to fly. They were offered L188 Electra school in Ypsilanti Michigan. A week into the effort it started to snow and snow and snow some more. They make the most of being snowed in at the Howard Johnson for several days with help from the locals using the snowdrifts as an icebox for the booze. After training and checkouts Walt and Mike go to Hill AFB while Bob drew Detroit. He found himself California dreaming and flew the coop for the Golden State.
It’s about 1987 and Bob is back in California flying fixed-wing and rotor-wing AG and an S-2 for the fire season. He’s flying fire in an S2 working for Hemet Valley Flying Service because they have the Fresno contract. He’s disillusioned with the lack of parts and maintenance from the contractor and after accumulating 283 hours on the Fresno fire contract and making $15,000 he’s had enough. He quits and goes to work for Rosenbaum Aviation.
This turns into a job, flying copilot, in Rosenbaum DC-8’s on an Emery Air Freight contract. Bob describes flying at night with no radar and an ass-hole captain pushing beyond .86 MACH with the barber-poll and clacker, over-speed warnings, demanding attention. The captain having been distracted by a hydraulic problem, neglecting to descend in a timely fashion, then diving into Detroit with Bob directed to hand fly the plane. The captain telling the flight engineer to pull the circuit breaker to get rid of the warning noise while St. Elmo’s fire is roaming the cabin the plane shaking like a wet dog.
After 6 or 8 months of this tyranny Bob shows up and sees a list of thirteen carried forward immediate action discrepancies and decides he’s had his fill of jets and heads back to California to work AG and fire for Moore Aviation.
Honduras? Bob knows a guy named Wally McDonald who’s into warbirds and happens to have a B-26 in Panama. Somehow this translates into the opportunity to pick up a flock of Corsairs in Honduras. Bob is recruited to organize the expedition. He has 2-4 days to find pilots to fly 8 planes. He finds 6 pilots. The usual suspects are recruited: Mike Penketh, Ed Real, Orin Carr, Harold Beal, and Lou Remsehner.
The intrepid group meets in New Orleans to catch a flight to Tegucigalpa, an airport characterized as the most dangerous in the world, served by the notoriously unreliable SAHSA Airlines, the national flag carrier of Honduras. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, tickets for a starter. Somehow Hollywood Wings had not purchased tickets. They suggests the group purchase their own, to be reimbursed at a later date, but our group is way too shrewd to fall prey that ploy. They miss the first flight. Finally Hollywood Wings comes through and the mission continues. They arrive in Tegucigalpa unscathed. The airport is jointly occupied, military and civilian. Sure enough 8 Corsairs occupy the tarmac on the military complex.
Activity ensues. The planes have been idle for an unknown period of time, theoretically, having been maintained in flyable condition. Charge batteries, check fluids, and fire them up. The canopies are hydraulically actuated on the -5 model and Bob accidentally crushes his helmet. There is one flight manual and the group huddles under a wing conducting ground school. Of course the weather window is closing in a day or two. The “Fuhrer” from Hollywood Wings wants a group flight direct to Brownsville Texas. This represents a long overwater flight and there is no survival gear. The group rejects this option and plots a course to Guatemala City. Better to crash into a steaming jungle than be eaten by sharks.
The next day planes are flown after finding a numbered frequency the tower will answer. Controlled airspace ends at the end of the runway and Bob describes playing grab-ass with Ed Real while checking out the planes over the city. At one point on the ramp fighter jets streak in and Bob wonders if El Salvador is still fighting the Soccer War. It turns out to be the president’s escort as he lands. The best 6 of the 8 Corsairs are chosen.
A Cessna has been provided as a lead plane because the Corsairs are navigationally challenged. Flight ensues. El Salvador is not provoked and all arrive safely in Guatemala City. The next leg is to Vera Cruz, Mexico, Cessna in the lead. The weather deteriorates and the loose formation tightens up. Things are not looking good out the windscreens until the ocean is spotted through a sucker hole. The Corsairs do a split S to VFR and the Cessna follows. Fortuitously, Vera Cruz appears on the coast right on the nose.
The planes are serviced. Gallons of oil are procured in quart cans. Orrin Carr is stuffing towels in his pants to absorb the product of Montezuma’s Revenge. Next stop Brownsville. En route just past Tampico Mike Penketh gets excited. He has a fuel leak and diverts to Tampico. The squadron follows. They all land, sin plan de vuelo, without flight plan. A fire truck chases Penketh down the runway along with a jeep that falls into a ditch. They figure out a float has failed and Penketh was transferring fuel into a full main tank, pressurizing it venting gas out the fuel cap. Problem diagnosed. Lets move on, the Federales are en-route. All but Bob and Penketh take-off in a beautiful formation, a la ba ba black sheep, sin el permiso, without permission. The tower is not happy. Bob’s having a hard time starting his plane but both he and Penketh prevail. With engines running they negotiate their departure with tower before the Federales arrive and they’re off to Brownsville. Spoiler alert, they all make.
Bob’s not quite done with the Corsair caper. They all take off for Houston. Bob's plane develops an intermittent shake-shake. Odd. Then it gets serious with a KABANG - KABOOM and Bob is looking for a place to land. He spies a likely grass strip. Turns out it was flooded the previous day, well saturated that day. Bob said water flowed over the wings when he landed. After landing and taxing in with a shaky , banging engine, he looks up and see's the rest of the Corsairs circling in formation, another deja vous Ba Ba Blackship moment. Bob had found Rosenberg Texas, Lane Aviation, a crop dusting operation. Montezuma caught up with Bob and he was out of commission for a few days. Maintenance ensues before making his way to the final destination, Houston.
About 1992 Bob wanted a change of scenery and went to San Joaquin Helicopters doing fixed-wing and rotor-wing AG work. In 1998 San Joaquin Helicopters is awarded the CDF contract and it’s time to go back to fire. He spent the first year flying an Air Attack then went to the S-2 at Ramona where he remained until 2015.
If my calculations are correct Bob has been flying for 56 years. He says he has accumulated 19,020 fixed-wing and 3990 helicopter hours. You could say Bob has forgotten more about flying than most pilots will ever know but you’d be wrong. Bob hasn’t forgotten anything. It makes it a real challenge to chronicle his career. If Bob wasn’t flying something he was looking for something to fly. Bob is the oldest adolescent I know. He’s the Peter Pan of Pilots and he’s lived an amazing life playing with the lost boys inhabiting the backwaters of aviation. Some say it’s better to be lucky than good. I say nobody’s that lucky and a lot of people recognized how good he is and let him explore the edge of the envelope where it doesn’t hurt to have a little luck in your pocket.
Want some more Bob?
First flight in a TBM. You will forget to tighten the throttle friction only once.
First flight in the F7F. After catching up to the aircraft after takeoff and calming down somewhat, did the usual things until time to land. Gear down, flaps down, slow to final approach speed, round out in the flair, landing gear WARNING HORN is loud. First landing, first go around for real. After consulting with company maintenance and a tower flyby, decided it was time to land the thing. Told the tower they might as well roll the equipment as it was a slow day at FAT. After landing VERY CAREFULLY and parking, maintenance could find nothing wrong. Tanker 63 was flown by Stu Kunkee at the time. He considered it his personal aircraft and no one else should fly it without his permission. Well anyway, Stu calls up berating everyone for using his aircraft without his permission. And why didn't they ask why the landing gear warning horn CB was pulled in the first place. He got tired of trying to get it fixed so he just kept the CB pulled.
While working for SJH flying the Ag Cat l flew from Delano to Arvin over the oil field north and east of Bakersfield and sprayed all morning. Returning to Delano, I decided to stop at the Bakersfield Airpark for lunch. After lunch I went to start the aircraft and the engine was frozen solid. Pulled the sump screen and it was a SOLID ball of metal. If I hadn't stopped for lunch the thing would have quit over the oil fields and there isn't ANY place to go. It got a new engine and a chip detector. A month later, last load of spraying, pull up and BAM, on come the chip light. For such a little light it sure is bright. Managed to get back to the airport and pulled the screen. I'm sure everyone has heard the expression, if you can't read the part numbers don't worry about it. Well there was a chunk of metal with the whole part number on it, time for a new crank.
While at Moore Aviation one of the other pilots talked them into getting into helicopters for Ag work. They started out with a Hiller12E. Later getting as many as 7-8 S-58's surplus out of DM, Davis Mothan AFB. Three were rebuilt to standard category and one was converted to a sprayer with the others as spares. I started spraying with the Hiller until the other pilot crashed and was killed - then the Sikorsky full time spraying. Talked Moore aviation into getting one of the other ships on CWN fire contracts and then started doing that too. I was checked out in the Sikorsky by my co-pilot on the B-17 who had been a crew chief on H-34's in the Marines. He wanted to be an Ag pilot so Moore tried to break him in. He was not to lucky in that he ended crashing an Ag Cat and the very best S-58 that we had. I was very lucky in having only two partial engine failures in over 2000 hrs in the machine
Of the five S-58's that Moore had three were crashed by other pilots and the last two were sold when they ran out of parts. They had started switching tail rotor blades between the spray ship and the fire ship depending on the job: typical crop dusting mentality, just run-um-til-they-break. Then, if there's anything left, start over. Still it was a better ship than the UH-1B up until about 4000ft, then, it was just about all out of breath.
While at SJH I was checked out in the UH1-B and did CWN fire work with it. It was a slug, seemed sometime it didn't want to get out of it's own shadow. SJH decided to SUPER one and modified it with a bigger engine, tail-boom extension, and longer rotor blades. Now, this was a performer, but it had a nasty habit of getting engine chip lights. Mostly fuzz and such, I was told again don't worry about it unless you can see part numbers. But when coming out of a confined place and absolutely no place to land and that little BRIGHT light comes on, it get's a little nerve wracking especially WAY back in the Trinity Alps. A week after I returned a pilot was ferrying the machine to LA when he got a chip light and decided to land and the engine FROZE up. No wonder I had ulcers