Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Hot Tub Fantasy

Chico, California

June 27. 2013, 2010 Hours


            When the narrative ended Jack and Walter adjourned to the kitchen. Walter refreshed his drink while Jack loaded his plate with something quiche-like, salami, and a medley of raw vegetables. Through the closed glass doors Jack heard muted sounds but the shaded patio table and chairs were vacant.

            “We better check on the ladies,” said Walter, stepping to the door and sliding it open. Laughter erupted when Walter stepped out and Jack followed. The yard was fenced with tall grape-stakes. An artificial spring bubbled water over rocks to a little pool surrounded by Japanese maple trees and fern. A trellis separated the covered patio from a hot tub. Discarded clothes littered the grass by the redwood-sided edifice.

            “Bienvenido a la bañera de agua caliente,” said Chris. She hoisted a glass of wine and wore a smile.

            “I think we’re in trouble,” said Walter. “She’s speaking in tongues.”

            “I think it’s Spanish,” said Jack.   

“Únete a la fiesta,” said C. J. wearing an equally appealing smile. She plucked a wine bottle from the rim of the tub and poured a measured amount into a long-stemmed glass.

           “I’m thinking I’m not going anywhere soon. What is it, twelve hours bottle to throttle? And what’s with the Spanish?”

            “Chris speaks four languages. She likes to practice.”

            “C. J. is full of surprises,” said Jack checking her out. Her hair was loose on her shoulders.

            “You know we’re right here, listening to you guys talking about us,” said Chris.

            “So, this has turned into an English and clothes optional event?” queried Jack, intrigued by the turn of events.

            “English optional, clothes prohibited if you want to get wet,” said C. J. explaining the rules, sipping wine.

            “Have you ever played this game before, Walter?” asked Jack, looking at C. J.

            “Chris has four sisters. It’s kind of a right-of-passage for new males joining the tribe. They like to check out the merchandise.”

            “C. J. and I have been discussing taking your relationship with her to the next level. I always recommend a pre-sexual inspection,” said Chris in a clinical voice.

            “I wasn’t aware we had a relationship to fiddle.”

            C. J. swirled the wine in her glass then looked through it at Jack. “Good color,” she observed. “It’s got legs.” Then she stuck her nose in the glass and sniffed. “Fairly intense.” She came up for air and glanced at Chris. “What do you look for in a good wine?”

            “It should be expressive with clarity, not too complex; it needs to connect. Speaking of wine, I think we need another bottle. Walter, could you be a dear?”

            “Your wish is my command. What color?”

            “A nice white,” said C. J.

            Walter departed.

            “Quiche, anyone?” asked Jack feeling foolish holding his plate.

            The ladies just gazed at him. He wasn’t sure if he was a slice of meat or a Picasso. Taking charge of his fate he walked to the table and set the plate on it, sat in a chair, feeling awkward, and took off his shoes and socks. He was sheltered behind the trellis. After fortifying himself with a slice of salami he unbuttoned his shirt, got up and strolled to the hot tub. C. J. and Chris were flushed pink with heat and wine, their breasts bobbing, nipples full.

            “Showtime!” encouraged Chris.

            Jack reached for the bottle of wine and took a swig, put it back and peeled off his shirt.

            “Nice move,” said C. J., cocking her head to one side. “What else you got, sailor?”

            Jack exercised the bottle one more time then did his best to casually drop his pants. He had to lean on the tub to extricate his feet. The ladies giggled.

            “Off with the undies!” commanded Chris.

            Jack took a breath and his plaid Fruit-of-the-Loom joined the clutter in the grass. The two women looked at each other, Chris nodded approvingly. C. J. raised her finger and drew a circle in the air. Jack did a slow turn.

            “You may join our aquatic world,” pronounced C. J. with a slight nod.

            Jack sat sidesaddle on the gel-coat rim then swung his legs over into the hot pool and slowly sunk to his chest in the churning water, bottoming on a smooth slick bench seat. “Nice boobs,” he offered, conversationally.

            “What happened to Walter?” asked C. J. “We need another guy.”

            “I think he’s stomping the grapes,” said Jack.

            “I come bearing gifts,” said Walter stepping from a sliding glass door behind the tub.

            Distracted, Jack hadn’t noticed the portal before Walter appeared. The hot tub was situated outside the master bedroom. Walter wore a white terry cloth robe and clutched a bottle of wine and two glasses.

            “Looks like I’m late for the party.”

            “It’s just getting interesting,” said Jack. Walter set the glasses on the tub and poured. When all the vessels were loaded and in hand Jack proposed a toast. “To my abduction.”

            “We’ll have to decide on a ransom,” suggested C. J.

            The glasses rose and collided. Walter disrobed and slid into the mix.

            “I don’t know anybody who wants me back. Could be like ‘The Ransom of Red Chief’ and you’ll have to pay to get rid of me.”

            “Maybe we could teach you some useful skills?” said C. J. looking at Jack studiously. “You displayed some aptitude for flight, a willingness to learn and take on new challenges. What do you think, Walter?”

            Walter had settled with his arm around Chris. “Cabana Boy?”

            “Jack has more potential than that, Walter,” said Chris with mild derision.

            “Sorry. It’s hard to concentrate in the company to two lovely naked par-boiled women. That could be an entry level position,” offered Walter suggestively.

            “What sort of skill do you have, Jack?” asked Chris.

            The question caught him off guard. His thoughts under the influence of heat and wine had drifted momentarily to the first time he had seen C. J. walking across the ramp in Lancaster. Now she was serene, looking at him; Lady Godiva with a glass of wine. “I have excellent penmanship.”

            “We could build on that,” said C. J. “Develop your writing and speaking skills.”

            “I could be a linguist. Maybe we could combine that with whatever level our relationship is moving towards. The Latin root, lingua, is tongue. I would say we should explore the use of our tongues to communicate. Possibly involving the lips in the process.”

            “You’ve put some thought into this,” said C. J.

            “It’s crossed my mind,” said Jack, putting his glass down and sliding to her side. He reached up and cupped the back of her head and she leaned easily into him. There was nothing tentative about their first kiss and embrace. Jack’s hand moved down to her neck and spread the thick wet mop of her hair through his fingers while their mouths shared their secrets. Jack felt a hand and arm wrap his torso and they shifted, their bodies searching for contact. He opened his eyes briefly. Beads of sweat populated C. J’s forehead and her dark eyelashes smiled.

            “I think Jack has some skills,” observed Chris.

            “We’re going to need a room after watching that execution. I’m getting horny,” said Walter.

            C. J. and Jack took a breath and shared a languid look.

            “I believe you’ve done it,” said Jack.

            “What’s that?” asked C. J.

            “That was undoubtedly the best first kiss I’ve ever experienced.”

            “Shall we go for two?”


            The next effort required the use of all the hands available and involved previously untouched portions of flesh. Jack’s fingers rode the ridgeline of C. J. spine to the small of her back while their mouths and tongues continued their quest.

            “I’m thinking the elevator has arrived,” said Walter. “They’re at level two.”

            “Level two,” said Chris, lifting her glass in toast to Walter.

            C. J. pushed back, taking a deep breath, and looked at Chris and Walter. “Is the guest room available?”

            “By all means,” said Chris. “I hope you make it.”

            “Am I being expelled from the pool?” asked Jack.

            “It’s level two Jack; grin and bear it,” said Walter.

            C. J’s slick body rose from the water and Jack followed suit. They exited the tub with a modicum of grace. Once firmly grounded, C. J. clutched Jack’s hand and led him away.

            “Well, that went well,” said Walter. “Shall we join them?”

            Chris slid onto Walter’s lap and gave him a kiss.


June 28. 2013, 0246 Hours


            After several rounds with C. J. in Cupids Gym Jack was physically spent and relaxed while his mind wandered an emotional landscape of new possibilities, and a thought, careful what you wish for, played in his mind. The radiated heat of C. J’s body penetrated the space between them. It contrasted with the chill sensation of the sheet, damp with perspiration precipitated by their lust.

            Sleep wasn’t in the cards. He began to dwell on the logistics of retrieving his clothes. He sat up on the side of the bed and debated employing a pillow, rejected the option, stood and took steps to the door. He listened, then poked his head into the hall. The framed gallery of Chris’s career leered at the naked intruder slinking through at half crouch. Jack made the living room, picked an angle to the sliding glass door, found a coffee table with his shin, and offered some muffled expletives to mitigate pain. Regrouping, he employed furniture brail, feeling the way through the remaining obstacles before counting coup on the sliding glass doors.

           Jack found his boxer shorts and donned them, then gathered the balance of his outfit. He recognized C. J’s flowered print under a pile of clothes and scooped them up, then moved back to the sliders. Inside, the refrigerator stood like a beacon, its door ajar. Walter stood like a ghostly apparition inspecting the contents of the appliance. Jack made his entrance and offered a halloo so as not to startle his host.

            “Did I disturb the peace?” asked Jack.

            “Not yet. Just checking to see if anything needs to be eaten.”

            “It can be troubling realizing something might spoil at night,” said Jack.

            “Don’t tell Chris. I’m dieting.”

            “My lips are sealed,” promised Jack. “Anything interesting?”

            “Want a beer?”

            “Why not. It’s been that kind of day, night, whatever.”

            Walter liberated two beer bottles from the frig, extracted an opener from a drawer, and popped the tops. He handed one to Jack and they took a drink.

            “You should park the laundry; we can adjourn to the living room and philosophize.”

“No girl-talk. After the last three days, I need to re-boot my hard-drive on women. C. J. is a whole new species.”

            “It’s genetic. Too much Charlie and Nancy,” suggested Walter.

            “So, what happened to Slim Davis after the meeting in DC?”

            “He retired from the Forest Service but he still flies a contract jumper plane.”

            “Where did Steve Canyon come from?”

            “He came from the Air Force. He’d written some books. They considered him the high priest of aviation safety and slayer of rogue pilots.

            “You reject the idea that it’s just evolution, natural selection? The old airplanes, the dinosaurs, are gone.”

            “I understand there was a rather large meteorite involved in that extinction. Pulling the plug on the planes was an administrative decision.”

            “An administrative meteorite,” suggested Jack.

            “Steve Canyon, slayer of rogue pilots, almost killed the large airtanker industry.”

            “Sounds like a rogue administrator.”

            “In spite of how fast the big crop dusters and heavy helicopters materialized there was a lot more fallout than expected. You can paint a turd but you can’t polish it, so management memorized the talking points; ‘purpose built’ aircraft; we don’t want ‘wings falling into school yards’. It was like a mantra; chant the words it becomes reality.”

            Walter drained another portion of beer and smacked his lips. “The operators were in disarray before it happened, fighting each other for a piece of the pie; in shock after it happened. They showed up in Washington, some with lobbyists, and marched around the halls trying to find senators or representatives willing to listen to their plight.”

             “The states; mostly Arizona, California, and Montana were alarmed. Their governors and senators put pressure on the Forest Service and they took a step back. The most viable of the large airtanker fleet, the P-3’s, trickled back into service. By the end of the 1004 fire season eight of them were back in service.”

            “The P-2 contractors worked together and managed to put some the P-2’s back on contracts after running a gauntlet of airworthiness and maintenance requirements. Two or three years later there were fourteen or fifteen large airtankers flying. But the damage had been done. Three or four contractors managed to survive.”

            “I think I’m going to call it a night,” said Jack.

            “I think it’s morning.”

            “I suppose it is but I don’t want to miss waking up next to C.J.”


Note from the blogosphere. I'm going on vacation. Let me know if you want the rest of the story.


Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Walters place.

Lancaster, California

June 27. 2013, 0600 Hours

            Jack’s smart phone played reveille. Fatigue hung like a veil but he was immediately conscious. The rerun of the previous evening continued playing in a loop through most of the previous night. In spite of an instinct for self-preservation and rational reservations he knew he was hooked. Digging into a story with tragic heroes, lascivious lobbyists, greedy politicians, backpedaling bureaucrats, against a backdrop of flaming disasters; he couldn’t resist: and now a gun toting twenty-four-year-old woman out of a pulp fiction novel was going to fly him to Chico, California. The thought of Rod, his Boss, was a mental toothache. Not much of a ring to Chico thought Jack, writing the script in his mind. He showered and put himself together, packed his backpack with his tools of the trade plus underwear and socks.

            C. J. was quick answering the door. She wore baggy khaki pants and a faded tropical print blouse. Her hair was draped over one shoulder and she was pulling a brush through the damp tangles.

            “Remember, I’m not a morning person,” she warned.

            “I’m going to see what’s cooking downstairs,” said Jack.

            “Don’t drink a lot of coffee. We’ll be in the plane two and a half hours.”

            “I’m an Air Attack veteran now. I learned my lesson. The car is open if you want to deposit anything for the trip.”

            Jack was mid peanut butter muffin when C. J. arrived for breakfast. She surveyed the selection looking indecisive then plucked a hard-boiled egg from its nest. Yogurt and a cup of OJ followed suit and she joined Jack at the table.

            “I appreciate you going out of your way doing this, C. J.,” said Jack after she had shelled the egg.

She inspected her efforts then took a bite and looked at him with a similarly detached expression as her mouth worked over the morsel, then she chased it with OJ. “We live in a very small self-sufficient world on the island,” she said. “When we come to the states I want to get away from Mom and Dad. I haven’t had many opportunities in the past.”

            “They seem pretty reasonable.”

            “They’re my parents. I need a break.”

            Until they arrived at the airport further conversation was limited to the weather and generic vacuous observations.

            Jack hadn’t seen the plane up close. It had two engines and the wings were low on the fuselage. Its nod to eccentricity was a hibiscus flower painted on the tail, a la Hawaiian Airlines. He followed C. J. as she checked various caps and fluid levels and removed the chains anchoring it to the ramp. She explained the plane had six fuel tanks and narrated her activities under the wings and in the engine and fuselage compartments. 

            “I’ll have to climb in first unless you want to ride in back,” said C. J.

            “I’ve never been up front.”

            “The view is better and I can put you to work.”



            After they climbed in, C. J. showed Jack how to secure the door and saw that he was strapped in correctly; then she pulled out a check-list and set the plane up to start.

            She yelled “Clear” out a little vent window and the left propeller began to turn, the engine sputtered, then ran. When the right engine was running they both donned headsets and tested the intercom, making adjustments. While the engines warmed, she handed a chart to Jack. It was already folded and she pointed out their position and where they were headed.

            “After we take off, see if you can correlate what you’re seeing outside with what’s on the chart.”

            “I feel like Magellan,” said Jack following C. J’s hand on the chart.

            “Okay, let’s do it,” said C. J.

            The evolution of the flight was similar to the previous day’s adventure and C. J. was right, the view was much better. She appeared to know what she was doing, handling the airplane and talking on the radio with an air of confidence, sounding professional. Jack did as instructed and found he could translate the contour lines on the chart to the terrain out the windscreen. He marked their progress noting towns and the roads connecting them like a vascular system.

            “Where are we?” asked C. J., looking to Jack after twenty minutes. It was posed like a test question. He pointed to a place on the chart. “That looks about right. Let me know when we’re close to Porterville.”

            “Roger,” said Jack, playing to the crowd. “So, what do you do on your island?”

            “Mostly work on the boat.”

            “The Jolly Roger?”

            “Yeah. It’s a dive boat. Usually tourists.”

            “Is that how you learned to channel dolphins?”

            “Pretty much. I grew up going out on the ocean. Mom made sure I was a strong swimmer. She’s the boat person.”

            “What’s Charlie’s role on the island?”

            “He keeps things running: does some charters with the Aztec. There are airline connections to Roatan but TACA is not known for its reliability.”

            “And you have a brother that’s down there running the show now?”

            “Yeah, Davey. He’s the old one, by year and a half.”

            “Davey Jones. Your parents appear to have a sense of humor. How did they end up in Honduras?”

            “That depends on who you ask. Dad was recovering from a gunshot wound and he said he just fell in love with the place.”

            “Your family seems to have a lot of weapons history.”

            “Mom hates them. She really doesn’t like me carrying.”

            “Did they meet on the island?”

            “They met before the island. Mom was working on sailboats: charters, dead-heading boats.


            “Moving boats for people with more money than time. Anything to make a living and get experience for her captain’s licenses.”

            “I guess it worked out. She got her boat.”

            “She’d rather have a sailboat but there’s no money in it. The Jolly Roger was a lobster boat. They claim they bought it: people on the island say Dad won it in a poker game.”

            “Sounds like Ozzie and Harriet,” said Jack.

            “So, where’s Porterville?”

            “That’s not fair, you’ve been distracting me.”

            “Typical male: easily distracted; unable to multitask.”

            “Stand by captain, I’ll come up with a fix.”

            While Jack studied the chart, C. J. centered the needle of the Course Deviation Indicator, CDI.

            “So, what do you think, Magellan?”

            “I think we passed the Spice Islands.”

            “It’s a little tougher when we get out here in the valley. Fortunately, we have a few tools. We’re about fifty miles north of Bakersfield.”

            “One of my favorite places.”

            C.J. continued to school Jack as they flew while responding to occasional queries from air traffic control. Somewhere north of Fresno she had him take the controls and she took a break while talking him through the use of the yoke and rudder pedals and critiquing his performance. Passing Sacramento, he pleaded for relief and she took over.

            “That’s a lot like work,” said Jack flexing his fingers.

            “You learn to relax after awhile.”

            “Deep breaths, calm the mind; become one with the machine. Kind of Zen like.”

            “Something like that.”

            Twenty minutes later they were in Chico.


            “Well, that was relatively painless,” said Jack when C. J. shut down on the ramp in front of Chico Aviation.

            “The painful part is topping off the airplane with fuel.”

            Jack thought about that for a moment wondering what he had gotten into. His plan was to write the gas off as a business expense and charge Rolling Stone but he hadn’t cleared it with the editorial staff. It would fall under the category of it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.

            Jack unwound from the plane. “I’m going to find the boys’ room.”

            C. J. was on her phone and offered a nod. A fuel truck was moving toward the plane before Jack entered the building. He met C. J. in the lobby when he left the restroom.

            “Walter is on his way.”

            C. J. flashed some teeth then headed for the ladies’ facilities.

            Fifteen minutes later Walter arrived. Jack had dinged his credit card for four hundred and twenty dollars and eleven cents and learned that money is what makes a plane fly.

            With smiling eyes and an easy laugh, Walter would have had the Santa part with a red suite and a hat to cover his clean shaved head. He hugged C. J. with gusto and turned to Jack.

            “You’re the reporter,” said Walter, turning serious.

            “Who have you been talking to?” asked Jack.

            “Charlie. He wants to know what you’ve done with his daughter.”

            C. J. looked a little sheepish when Jack glanced at her for help. “I’m obviously out of my depth in this conversation but it’s nice to meet you, Walter.”

            Walter laughed and reached out, offering his hand. “I should probably report to the authorities that you have been found. Just another victim of C. J’s wiles.”

            Jack was getting the picture.

            “He didn’t do anything stupid like report the plane stolen, did he?” asked C. J.

            “You didn’t tell Charlie we were going to Chico?” Jack was a bit stunned.

            “I figured that would be the only way to escape. I texted Mom this morning.”

            “Don’t worry, Jack. I don’t think Charlie ever killed anybody,” said Walter with another chuckle.

            Jack wasn’t sure what to make of his abduction.

            “Where’s Chris?” asked C. J., steering the conversation on a tangent.

            “She’s home whipping up some treats. I hesitate to ask what your plans are.”

 “Maybe knock over an ATM. Stealing an airplane is just the start,” offered Jack.

            “Enough with the drama,” said C. J. “I’ll call Dad and make peace. I’d like to say hi to Chris and see what she has cooked up. You boys can talk shop.”

            “Ever been to Chico, Jack?” asked Walter.

            C. J. took the back seat in the SUV and called Charlie while Walter drove back streets to his house. Jack tried to ignore the monologue from the rear while talking to Walter about some of what he had learned from Milo Peltzer, Don O’Connell, Lloyd Clift, and Charlie about the large airtanker business.

            “Why do you think the Forest Service created such a void and why hasn’t it been filled? I’ve come to some conclusions but I’m hoping you will talk to me about what you know, fill in some blanks. Maybe draw conclusions.”

            “I work for Cal Fire and it’s a whole different animal,” said Walter.

            “But you have some insights about the federal program, right?”

            “I know a lot of Forest Service people,” said Walter. “Almost home.”

            C. J. had stowed the phone when Jack craned his neck to check on her. “I like the pouty look,” said Jack. She scowled.

            Walter’s neighborhood was neatly groomed with a gardener’s finesse, the houses tidy and closely spaced; a lot of stucco. He pulled up a steep driveway into an open garage and parked next to a gray convertible BMW Z4, YOGA 1 on the plate. Jack was pretty sure Walter was not the practitioner.

            A door from the garage led to a hall. There was a bedroom on the left, Walter’s office on the right, a man cave. Jack couldn’t resist and stepped into Walter’s lair. The walls chronicled years of flight in images, certificates, and awards. There were models suspended by filament and topping various flat surfaces. A bank of computer screens sat in front of an ergonomic swivel chair.

            “You found my closet,” said Walter.

            “More like a museum.”

            “When I’m gone you can call it a museum.”

            Jack looked for a pattern. “You were in the Navy?”

            “See the world.”

            Jack inspected a framed certificate. ”That’s a Distinguished Flying Cross. How do you get one of those?”

            “They give them to people who are young, stupid, and think they are invincible.”



            Jack strolled. “Hot air balloons, Air America, Air Cal, American Airlines, airtankers; am I missing anything?”

            “Gliders, helicopters, and hot air balloons.”

            “And here’s a catamaran. Do you ever walk the earth?”

            “In short bursts and in confined spaces. We should check on the women.” Walter led the way. “Clear the decks!” he called announcing their imminent arrival.

            In the hall Jack was once again distracted. One wall hosted rows of magazine covers, mostly Cosmopolitan, just one model in a range of poses, in various states of dress and undress. She was a classic fair-skinned blond with striking green eyes set appropriately wide. In a variety of photos, she exposed the contradiction of youthful naïveté and seductress. Interesting, thought Jack, pulling away.

            Walter already had a glass of amber fluid on ice when Jack found the kitchen. C. J. stood with a seasoned version of the model on the hallway wall.

            “Jack, I presume. I’m Chris,” She moved past C. J. around a butcher-block island with an assortment of carefully arranged hors d’oeuvres and gave him a hug. He returned the favor.

            “Nice to meet you in person. I previewed the wall.”

            “My checkered past. Something to drink? Beer, wine, whisky, we can please most palates.”

            “Water would be great. I have to keep my wits about me. I’ve been kidnapped, you know.”

            “I heard. If you’re lucky maybe she’ll tie you up,” said Chris with a lascivious look. “She’s pretty handy with ropes; all that time on the Jolly Roger.”

            “That’s probably what made Roger jolly,” offered Walter toasting the air.

            “I think I’ll have a glass of that rosé,” said C. J. “I can see it’s going to take awhile to recover my dignity. I might as well enjoy my discomfort.”

            “That’s the spirit!” said Walter. “We have food as well. Chris has performed her usual culinary magic. Grab a plate.”

            Jack dutifully filed past the assembled platters and loaded a plate. C.J. followed, then snagged a glass of wine from the counter and headed out a sliding glass door to a patio. Jack hesitated in a doorway leading to the living room that reflected a well-traveled life, tastefully eclectic.

            “Maybe we should divide and conquer,” said Walter balancing a plate and manipulating his glass. “We can consort in the living room and give the women time to gossip.”

            “We don’t gossip. We’re going to plot our next move,” said Chris.

            “Now I’m nervous,” said Jack. 

            Jack and Walter settled in the living room.

            “What is your take on what happened to the large airtanker program. The Forest Service cancelled the contracts because the planes weren’t safe. The wings were falling off,” prodded Jack.

            “Lets go back in time. Tanker 130 and 123 had the wing failures in 2002. All the C-130’s and PB4Y’s had been taken out of service after 2002. None of the tankers left in the fleet in 2004 had any history of structural failures.”

            “So why did it happen in 2004?” asked Jack.

            “Ah, now you’re thinking like a reporter.”

            “Journalist,” corrected Jack. “What happened after the contracts were pulled?”

            “Within days, at most a week, the Forest Service came up with a plan. I’d been to a Forest Service Safety Meeting in Sacramento, in March 2004. Steve Canyon, Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation led the discussion. There was a lot of talk about new technologies, potential new airframes, and that the large airtanker operators had to do a better job maintaining their airplanes.

            "I think Steve looked out and saw a bunch of crop dusters and he wanted an Air Force. Anyway, after some discussion he came up with a number. At the time there were around thirty-three large airtanker exclusive use contracts. And he said there was thirty-three million dollars to pay for them. Then he laid it out pretty clearly. If it cost a million dollars to hire a plane there would be thirty-three on contracts. If it cost two million, there would be sixteen or seventeen.”

           “What’s the message?” asked Walter, rhetorically. “The more money you spend on maintenance, the fewer airplanes there will be on the payroll. That’s the take home for a room full of competitors at a safety meeting. Two months later, less than a week after the contracts are pulled, there was a hundred million on the table to fill the void until the large airtanker problem was solved.”

           “Interesting,” said Jack

            “A friend of mine, Slim Davis, was caught up in the middle of it.”


Boise Idaho, National Interagency Fire Center

May 17, 2004, 1705 Hours


            It was late, on a Friday, when the phone rang. Not good, thought Slim.

His desk was already packed up for the weekend. He had a short debate with himself about answering the phone.

            “Fire Aviation, Slim Davis speaking.”

            “What the Fuck is going on!” said Ron Hunter, Director of Operations of Aero Union Corporation.

            Slim recognized the voice but he had never heard the tone. “Slow down Ron.”

            “We just got a fax saying all the large airtanker contracts have been withdrawn. If this is a joke it’s not funny.”

            “Where did it come from?”

            “From the National Interagency Fire Center. Maybe you could walk down to the fax machine and see who’s standing there,” said Ron.

            “I’ll call you back,” said Slim then he hung up.

            The phone was ringing again but he ignored it. Mary, a secretary, was at her desk behind the glass encased reception area.

            “I thought you might be showing up,” she said.

            “Did you send a fax to Aero Union?”

            “Yes. I sent it to all the large airtanker contractors. The letter came from DC. They said to wait until the end of the day.”

            “Who said?”

            “Steve Canyon.”

            “Get him on the phone. I’ll be in my office.”

            Is this really happening thought Slim, pacing?

            Mary appeared at his door. “Nobody’s answering. It’s seven o’clock in DC. They’ve probably gone home.”

            “I’m flying to Washington. Arrange a ticket.”

            “When do you want to leave?”


            Slim went to his desk and called Ron Hunter. “It’s not a joke.”

            “What the fuck! We’ve just spent the last year jumping through hoops complying with continuing airworthiness mandates! We’ve spent millions! We have three tankers on contract, in Texas; they flew today!”

            “I don’t know what to say. I’m flying to DC, tonight,” said Slim.

            The line went dead. As soon as he hung up the phone rang. Slim spent the next twenty minutes explaining to the balance of the large airtanker contractors he didn’t know W-T-F was going on. Mary had ducked in leaving a note saying he had a flight at 7:15. He was spent, feeling empty, verging on nausea, when he left the building. Driving home to pack for the trip he recalled a meeting he had attended. Steve Canyon had been a presenter speaking to a conference of regional foresters about the upcoming fire season. He had been quoted in the November 2003 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology.

           "We're redefining what 'airtanker' means. In 2004, we're going to see larger numbers of Type-1 (heavy) helicopters operating in what used to be a traditional fixed-wing role . . . In many cases, when you call for an airtanker, you're going to see a big helicopter show up -- and be glad it did."

Washington DC

May 18, 2004, 0815 Hours

            Slim stood in front of the Sidney Yates Building, the Washington DC home of the US Forest Service. Its foreboding Romanesque architecture would serve as a fine backdrop for Frankenstein remake thought Slim. The building held a place on the US Registry of Historical Buildings. Inside he signed the guest registry at the receptionist’s desk and asked if Steve Canyon was available.

            “I’m not sure if he’s here. It’s the weekend; I’ll check,” said the gentleman in Forest Service green uniform at the desk as he picked up a phone. After a short pause and a longer conversation, he hung up. “Do you know the way Mr. Davis?”

            “Yes, I’ve been here before.”

            “Have a nice day.”

            “I don’t think that’s in the cards but thanks for the thought,” said Slim.

            On the ride-up in the elevator Slim took time trying to sort out his emotions. He reflected on his decision to take the job of managing the fleet of large fixed wing airtankers for the Forest Service. It had been a promotion but as he had known there was an element of politics, unlike his long operational career as a firefighter, smokejumper, and pilot, and at the moment it felt like it had been the wrong decision. The door to Steve Canyon’s office was open, the name emblazoned on the opaque white glass of the door. Slim took a deep breath as he stepped into the room.

            Any thought of a one-on-one conversation or explanation evaporated. Slim recognized some of the people in the room, they all had looks of solemn intensity.

            “Slim, I’m surprised to see you here,” said Steve stepping around his desk.

            “You didn’t answer your phone.”

            “I understand. I’m sorry we sprung this on you but we didn’t want to let the cat-out-of-the-bag too soon.”

            “It’s more like a sabre-tooth-tiger; oh yeah, they’re extinct.”

            “Look Slim, I know this isn’t easy for you. But we’ve decided we need more than putting band aids on the large airtanker problem.”

            Looking around the room Slim recognized, Ray Gunnison, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment. A former lobbyist and advocate for Forest Products Industries, he had earned the moniker, Ray Guns, for what had been considered his scorched-earth policy by the previous administration with its liberal environmental agenda.

            “Let me introduce you to our team,” said Steve.

            “Team?” repeated Slim, as he was shepherded to a seat at a conference table.

            All eyes had turned to Slim; it was not comforting.

            “This is Slim Davis,” began Steve. “Legendary smokejumper and pilot. I think he stood beside Gifford Pinchot when the Forest Service began,” said Steve in a genial tone.  

            First up was a distinguished, grey haired, goateed, man sporting a red bow-tie. 

            “Senator Seymour Clanton.”

            “Senator,” said Slim nodding.

            Steve continued around the table.

            “Emily Adams; our interface with the helicopter operators that are going to help us out of this jam. And this is James Hill, the State Forester and Director of the Texas State Forest Service. He held a seat on the ‘Blue Ribbon’ Panel on aerial firefighting.”

            “Slim is in charge of contracting and managing the large airtanker program. He’s probably feeling left out,” said Steve sporting a sheepish grin.

            Slim folded his hands on the table, looked from face to face, and waited for someone to speak.

            Ray broke the silence.

            “I’ve decided the large airtanker fleet represents too much of a liability to continue operating. We can’t afford another incident. We’re going to move on to a new era with different platforms that will do a better job, safely.”

            “You’re discounting all the time, effort, and money the contractors have invested to meet our continuing airworthiness program?”

            “As Steve has said, it’s time to move on,” said Ray.

            “How do you intend to do that? We have ongoing fires in Texas right now,” said Slim.

            James Hill spoke up.

            “I’ve contacted some of our SEAT operators in Texas. They stand ready to help out immediately.”

            “You already have commitments? I just found out about this last night.”

            Nobody offered a word.

            “The SEATS don’t have nearly the capacity of a large tanker,” said Slim.

            “There are a lot of AG operators in Texas. We can make up for it with more planes,” explained James.

            “We’re also going to line up some heavy helicopters. They can handle the big loads,” said Steve. “Emily has contacts with all the heavy helicopter people.”

            “How are you going to pay for that?”

            “That’s where Senator Clanton comes in. He sits on Senate Committee for Agriculture. He’s arranging to provide one hundred million dollars to make sure we have the resources we need for the coming fire season,” said Steve.

            “Hell, I thought we might have a problem, but I guess you people have it all figured out,” said Slim.

            “Look Slim; It’s time to get on-board. We’re moving ahead,” said Ray.    

            “That’s okay; I think I’ll pass. It doesn’t look like you need a large airtanker contracting officer anymore.” 


To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. First Date.


Lancaster, California 

June 26. 2013, 1930 Hours


       Jack was scouting the parking lot for his ride when he spotted C. J.

       “What’s for dinner?” she asked as he approached.

       Jack decided to dial down his inclination to spar verbally even though he felt like he had been left on the ropes after their morning encounter. “Any dietary restrictions or requests?” he asked as he arrived at the car. C. J. had added a fanny pack to her outfit, Jack presumed she was armed to shop or go Dutch.

       “Pretty much an omnivore. We don’t see much red meat at home.”

       “I’ve heard Foxy’s Steakhouse has ambiance and we could address your inner carnivore.”

       “That could work.”

       “How was shopping?”

       “Intimidating. The banquet of consumer options; so many stores, so little time.”

       “Stay away from Costco,” advised Jack. “Do you need to report your movements or are you ready to go now?”  

       “I told Mom we were going out to dinner unless you changed your mind.”

       C. J. had tossed some chum, a subtle tone in a statement-question from a woman-child. Jack tasted the water, sensing a shift in whatever was going on between them. He felt like he had passed a test but now he didn’t know who was driving the train. “Hey, I’m good to go.”

       They climbed into the car.

       “I hear you went for a ride.”

       “Yeah. I spent the afternoon doing donuts over a fire,” said Jack as he turned the key. “I got to see your dad work. Pretty impressive.”

       “He’s been at it a long time. So, Mr. Journalist, how old are you?”

        “How old am I?” repeated Jack looking over his shoulder and backing up.

        “Yeah. You don’t look too old but you’re already losing your hair.”

        “I’m thirty-three going on fifty. You have a boyfriend?”

        “Not currently. I’m 24. In case you were wondering.”

       “I was wondering. You probably have a couple of years before your hair starts falling out. How are your teeth?”


       “Have you always lived on the island?”

        “Pretty much.”

       Jack pulled onto the Musical Highway and they drove in silence until they arrived at Foxy’s Steakhouse.

       “You realize this is an institution in the tanker world,” said C. J.

        “I like the concept of institutions anchored by bars. It’s pretty common in the music world.”

       The first door they came to opened to the bar portion of the establishment. Jack held it, ushering C. J. in with a hand gesture. He was rewarded with a smile as she brushed past. A swamp cooler hummed and blew cool humidified air down the length of a counter lined with round worn swivel stools. Two occupants sporting doo-rags, nursing beers, twisted, taking in C.J’s arrival, the far viewer having to lean back for the full affect. She slid into a seat leaving a modest space and turned to them.

       “Howdy, boys.”

       They nodded and continued to gawk. Jack sat down attempting to own his space. He thought about the two Harleys parked outside and hoped this wasn’t a mistake. Jack felt some relief when he noted movement in what appeared to be the kitchen, then a woman appeared.

        “C. J! When did you get in town?” The woman had some miles on her but she was attractive and in her element.


        “Where’s Charlie?”

       “He’s pulling the duty with Mom. We stopped and saw Don up in Bakersfield then Dad had to go to work.”

       “That old coot is still kicking? He was an old man when I was still a virgin. That was a long time ago.”

       “Marge, this is Jack,” said C. J. turning to him. “He’s a journalist. He’s interested in the tanker business.”

       “We don’t see many ‘journalists’ around here,” said Marge, looking to Jack with an appraising eye.

       “Nice to meet you, Marge,” offered Jack hoping he passed muster.

       “I think he’s interested in getting in your pants,” said Marge.

       “I just do oral sex,” said Jack. “Journalists just talk about it.”

       Marge broke a grin. “A cunning linguist. I like it. Are you drinking or just talking?”

       “I need a beer: Corona with a lime,” said Jack.

       “Make it two,” said C. J. “We’re going to eat as well.”

       Marge retreated to a dated cooler and slid its polished metal lid open.

       “I didn’t know you were a regular,” said Jack turning to C. J.

       “I was four the first time I came here. Dad had one of the tanker contracts at Fox for eight years. It’s a watering hole for airport people.”

       Marge dealt two doilies and parked their beer.

       “An oasis in the desert,” said Jack reaching for his beer. He poked the lime down the bottle’s throat. “Cheers”.

       Bottles clanked and they both took a pull while holding each other’s gaze.

       “Any specials?” asked C. J.

       “We killed a cow. Cookie has some nice prime rib. Halibut just in from Alaska. I’ll find some menus. You want to eat at the bar?”

       “Let’s eat in the restaurant. I want to explore. Put a place to the stories,” said Jack.

       “Honey, take another drink. I like the way that bottle looks in your mouth,” said one of the Doo-Rag Duo.

       C. J. turned and glared.

       “Put a lid on it, Sport. That’s a lady you’re talking to,” said Marge. “The clientele has really gone down-hill around here. Cookie! We have an order to go!” yelled Marge.

       Jack’s tactic, ignore them, wasn’t working and he took a good look at the men: scruffy facial hair, tattoos, wife-beater tee shirts and leather vests: wiry tweekers. His stomach shrank.

       A large black gentleman in a tee shirt and apron materialized from the hall to the restaurant. He gripped a baseball bat in his right hand.

       “Time to go, boys,” he spoke.

       Turning around they realized they had been out flanked.

       “I want to finish my beer,” said doo-rag one.

       “Take it outside,” said Cookie. “Now.”

       They took their time but stood.

       “This way,” said Cookie, backing down the hall.

       They followed.

       Jack watched their retreat feeling relief. “My compliments to the chef,” he said turning to Marge.

       “Damn, I miss the days when the tankers were based here. Then the housing market crashed. There’s whole developments abandoned. Now this meth-head trash shows up out of the desert.”

       “Well, tonight we go back in time,” said C. J., reaching across the counter squeezing Marge’s shoulder.

       “Back to the future,” smiled Marge.

       ‘I’m having the prime rib,” said Jack. “Medium rare.”

       “Make it two, medium rare, loaded potato and another beer.”

       “Why don’t you give me the tour,” said Jack.


       People came in small groups and couples as Jack and C. J. cruised the recesses of the restaurant, checking out the artifacts and pictures. They settled into a booth and the food arrived. As they ate they probed with questions and shared bits of personal history building more intimate resumes, feeling for common ground.

       “Where do you go from here?” asked C. J.

       “Your Dad said I should talk to Walt Darran. You know him?”

       “Yeah. Interesting guy: entertaining. His wife was a well-known model in her day.”

       “He’s in Chico. I have to decide if it’s worth my time.”

       “What would make it worth your time?”

        “Insight into why the tanker business just about collapsed and why it’s been such a struggle to revive.”

       “Walt’s your man. Have you called him?”


       “Call him.”

       “What, right now?”

       “Sure. You’re not going to go up there without calling are you? It’s like seven o’clock. It’s not too late.”

       “I think you’re a bad influence.”

       “I’ve got his number.” She pulled out her smart phone and called.

       “What are you doing?” protested Jack.

       C. J. held up her hand, ignoring Jack’s protests.

       Jack speared a piece of meat venting his frustration.

       “Walter! It’s C. J.” She winked at Jack.

       “We’re down in Lancaster. Dad’s back on 48. Are you at home?”

       C. J. pushed a piece of potato around her plate and listened.

       “Maybe we can get together. I have a new friend, a journalist from The Rolling Stone Magazine. He’s doing a story on the tanker business and would really like to talk to you.” C. J. listened awhile then she grinned and gave Jack a thumbs up.

       “Oh I don’t know, the sooner, the better. How about tomorrow?”

       Jack dropped his fork and mouthed a silent “What the hell!” Taking charge of his life he got up and went to the men’s room. Just like a woman to take over… started the monologue in his mind as he took care of business, then he put faces on past relationships and found himself mumbling. As he finished up at the sink he decided it was better to pursue women while drinking. Nobody has any expectations and you might get laid.

       Back at the table C. J. was coy, sipping beer, looking pleased with herself. This further irritated Jack. He sat down, remained mute, retrieved his beer and worked at looking pissed. C. J. recognized the displeasure but retained a pleasant demeanor.

       “Walt said he would be glad to talk to you about the business. He’s on his Cal Fire contract, flying relief out of Chico so he’s home most nights. He’ll be home tomorrow on a day off if you’re interested,” said C. J.

       “I don’t want to spend the entire day driving to Chico.”

       “If you spring for gas, I’ll fly you up there,” said C. J.

        “You’ll fly me up there?” Jack was taken back. He was definitely not in control. “Just like that you’ll fly me there?”

       “Sure. What have you got to lose, Mr. Journalist?”

       “I saw you climb out of a plane. That doesn’t mean you’re a pilot.”

       “That’s pretty lame,” said C. J. throwing down the gauntlet.

       “Okay, at least let me digest my dinner and think about it.”

       Jack’s mind was lurching between the various possible courses of action and outcomes. He was used to aberrant behaviors, rock stars and musicians running amuck on drugs and alcohol, trashing motel rooms, orgies and rants. How to respond to a woman apparently in possession of all her faculties proposing to fly him to an interview after knowing him for a day and a half? A beautiful creature who swam like a dolphin with legs that went up to make a superb ass, doing more for denim than Levi Strauss could ever have imagined.

       C. J. sat quietly while Jack digested and attempted to analyze objectively what he was doing. Was there a story worth pursuing? He had invested the better part of four days of the last two weeks chasing leads. This was a tipping point. Shit or get off the pot. Are we having fun?

       “Maybe we should head out?” said C. J.

       “Yeah, maybe.”

       “How was dinner?”

       “Great,” said Jack. “Look C. J., I’m just not used to anybody managing my time.”

       “I get it. I’m just throwing possibilities out there. I can just hang around here waiting for Dad to leave or do something a little more interesting, that’s all.”

            Jack picked up the check. “I’ll go pay for the damages,” he said as he stood.

            “I’m going to the ladies’ room,” said C. J.

            “I’ll see you outside.”

            Jack paid the bill and thanked Marge for a great meal. She said he should come back soon.

            “Give me a nod in that rag you write for,” said Marge as he stepped outside.

            As he moved toward the car he noted the wind had calmed. His eyes adjusted slowly. He stopped and turned around expecting to see C. J. emerge and beginning to analyze why he had become so uptight. As he looked at the building he realized there were two motorcycles parked beside it. He had a moment of tingling anticipation before he heard movement behind him and turned.


Lancaster, California

June 26, 2013, 2120 Hours


            C. J. lingered with Marge before leaving Foxy’s. Outside she headed to the car. When she left the lights, and stepped to the gravel parking lot, she saw Jack leaned over the hood of his Corolla by the Doo-Rag Duo and she stopped.

            “Why don’t you join us, little lady?” spoke one of them while producing a knife.

            “Go back in…!” began Jack before his head was bashed into the hood of the car.

            “You go inside I’ll stick him good and we’ll be long gone.”

            C. J. didn’t move.

            “Come here, little girl, you don’t want your friend hurt, do you?”

            C. J. took a tentative step.

            “No…!” managed Jack.

            “Come on, little girl. We won’t hurt you.”

            C. J. took another slow step, then another. Jack squirmed watching her move toward them. After a few steps he realized she had a gun in her hand. The doo-rag duo apparently picked up on the new development at about the same time. They hadn’t paid attention to her hands, reaching behind. Where did that come from, thought Jack through his discomfort.

            She said, “You boys brought a knife to a gun fight.”

            There was something deeply incongruous about the voice and the image and Jack’s mind was reeling.

            “You’re not going to shoot anybody,” said Doo-Rag One, but the casual note had evacuated his voice.

            “Let him go.”

            “Now why would we do that?”

            C. J. took steps backwards and sideways arriving next to the Harleys, pointed the gun at one and pulled the trigger. There was a metallic ring to the pop and a flash.

            “You crazy bitch!” screamed Doo Rag One.

            “As I see it, you can let him go and the two of you can ride away on the bike that still lives. Or you can keep him and I’ll shoot the other bike and you can wait around until the cops arrive.” C. J. stepped away from the bike. “I could punch a hole in the fuel tank and we could have a barbeque.”

            Doo Rag Two shoved Jack’s head into the hood again then stepped away. Jack pushed off the car and moved from the two assailants around the back of the car.

            “Any time now,” said C. J. while gesturing with her pistol. Jack arrived at her side.

            “Lucky you have the little lady to rescue your ass,” said one of the twins as they walked towards the bikes.

            “Drop the knife. I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself,” said Nancy.

            The knife wielding doo-rag glared. Nancy put another round into the bike, the knife fell to the ground and both men picked up the pace. The bar door opened and Marge peered out as the second Harley started and the men climbed aboard. The engine revved and they sprayed gravel executing a hasty departure.

            Marge stepped out and saw C. J. and Jack huddled together. “Everything okay?”

            “I think they had bike trouble,” said Nancy.

            “Shall I call AAA?”

            “After we leave,” said C. J. “I wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea.”

            “You kids drive safe,” said Marge then she ducked back inside.

            “Holy shit, who are you, Annie Oakley!?” Jack found his voice.

            “I grew up in Honduras. Sometimes you have to convince people you’re serious.”

            “Where did the gun come from?”

            “I carry it in my fanny pack.”

            “I thought you had credit cards in there.”

            “A credit card doesn’t buy anything back home. We should probably go to the motel before somebody else shows up and asks questions.”

            “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to dawdle at the crime scene.”

            After they settled in the car Jack gripped the wheel for a few moments.

          “Thanks,” he said glancing at C. J.

          Then he started the car and they drove in silence to the motel. The drive-through Mexican restaurant was like a beacon beneath the Inn of Lancaster sign. Jack turned into the parking lot cruising slowly past a few random vehicles and parked next to the pool.

            “Quite the evening out,” said Jack.

            “Thanks for dinner,” said C. J. “If you want a ride to Chico tomorrow we have to leave early, six-thirty. I’m in room 212. Knock on my door if we’re on. Remember, you buy the gas.”


To be continued...


Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Initial Attack

Lancaster, California

June 26. 2013, 1412 Hours


       The incomprehensible assault of speakers, strategically placed around the facility to inflict maximum aural stress, drove Jack to seek refuge. Having failed, he spent his time attempting to comprehend the meaning of the various announcements. There appeared to be at least three different channels hosted by the system. There were a number of calls for medical aid and traffic collisions. Occasionally a stuck microphone produced a prolonged annoying buzzing background noise and in one instance some un-censored observations about the quality of life. It was after one o’clock when things started to happen.

       Jack had distinctly heard a fire being reported. While transmitting the description and location, the narrative was walked on by orders on another channel, calling for various assets, and the responses from the various assets confirming they had heard the orders. Somehow, the heli-attack crew, lounging in the pilot ready room, was able to glean from the cacophony the need for their assistance and they sprang to life. Ramp personnel emerged from their shaded enclave donning fluorescent yellow vests while retardant loaders stepped from their metal shack by the large tanks containing the pre-mixed fire retardant slurry.

       Jack saw Charlie leave the room at the base of the tower followed by Mark, each holding a fluttering piece of paper, and he realized it was time to head for the Air Attack plane.

       Jack was the first to arrive at the plane where he waited at the cockpit door. Looking back, he watched Mark approach, trailed by another figure Jack assumed to be the Air Attack Officer. The anthill had been disturbed; people scurried about behind the approaching duo. The plaintiff wail of a helicopter engine rose as it became engorged with its helmeted equipment-laden crew. Black umbilical-like hoses were attached to the two tankers and monitored by loaders on the business end. They mimed with hand signals indicating they were ready to load to others controlling the pumps.

       “Pile in,” said Mark as he arrived at the plane.

       Jack stepped into the plane and twisted into the seat. Mark passed through, slipping into the pilot’s position.

       “I’m Ed,” offered the Air Attack Officer. “You all hooked up?”

       “I’m good,” said Jack. He watched Ed turn and secure the door while Mark fiddled with equipment in the cockpit. It took Jack awhile to find the various straps and secure them then he donned his headset. A cloud of dust swept past on the right when the helicopter lifted, then leaned into the wind. A lineman posted in front of the plane pumped his arms and the plane began to roll. Jack hadn’t realized the engines were running. His headset came alive when Mark called Fox ground control for taxi clearance.

       “Can you hear me Jack?” asked Mark.


        “You’re loud and clear. Ed?”

       “Five by five.”

       “Okay, we’re off to see the wizard,” said Mark.

       Jack listened to the radio traffic between the various aircraft, the tower, the tanker base, and watched the world go by out the different windscreens. In short order they were cleared for takeoff and the scene accelerated. The plane climbed and objects below began to shrink; patterns emerged. Roads stretched across the scrubby brush covered desert forming right angles. Incongruously a green field appeared and a serpentine asphalt road racetrack wound through rolling terrain. Wind turbans sprouted like row crops in the valley and climbed the mountains to the north. The vision of a horse and rider jousting the whirling blades flashed in Jack’s mind. Was this adventure a quixotic quest for him or was there a story? 

       He figured out they were headed west as the Tehachapi slipped past the right wing. Crossing a ridgeline, the plane found a wall of wind sheer. Jacks’s head bounced off the side window and the skyway turned to potholes and washboard. At some point Ed had started a dialogue with the Incident Commander while Mark conversed with Los Angeles Approach, negotiating for control of the airspace above the fire. In the near distance a column of smoke boiled on a slope next to Interstate 5. The artery was clotted, traffic backed up several miles in each direction. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles were clustered adjacent to a blackened inverted triangle fringed with flames fanned by winds. The smoke column tipped to the north, a telltale of the wind direction and velocity. The fire was bent on scaling the west side of the Tejon Pass, the divide that traversed the mountains. The pass hosted a majority of the road traffic moving north or south through California; the steep grade, descending to the San Joaquin Valley to the north of the incident, was known as the Grapevine.

       When the plane arrived over the fire it rolled right, into an orbit, and Jack’s view of the fire improved. Moments later, Helicopter, 502, called twelve miles east. Ed was busy sorting out priorities on the ground with the Incident Commander, the I.C., on the Air-to-Ground frequency so Mark responded on Air-to-Air with the altimeter setting, an entry altitude, then cleared them to continue.

       “Let us know when you’re four miles,” instructed Mark.

       “Report four miles,” came the curt reply.

       The I.C. was looking for help with the head of the fire and the right flank, the downwind side. Crews had begun working the left side where the wind would move the fire away from them, barring a shift, unlikely given its sustained push from the coast to fill the heat-induced void in the San Joaquin Valley.

       “I talked to Helo 502: told them to report four miles,” said Mark when Ed broke it off with the I.C.

       “Thanks. We’ll have them set down at that rest stop on the west side of I-5,” said Ed. “Have you seen any water sources closer than Castaic?”

       “I haven’t seen anything else,” said Mark. “There are a lot of power lines on the east side, parallel to the road.”

       “I-5 Air Attack, Angeles Dispatch. Could you give us a report on conditions,” came a call on National Flight Following, NFF.

“       Angeles Dispatch, I-5 Air Attack. We’re on-scene. We’ve got about five acres burning up-slope on the west side of the freeway. I don’t see any immediate structure problems but traffic is backed up both ways. The fire is burning in grass and brush with limited access at the top. I’m talking…”

       “I-5 Air Attack, this is 502. We’re four miles.”

       “Stand by Angeles. The helicopter is calling,” said Ed on NFF then switched channels. “502, I-5 Air Attack. You’re cleared in at 4,500. We’ll have you set down at the rest stop on the west side of the freeway and deploy your crew. Watch out for wires on the east side of the freeway. We’re at 6,000. Nobody else on scene yet but we’re expecting two tankers.”

       “Roger, Ed. I’ll let you know when we’re on the ground,” responded 502.

       “I-5 Air Attack; tanker 48; 12 miles.”

       Jack watched the scene on the ground and listened; the plane was occasionally rattled by turbulent air. Ed cleared Charlie, tanker 48, into the FTA after repeating the pertinent information. Angeles Dispatch was calling again but Ed had apparently tuned them out while dealing with 48, 502, and the IC. The fire continued consuming real estate and appeared to have doubled in size. Yellow-jacketed firefighters, spots on the ground, were scratching a line up the left flank. Other insect-sized men pulled hoses off reels on trucks. Another helicopter called out of the blue, a media ship. Ed responded to their request to enter the FTA telling them to stay above 7,500 feet and monitor the frequency, then he gave dispatch an update.

       Jack saw the helicopter settle into the rest area raising dust and debris. Tanker 5 called fourteen miles and Ed ran through his spiel; then Charlie said he was on scene with everybody in sight. Jack scanned his limited view looking for Charlie.

      “How you doing back there?” asked Mark, peering back at Jack.

       “Good. This is a busy place. Where’s 48?”

       “He’s in a left turn. He’ll pass your side in about 30 seconds.”

       “Air Attack, 502, we’re on the deck. We’ll hook up our bucket and get back to you.”

       “We’ve got two tankers on-scene. Lake Castaic is the closest water we’ve seen,” said Ed. “I’ll let you know when you’re clear to lift.”

       “We’ll hold until we’re cleared,” responded 502.

       “48, Air Attack, I understand you’re on-scene?”

       “Yeah, we’re low at your one o’clock in a left turn.”

       “We’d like to put a line from the shoulder down the right flank. You see the power lines on the east side of the highway?”

       “I see the wires. Are we going to get a lead plane?”

       “I have one on-order but it’ll be awhile,” replied Ed.

       “I-5 Air Attack, tanker 5, we’re on-scene.”

       “Roger, Bob, have you got 48 in sight?”

       “Yeah, we’ll fall in behind him.”

       “What do you think, Charlie? Can you work the right flank?” asked Ed.

       “I think so. We’ll be working out of a right turn. We’re downwind if we’re cleared.”

       “You’re cleared.”

       Mark maneuvered the Air Attack keeping Tanker 48 in view out the right side and Jack watched it maneuver. Charlie asked what coverage lever to use and said it probably wouldn’t take the whole load. Ed replied if he had any left after the drop he could come back and put some on the head of the fire, then reminded Charlie to watch for the power lines on his exit. 502 called and Ed told him to stay on the ground until 48 had completed its drops, then he would be cleared to lift. He switched frequencies and talked to the I.C. The I.C. confirmed line was clear for the drop. Ed switched back to the Air-to-Air frequency and told Charlie, 48 was cleared to drop. Charlie acknowledged and reported “turning right base”.

       Jack watched 48 rolling into a turn as he was tossed about in the Air Attack wondering what the ride was like down in the canyon where the tankers and helicopter had to work. There was some banter about the winds and what corrections to make between Charlie and Ed as the wings of 48 achieved what appeared to be an impossibly steep angle to the earth. Then the nose of the plane appeared to fall.

       The plane passed through some drift smoke as it plummeted then began to roll out in line with the drifting smoke and line of flames. The plane passed the angry head of the fire before a curtain of scarlet retardant poured from its belly. Jack thought the release had been late but as he watched the wind pushed it back and the slurry settled on the fire’s edge.

       A thin trail of mist followed 48 as it pitched up then rolled left over the freeway.

       “We’ve got two door left,” called Charlie. “You want it on the head?”

       The tank had six compartments, six doors, two compartments were left.

       “Looks like it’s settling nicely. You can bring back the rest and put it on the head.”

       “We’ll climb out to the north and make a 180 back for the drop,” said Charlie.

       Jack lost sight of 48 and looked back to the fire. Along the stain of retardant the brush burned with little intensity and the light grass fuels were subdued, emanating wisps of smoke and steam. The IC called Ed saying he was pleased with the drop and wanted the second tanker to be used to reinforce the first drop. Ed suggested they wait and see what effect the rest of 48’s load had on the head and the IC agreed.

       Jack wondered why it was taking so long for Charlie to get back and thinking how he should have taken a pee before climbing into the plane. Charlie finally called, asking if he was still cleared for a drop on the head. Ed cleared him and Charlie said he was on a mile final. Mark rolled hard right and 48 came into view. Jack watched the final, there was little drama. 48 appeared to be level, approaching the hill at an angle, then the plane rolled slightly left and the last two doors spewed red. It put a hurt on the head of the fire.

       “We’re empty,” called Charlie.

       “Good drop,” said Ed. “Plan on a load and return for now.”

       “Roger,” replied Charlie.

       Ed cleared the helicopter to lift, then called Tanker 5. A similar scenario played out although 5 dropped on the head, first, then reinforced Charlie’s drop down the flank. Jack watched when the helicopter departed with its bucket trailing on a long line then tanker 5’s drops. Ed told Tanker 5 to plan on a load and return for the moment. The Air Attack plane continued to buck occasionally while rounding the fire in its orbit. The IC was pleased with the conditions on the fire and told Ed he could hold the tankers. Ed concurred, called dispatch, told them to hold the tankers and gave them an update. The helicopter returned with a bucket of water and Ed turned him loose to support the ground troops.

       The media helicopter called saying they were departing. There was a note of disappointment in the voice. He would probably have to go back and report on traffic. The Air Attack continued to spin above the fire at a leisurely pace. Jack’s bladder spoke to him and now he was hungry as well.

       “You have a urinal on this boat?” asked Jack.

       Mark scavenged around in the cockpit producing an empty plastic water bottle. “We recycle,” he said, handing it to Jack. “Hopefully you won’t have to take a dump. We have enough shit stories already.”



       After the initial threat of the fire had been mitigated the Air Attack became the eyes in the sky for the IC, circling the fire for hours and occasionally communicating with dispatch. The helicopter reported fuel cycles.

       When it got boring Mark waxed scatological recounting bowel emergencies. Pilots had employed boots, gloves, retardant tanks, and buckets. One enterprising individual, single pilot, in an S-2, had sullied a chart. The challenge had been to keep the plane upright while escaping the confines of a flight suit then squat between the seats in the cockpit. At the time the piston engines had a notoriously high failure rate. While dealing with his immediate problem he imagined what the accident report might suggest if one of his engines quit and a crash ensued.

       Jack did what he could to get comfortable and closed his eyes after a couple of hours but the turbulence precluded the possibility of sleep. It was after five when they landed back at Fox field.

       “What do you think?” asked Mark when the props stopped spinning on the ramp.

       “I think I’ll take a pee before I volunteer next time: possibly bring a snack.”

       “You did good, mate. A lot of people toss their cookies, especially in the back, getting bumped around flying in circles.”

       “How many frequencies were you listening to, Ed?” asked Jack.

       “Just four. It went pretty smooth today: the tankers got in and out and gave the guys on the ground what they needed to get a handle on the fire. If the fire takes off, I might have to deal with all six radios and many more resources.”

       “Resources?” asked Jack.

       “Airplanes, helicopters, more ground equipment, media: multiple air and ground frequencies to keep everything sorted out,” explained Ed.

       “Let’s blow this Popsicle Stand,” said Mark. “My butt is numb.”

       Jack fumbled with the cabin door but managed to sort out the mechanism procuring their release. He stepped out and stretched as a small tumbleweed bounded across the tarmac. After thanking Mark and Ed for the ride, he took his leave heading for the Pilot Ready Room looking for a place to deposit his plastic bottle and a more appropriate place to finish the job.

       The base was a study in contrasts. The anthill was hibernating; the helicopter people were still at the fire. Jack deposited his specimen in a trashcan outside the door of the Pilot Ready Room then stepped inside. Charlie was corpse-like in a lounge chair. Jack was on a mission and passed through to the boys’ room.

       Relieving himself at the urinal Jack had time to reflect. There was more to this fire thing than one might imagine. There was a structure constructed on the fire to manage the potential chaos; but making it work was like art; the Air Attack Officer was like a conductor, orchestrating an amazingly dynamic, unpredictable, potentially dangerous encounter with a force of nature. The pilots and planes, musicians and instruments. The idea that there was art involved in operating a machine was a novelty for Jack.     

        Back in the morgue, Charlie was stirring when Jack returned.

       “What’s become of the ladies?”

       “They’re keeping the local economy afloat. We have transportation now. Your car is in the parking lot with the keys inside,” said Charlie. “What do you think of the Air Attack?”

       “It’s an interesting perspective, seeing how the fire evolves. Everybody seemed pleased with how it went.”

       “It’s kind of ironic; when it works well we put ourselves out of business and nobody realizes anything happened.”

       “The folks lined up on Interstate 5 had a show.”

       “It’s nice when it works. It doesn’t always.”

       Jack settled into a chair. “It’s pretty clear to me what the tankers bring to the table. It’s incredible that the program has been allowed to deteriorate. And I know it’s not just about the airplanes; there’s infrastructure and people. How many bases are there around the country?” 

       “Close to a hundred that can handle the large airtankers. Probably a hundred and fifty if you count the single engine, SEATS, bases as well.”

       “What do you think about the SEATS?”

       “They do alright.”

       “Can they replace the large airtankers?”

       “If you get enough of them.”

       “Is that the plan?”

       “It’s somebody’s plan.”

       “You think that’s the Forest Service’s plan?”

        “First, the SEATS are contracted through the Department of the Interior: the SEATS are Interior’s plan. Second, I think you’re giving too much credit to the people in the Forest Service who are supposed to make plans. Like they say, nature abhors a vacuum. If the planners don’t make a plan somebody else will,” said Charlie.

       “You don’t have much nice to say about the Forest Service.”

       Charlie pulled the lever on the side of his lounge chair and sat up.

       “There are plenty of hard-working smart people in the Forest Service. People who actually get things done. I get to work with them every day. Those kind of people seem to get weeded out at the top. The ones who float to the surface are the politicians; they don’t ruffle feathers, they’re flexible. A wise man once said, ‘the key `to flexibility is indecision’. If you make a decision it might be wrong. The last guy that rose to the top and tried to make a bad system work went to prison.”

       “What about the “next generation” airtankers? It sounds like some of them are finally coming on-line.”

       “I’ve seen the DC-10 do some good work. It’s taken a few years for them to figure it out but they’re there. But from an old school point of view what a tanker does better than anything else is Initial Attack. Responding fast to the fire when it first starts. It’s hard to justify the cost of a DC-10, sitting around waiting at all the places there ‘might’ be a fire. Then again, another wise man once said, ‘you can never have too much retardant”.

       “Where are all those wise men when you need them?”

       “You should talk to Walt Darran. He knows everybody; talks to everybody. He’s a smart guy. You should talk to him.”

       “How do I talk to Walt Darran?”

        “He works out of Chico: flies for Cal Fire.”

        “That’s a day’s drive.”

       “Home of Sierra Nevada Brewery. Have a Pale Ale. You can tell your boss you’re listening to music in the Big Room.”

       “You know how to sell a road trip.”


To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Lets Lobby.

Washington DC

 July 26, 2002, 1330 Hours


            Seymour preferred to be inside for meetings but the board walk lined seating of the Sequoia offered some splendid views of the Capital across the Potomac River. A slight breeze rustled the tasseled fringes of the umbrellas. He followed a member of the wait staff speculating about what Ray Gunnison wanted to talk about. Ray had been appointed Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment in October of 2001 by George Bush. Seymour had been an advocate for his appointment in the senate. He was not expecting much in the way of scintillating conversation, yet there had been an air of intrigue along with the invitation. The mid-afternoon timeframe and river-side seating offered privacy.

            “Senator Clanton; thanks for joining me,” said Ray as Seymour approached.

            “It’s been awhile Mr. Undersecretary,” said Seymour.  “Ah don’t think Ah’ve spoken those words to you until now; it suits you.”

            “Thank you, Seymour; the appointment, to Director, is something that I, we, have worked for, for years. I am changing the culture of the Forest Service; although I have to say it has taken me more time to find my rhythm than I would have expected, but we’re just getting started.”

            “Sounds like you have plans.”

“As my mentors espoused, only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change,” quoted Ray, looking pleased with himself.

            “Who said that?”

            “Ayn Rand: Objectivism:  Allen Greenspan’s girlfriend. Milton Freedman and the Chicago School of Economics.”

            “You are indeed the ideologue; a true believer.”

            “As I once told you, guilty as charged.”

            “And Ah’m a true Pragmatist. What the hell has this conversation to do with me?”

            “Two of our airtankers had structural failures, the wings folded.”

            “Yes, Ah saw the news clips. It’s certainly a blessing we stayed in the background when those aircraft were exchanged. They’ve been nothing but problems for Mike Minder and Frank Ponkey; are they in jail?”

            “I’m not sure; it did cost them dearly. But once again, one man’s tragedy is another man’s opportunity. I’ve studied the large airtanker program and the contractors more closely since this latest issue and I have a plan. But it will take some time to put the pieces in place, to be ready when the next crisis occurs.”

            “The next crisis; another crash?”

            “Possibly, but the important thing is to be ready, with the pieces, to have the solution in place with a narrative to support the it.”

            “Okay, Ah’m on the Senate Committee for Agriculture, we oversee the program; your responsible of managing the program. What problem are we going to solve?”

            “The large airtanker problem; we need to get rid of them,” said Ray.

            “Whoa! That seems pretty draconian. What have they done to deserve this fate?”

            “The airtanker contractors are standing in the way of progress. Their flight line looks like a third-world air force; crews are undisciplined; their business model is failing. Mom and Pop operations squabbling and back-stabbing each other for scraps.”

            “We provide the scraps. Maybe if we sweeten the pot it would be an incentive to improve?” offered Seymour.

            “We need to sweeten the pot but we also need a cultural shift and these old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks. No, we need to start over.”

            “That’s a pretty tall order.”

            “Not as much as you might think. And you will be glad to know your old friend Emily is to be involved in this endeavor. A big part of the solution is going to be coming from our nations forest industries, my old clients when I lobbied for them at Forest Industries Association. As you know Emily is their big-gun now.”

            “It’s been some time since I’ve spoken to Emily. I bet she could still make my pulse quicken,” said Seymour. “Tell me more.”

            As if on que drinks arrived.

            “I assume you are still a fan of quality whiskey,” said Ray.

            “One of life’s little pleasures.”

            “Let’s toast; to the next crisis,” proposed Ray raising his glass.

            Seymour raised his glass and took a sip. He never understood why people chugged good liquor. He liked to experience the subtleties of the spirits. Life was too short to live it hastily.

            “I’m going to be appointing a new Deputy Director of Fire Aviation. The man I have in mind will be a good fit. He’s had a career in the Air Force as a pilot and taught at the Air Force Academy. He’s studied aberrant pilot behaviors and written books about it.”

            “What does he know about fire?”

            “He will learn what he needs to know.”

            “What’s his name?”

            “Steve Canyon.”

            “Appropriate,” said Seymour.

            “Beyond that we need a narrative to support the kind of change I want to make. We’ll frame the airtanker problem as a safety issue.”

            “With the wings falling off that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if the wings off one of the planes fell off into a schoolyard,” said Seymour.”

            “Damn, Seymour that’s good. That’s the sort of talking point we need to build our narrative.”

            “We definitely don’t want old planes falling apart killing schoolchildren,” reasoned Seymour.

            “Not just old airplanes; planes that weren’t built for the job. We need planes that were built to haul the heavy loads of retardant. Aircraft that are built to handle the stress of the fire environment. Aircraft that are ‘purpose built’. I’ve put some thought into it and I want that to be a talking point.”

            “That’s all well and good but where do you find ‘purpose built’ aircraft’?”


            “Ah might have thought Canada. Canadair builds airtankers.”

            “They’re scoopers; they drop water. Our infrastructure is built around tanker bases pumping retardant. No, we need landplanes. Fortunately, we have a real innovator down in Texas, Leland Snow. He’s building planes designed for the rigors of firefighting. The State Department has been using them in the drug spraying program in Central and South America. There are a few already working fire, mostly on state contracts. I know the Bush administration would be supportive of a Texas manufacturer.”

            “I’m not exactly an airtanker historian but as I recall the Forest Service got out of the single engine airtanker business in the seventies. Bigger was better; more engines, more retardant. These new planes are single engine planes, right? How are you going to replace the big tankers?”

            “With big helicopters. That’s where Emily comes in. She’s will be interfacing with the logging companies. We’ve been logging with big helicopters for years now. They have a comparable capacity. They’re designed to handle the heavy loads and turbulence of the fire environment. Some of them have been used on fires; when we need them, we’ll have to pull the plug on the money, they’re expensive.”

            “Ah think Ah get the picture,” said Seymour.

            “When there is a crisis we will need to respond quickly; to have resources available to pay for the solution.”

            “A slush fund,” suggested Seymour.

            “That sounds so...”


            “Look, I just need to know that when we have a problem there will be money available to deal with it.

            “How much money?”

            “I’m thinking about a hundred million.”

 To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Tanker 130.

Tanker 130

Minden, Nevada

 June 17, 2002, 0750 Hours


            “Any news from the front?” asked Wes Potter stepping into the Pilot Ready Room.

            The limited space was packed with crews jostling and foraging from a small breakfast banquet spread out on various flat surfaces. The room, designed to accommodate five or six, allowing for personal space, was host to twenty or more. The question, directed at no one in particular, was absorbed by the chatter and shuffling of crews getting ready to do battle with the fire.

            “The Air Attack took-off twenty minutes ago. We’re expecting an update,” responded Charlie, posted close to the door, clear of the flow.

            “Waiting for an opening?” asked Wes, squeezing past bodies.

            “It takes weeks to heal from a plastic fork wound. I’m not going to risk it until it thins out,” said Charlie.

            “I got a nasty paper cut from one of those Dixie plates last year,” deadpanned Wes.

            “You did an excellent job with the Safe Comm; I agree; Styrofoam could save lives.”

            “If there weren’t so many unemployed comedians we could do standup and give up this flying gig.”

            “How’s your plane doing?” asked Charlie, conversationally.

            “We have a few deferred discrepancies, nothing serious. One of the comm radios is almost useless and our Auxiliary Power Unit sounds like it has pneumonia.”  

            “You better belly up to the table,” said Charlie. “You’re first-out aren’t you?”

            “I think so. Have you seen Mark? These young co-pilots are like kittens.”           

            “He was headed out to your plane with a sausage biscuit when I came in earlier. He’s probably got the pre-flight done and his seat warmed up.”

            “His girlfriend pulled in last night. He wanted to give her a tour this morning.”

            “Where’s Mark from?”

            “Montana. His girl, Wanda, is from Missoula.”

            “I thought they only dated sheep up there?”

            “That’s Wyoming.”

            “This is home for you, right?”

            “Home is pretty relative. I grew up here. This is the first fire I worked out of Minden in years. I have an ‘ex’ in Carson City, family in Yearington, and an apartment that I slept in for the first time in three months last night.”

            “It just doesn’t get any better,” said Charlie.

            “You know Charlie, I work too much. I’ve chased around my whole damn life flying gliders, doing charters, tankers, playing music…”

            “Hey, that doesn’t sound that bad.”

            “Yeah, I know. But I need to say ‘no’ once in a while. My girlfriend wants to get married but she’s just going to be another future ex-wife if we get hitched and I don’t show up.”

            “You need a Region Five contract. I’m on a bungee cord attached to North Ops. I go home most of the time.”

            “That’s okay. You keep California, I’ll practice saying no.”

            As they spoke, a man in green Forest Service shirt and pants stepped into the room with a handful of papers. Eric, the base manager, hesitated as he scanned the room until he spotted Wes and Charlie. He stepped to them and handed each a sheet of paper with the dispatch information.

            “Are we going to do a brief?” asked Wes as he took the sheet.

            “I don’t think so. The weather’s posted outside on the board; Julie has your times from yesterday, upstairs, check them when you can. They’re calling for tankers as soon as the lead gets on-scene.”

            “I better get serious about breakfast,” said Wes. 


Minden, Nevada 

 June 17, 2002, 1040 Hours

            “Did you see that last drop, Charlie?” asked Ron.

            Ron Johnson, Lead 51, was flying a tight orbit in his twin engine Beechcaft Barron, a thousand feet above the Cannon fire. The 15,000-acre fire was currently being driven down a slope by a fifteen-knot wind, air desiccated from a trip across northern Nevada. It was consuming grass and scrub brush making a run at highway 95, a strip of asphalt following the Walker River.

            “Yeah. Looks like it almost made it to those rocks,” replied Charlie, peering out his side window in a left turn to watch the lead while maneuvering the P2V-7, tanker 48. 

“I’m going to make a run and check out the air,” said Ron. “You need a lead?”

            “It looks pretty straight forward. What’s the drop altitude?”

            “I’ll check,” said Ron.

            “I’m turning base-to-final,” said Ron on the tactical air-to-air frequency. “There’s a little down air but it’s pretty smooth.”

            “I’ve got the line,” said Charlie. “Looks like a left turn after the drop.”

            “That would work. There are some power lines along the road but you should be well above them. Don’t go below 5,200”

            “We’re downwind if we’re clear to maneuver,” said Charlie.

            “You’re clear,” responded Ron.

            While Charlie talked and flew Taylor had started the jets and set them at idle.

            They rode the air climbing the ridgeline on the east side of the Walker River. The airspeed spiked to 145 knots and Charlie walked the throttles back on the 3350 Wright engines to compensate.

            “We’re turning base,” reported Charlie. “Flaps Full,” he called on the intercom.

            “Full selected, tank is armed, level 4, full load,” replied Taylor, then, “flaps full, jets on, drop check complete.”

 Turning, they left the up air, Charlie trimmed nose up. With flaps full the airspeed quickly dissipated. “Don’t let me go below 120. Plan on flaps 20 on final.”

            Charlie was focused on the line of retardant forming a barrier adjacent to a line of fire. He could feel the ship sinking while adjusting the bank to roll out in line with the swath of retardant smeared through the grass and stunted juniper. They cleared a pine tree by 90 feet at the top of a hill and the terrain fell away.

            “Turning final,” transmitted Charlie on Air-to-Air.

            “Clear to drop,” responded Ron.

            Charlie reduced the power again, held his pitch attitude, rolled wings level then called for flaps 20. With wings level, he lost sight of the retardant but as the flaps retracted to 20 the nose fell and the view improved. He banked right correcting, an educated guess judging from the feathery fingers of smoke off the charred vegetation. The plane accelerated. The rock formation rose from the horizon of the hill and the near side of the valley opened before them exposing highway 95 lined with the vanguard of troops and equipment poised for the approaching flames. He held the drop button well before the end of the line of retardant compensating for the downwind approach while pushing the nose over, contouring the ground, as the tank door lights lit up, sequencing open in a row on the instrument panel.

            Taylor automatically pushed the jet throttles up as Charlie reefed back on the yoke and called “flaps 10” while adding power to the big round engines and initiated a gentle left turn to follow the Walker River. Looking down he could see the faces of the firefighters track the plane like radar.

            “Load and return. Looks like a good tie-in,” called Ron.

            “See you in bit,” responded Charlie.

            On the tactical frequency, Wes Potter, in tanker 130, called 14 miles. Lead 51 cleared him into the FTA.

            “I’ve got him in sight, eleven o’clock,” said Taylor.

            “130, 48. We have you in sight. We’re at 8,500 headed down the river back to Minden,” called Charlie.

            “Okey dokey,” responded Wes.

            To the northwest the slopes of Sierra Nevada sloughed into the south end of the Carson Valley. Charlie could make out the scar of a ski run below the tree line. He switched frequencies and called Minden Tanker Base telling them he was five minutes out for a load and return, negative fuel.

            Charlie continued north along the west side of the valley while descending before beginning a turn back to the south for a left downwind for runway 34.

             When they rolled out on downwind a new column of smoke boiled from the fire to the south.

            “Looks like it crossed the road,” said Taylor.

            “Job security,” said Charlie as he put the gear down. “Landing Check.”

            The landing was routine. After clearing the runway, it was a short taxi to the base. Taylor did the After Landing Checklist while Charlie called the base.

            “You’re going to be on hold. Just pull into pit two,” replied Julie.

            “Roger, pit two,” repeated Charlie on the radio. He hadn’t expected to be on hold. “They must have lost it on the fire. I guess we get a break while they regroup.”

            After securing the airplane Charlie took a seat in front of the base and watched the activity on the ramp. Tanker 21 had been ahead in the rotation and had been shut down in pit one when they pulled into pit two. The ramp people busied themselves arranging hoses and washing retardant spills off the cement around the planes. The breeze and quiet felt good.

           Taylor had stopped to talk to one of the retardant loaders. He broke free, headed toward the bench and took a seat. “That smoke; tanker 130 crashed.”



Lancaster, California

June 26, 2013, 1021 Hours

            “You feel kind of numb when something like that happens,” said Charlie. “I saw this girl wandering around awhile later: she looked lost. I didn’t know who she was. I found out later she was the co-pilot’s girlfriend. She had left the base when we started flying that morning. When she came back that afternoon she didn’t know what had happened until asking around. Hard to imagine what that feels like.”

            “We had home bases back then. Tanker 130 was based out of La Grande, Oregon. But Wes and tanker 130 hadn’t been to La Grande that whole summer: the Forest Service sent a team of investigators to look into their personal lives anyway: questioning people at the base and in town I guess. I heard they found a gun and possibly a pipe for smoking weed in the wreckage. Like that might have contributed to the wings falling off? Give me a break.”

            “You think they were building some narrative to place the blame on the pilots?” asked Charlie.

            “Somebody’s always trying to cover their ass; who knows? I saw the video on the news for the first time that night: hard to think about that ride. They kept playing it all summer. It still shows up whenever the subject of the aging fleet of airtankers bubbles to the surface. Whenever I see it I remember what Wes said, about working all the time, and how he waited a little too long, and I think I should just go back home to the Island.”

            “Tell me about the island,” said Jack.

            “We don’t have that much time,” said Charlie. “I’m going to do some paperwork out on the airplane.”


To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Jack goes to school.

Lancaster, California

June 25, 2013, 2050 Hours

       Charlie recounted of his exchange with Emily at the wake and her recollection of the meeting in DC. The story held Jack’s interest and offered some explanations to lingering questions.

       “Obviously you believed Emily,” said Jack after a pause punctuated by Charlie popping the top on beer.

       “It makes as much sense as anything,” said Charlie. “When I got started in ‘95, the business was changing. Nobody cared about the old piston planes. The big turbans, the C-130’s and P-3’s, had been working for a few years but two had already crashed, tanker 82 and a P-3, tanker 24. Another one of the C-130’s had shown up in Kuwait, a war zone, in 91. That pissed off Southern Air Transport. They weren’t too enthused about sharing the spoils of war, competing for contracts with planes the government had handed out to fight fire. Hell, another tanker contractor used a C-130 in a commercial. The tanker operators were greedy and not discreet.”

       “The problems became too hot to handle and it was over. Without the exchange program or direct sales from surplus there were no more cheap airframes to convert to tankers or scavenge for parts. And then they went after Mike Minder, the middleman, and Frank Ponkey, the Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation, and eventually put them in prison.”

       “Do you think they were guilty?” asked Jack.

       “I think Frank put himself out there and tried to work a screwed-up system. He made deals he didn’t have the authority to make with some people who just wanted to take advantage of the situation. The only good deal he got was a type rating, a license to fly a C-130. Mike Minder, the broker, was an FAA Designated Examiner. He could give you a type rating at the bar if he wanted to. Mike ended up with four C-130’s he sold for cash. I think he was pretty much a crook.”

       “Sounds like Frank Ponkey became the USFS Designated Fall Guy,” said Jack.

       “What do you think the odds are anybody in the Forest Service is going to go out on a limb and find more airframes for the tanker business after that fiasco?”

       “It sounds like the tanker businesses, the operators, killed the golden goose being greedy,” offered Jack.

        “I think there are some good actors and some not so good. All the P-3’s went to work fighting fire or were used for parts supporting planes in the business. That was Aero Union. They were also the only company that complied with the mandate for the new constant flow drop tank systems.”

       Aside from Aero Union and the P-3’s, with few aircraft to replace the old ones they backed off the tank requirements for 2000 as well; and the old fleet of planes soldiered on.”

       “Another fact that gets lost in the story is the Forest Service has never paid the real cost of contracting for a fleet of large tankers. Their budgets have been subsidized by the cast-off aircraft from the military, that’s over.”

       “About the only thing Forest Service management has done for the last twenty years is cover their ass.”

       “Don’t hold back, tell me what you really think,” prodded Jack.

       “So how does a girl get something to eat around here?”

       C. J. had emerged.

       “We have cold tacos and warm beer,” said Nancy.

       “Sounds splendid,” said C. J. “You guys look awfully serious.” It was the first time she had entered in eyeshot of Jack and he hadn’t started salivating involuntarily.

       “You know how boys are when they start talking shop,” said Nancy.

       Jack realized it was time to give it a rest. Charlie had reached a slow boil talking about the tanker business. Another beer was in order and a conversational shift. “You need a bigger pool. I was getting dizzy watching you bounce back and forth.”

       “Yeah, I like the ocean,” said C. J.

       “So how does that work? Doesn’t seem like you’d see much ocean hauling Charlie around to tanker bases.”

       “They’ll bail on me as soon as I get busy and fly away,” said Charlie.

       “We’ll go shopping!” said C. J. “That’s the best thing about bringing Dad to work. There’s not much shopping at home.”

       “Where’s home?”


       “Never heard of it.”

       “It’s an island. Part of Honduras.”

       Jack turned to Charlie. “You commute from Honduras?”

       “Two or three times a year. I’ll probably work all summer then go home. The girls are on their own until then.”

       “Wait, it’s all coming back to me. Vicky, from the home, she told me you lived on an island off Honduras.” Jack turned to Nancy. “She mentioned you as well but said nothing about you,” looking to C. J.

       “I have a brother too. He’s home taking care of business. Mom and I get to play awhile.”

       “And I suppose you commute from Honduras in that airplane I saw you climb out of this afternoon.”

       “Sometimes. Sometimes we just take an airliner. We’re going shopping this time so we need the airplane and we have friends and family in Texas and California. It’s handy,” said Nancy.

       “Oh. Oh yeah. We always took the airplane when we went shopping when I was a kid. I lived on Long Island. We had to fly to Manhattan to go shopping. We just took an airliner if we weren’t shopping.”

       “I’m trying to decide. Is this envy or sarcasm?” said C. J.

       “I’m thinking of another category, possibly wry humor,” retorted Jack.

       “The plane is just an old Piper Aztec. It’s more like a pickup,” explained C. J.

       “And you’re all pilots?”

       “Obviously Dad’s a pilot. My brother and I have licenses. We’ve been around airplanes our whole lives. Mom knows how to fly but she’s mostly into boats.”

       “And I suppose you have a boat in the family.”

       “The Jolly Roger.”

       “A pirate ship?”

       “A dive boat with attitude,” said Nancy.

       “And you live on an island in the Caribbean. Would you like to adopt me?”

       “Do you have any skills besides stalking?” asked C. J.

       “Hey, I’m a journalist!”

       “Is that a skill? I thought that was a social disease,” said C. J.

       “Is that sarcasm or envy?” countered Jack.

       “You two are starting to sound like an episode of Jerry Springer,” said Charlie. “I’m going to bed.” With that Charlie sucked the life out of his beer, stood up, and gave a tentative salute. “Hasta mañana.”

       “Hey sailor, want some company?” said Nancy.

       Charlie reached for Nancy’s hand. “Any time my dear.”

       Jack watched the duo depart, acutely aware he was alone with C. J. “Well this is awkward. Who’s going to moderate our war of words?”

       “How about a truce?” said C. J., offering Jack a beer.

       “That’s just not fair,” said Jack taking it.

       C. J. had neglected her tacos and she started to make up for it. Jack opened the beer, sat back, and relaxed looking to the sky. Even with the ambient lights of the city the stars were bright in the desiccated desert air. On reflection, this had been an unusual day, starting hung-over, and ending, sipping beer while sharing space with a bikini clad dolphin woman child. The story of the tanker business was proving to have legs as well. Dolphin woman child has legs. Hard to think lineally. Must be tired.

       “Hey, Rocket Man, know your stars?”

       “What?” Jack’s gaze dropped to earth and C. J.

       “Looked like you were lost in space. Can you find the North Star?”

       “That’s probably not even a trick question.” Jack was relaxed, done sparring for the day. “No clue.”

       “It helps if you have a vague idea where to look.” C. J. looked to the sky. “Look at the stars on top of that pine tree,” she said pointing to a scruffy example of the species growing in the parking lot.

       Jack’s eyes lingered on her for a moment then he followed her lead. “Okay, I see stars.”

       “There are three that don’t quite line up. They’re part of the Big Dipper, the handle.”

       “I’ve heard of it.”

       “There are four more stars to the right. If you can find them and connect the dots they form the dipper.”

       “I think I see that,” said Jack. “Is the North Star among them?”

       “No. But you can use the Big Dipper to find it and you’re on your way.”

       “To where?”

       “Almost anywhere in a boat or a plane.”

       “Sounds romantic. But what if I can’t find a pine tree?”

       “You’re a funny guy, Jack,” said C. J. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

       He held his tongue while giving her a cursory toast with his beer can. He watched her police up the remnants of their dinner then leave. His thoughts trailed her then returned to the tankers.

       ‘They appeared to be the abandoned children of an ugly polygamist divorce. Set adrift from the Forest Service, the spawn of aging matrons bereft of virtue, the operators that had born them, having succumbed to the call of easy money.’

            Wow. It’s definitely time to go to bed, thought Jack after reviewing what he wrote in his mind. He returned his thoughts to the dolphin woman-child and wandered to his room.


Lancaster, California 

June 26, 2013, 0700 Hours

            The Inn of Lancaster had a decent breakfast. Jack toasted an English Muffin, smeared it with crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam; OJ and a bowl of Raisin Bran rounded it out and he took a seat at a long communal table. The local news was reporting an accident on the 10 freeway. The wide-eyed, happy-faced, loquacious anchor team appeared to be main-lining Starbucks. Jack decided to join them and got up for coffee. Charlie and the Jones clan filed in.

       “Good morning,” offered Jack.

       “Another day in paradise,” said Charlie.

       “Morning Nancy. You’re looking lovely today.”

       “He may be a keeper,” said Nancy to C. J.

       “C. J,” said Jack. “nice to see you.”

       “Don’t be too cheerful. I’m not a morning person.”

       “Point taken.”

       There were three or four other guests coming and going; two TVs dominated the Spartan, functional, mostly windowed space. The fronds of the tall palms and pine boughs spoke silently of the wind gusting outside. Subdued conversation drifted from the far end of the table while Charlie and the Joneses concentrated on breakfast.

       On the trip back to the airport, Charlie asked Jack what his plans were.

       “I don’t really know. Yesterday was a little like spontaneous combustion. I don’t have any commitments but my editor will expect me to pitch something or go home.”

       “If you’re interested, I could talk to the base and you might hitch a ride on the Air Attack if we get a dispatch. We’re fairly likely to have some activity today with the winds and temperatures.”

       “That could work, thanks.” Jack was pleasantly surprised at the offer. On the Musical Highway he belted out the William Tell Overture in the middle lane and looked in the rear view mirror. It was hard to suppress a smile even for those who weren’t morning people.

       “You know, if you ladies are interested you can take the car and get a jump on your shopping if I’m just hanging out at the airport.”

       “I may have to reconsider my offer,” said Charlie with a baleful look at Jack.

       “Too late,” said Nancy. “We can check on a rental car as well.”

       “Just goes to show. No good deed goes unpunished,” scowled Charlie.

       “It’s okay’ Dad. We’ll leave a little in the kitty.”


       Jack dropped Charlie and Nancy and went in search of parking at the base with C. J. The frenetic pace of the previous day was absent although parking was still a challenge.

      “How about dinner?” said Jack turning to C. J. “Not now, tonight.”

       Jack didn’t usually feel quite so inept. C. J. left the question hanging, adding to his discomfort. He found an open spot and parked.

      “So, are you asking me for a date?”

       “That sounds so official.”

       “Are you going to buy?”


       “That’s a date. Where I come from, that’s a date.”

       “Well, I’ll split it with you and call it dinner.”

       “You’re quite the romantic.”

       Jack climbed out of the car. C. J. joined him. “Here’s the keys,” he said, handing them over.        “Have fun shopping. If you feel like dinner, my calendar is open. I’m going to find out if I have a ride.”

       Jack led, C. J. trailed, and they found their way back to the tower where the bulk of the personnel milled. Charlie was talking to a guy in a gray flight suit, Nancy was nowhere in sight. When Charlie saw Jack approach he motioned for him to join them.

       “Mark, this is Jack Hart, the journalist I was talking about,” said Charlie as Jack joined them.     “Mark is the Air Attack pilot. He says if you behave it will be okay if you want to ride along today.”

       “That would be great,” said Jack offering his hand.

       “Mark Chevers, at your service.”

       His grip was firm. He smiled and didn’t seem to be making a point: middle aged, tall and thin, with a touch of down-under accent. Jack felt a twinge of nervousness at the prospect of flying.

       “I’m going to check on the girls,” said Charlie.

       Jack realized C. J. had disappeared and experienced either relief or disappointment, or both; it was confusing. Looking for his happy place, he started asking questions.

       “So, I’m new at this. What’s an Air Attack, Mark?”

       “I’ll show you. I need to give you a brief on the plane before we go for a ride anyway.”

       They broke from the herd around the tower and started walking toward a high-wing, twin-engine plane on a part of the ramp just past the pilot Ready Room.

       “This is a 690B Aero Commander,” began Mark as they approached the airplane.

       “Looks pretty spiffy. How long have you been flying it?”

       “Six years. It’s a nice ride. Don’t bash your head,” said Mark as they ducked under the wing. Mark went to the door just aft of the cockpit and opened it. “Climb in and take a seat.”

       Jack did as instructed finding a seat across from the door.

       “I’ll set you up with a headset.”

       Mark showed Jack where to plug it in. “We usually orbit a fire in right turns so you’re in a good spot. The right seat, up front, is the Air Attack officer. He coordinates the flight activities with the ground. The boss, the IC, Incident Commander, is on the ground. The Air Attack’s primary job is to keep all the aircraft on the fire organized. It gets pretty interesting when you have a bunch of tankers, helicopters, and maybe a media ship or two. We usually have a lead plane working with the tankers. That helps. I’ll handle a radio if it gets busy.”

      “How do you keep the planes organized?” asked Jack.

      “The aircraft report in before they get to the fire; they get an altitude assignment and we talk about all the other aircraft one the fire; anything pertinent to the fire: hazards, terrain, escape routes if any of us has a problem; maybe an overview of the fire. No aircraft enters the FTA, Fire Traffic Area, until everybody is on the same page, then they’re cleared in. You’ll be able to listen to the radios; hopefully it will make sense.”

       Mark stepped back out of the plane and Jack followed.

       “Make sure to clear the “prop”, know that it’s stopped, before you get in or out of the plane. With the noise and confusion, it’s surprisingly easy to forget,” said Mark putting his hand on the prop spinner. It was disturbingly close to the door.

       “That wouldn’t be too handy,” was all Jack could think to say.

       “I’m going to the morning brief. You can do as you please. If we get a fire, just show up at the plane.”

       Jack decided to be a fly on the wall at the briefing, an outside gathering of twenty or so people in a circle. It appeared to be primarily about the weather: wind, temperature, humidity were highlighted; something called a Haines Index and LAL. Jack took notes to remind himself to figure out what they were. They finished off with housekeeping details about paperwork, keeping the place picked up, and a reminder about the hazards of driving in Southern California. When it was over Jack followed Charlie into the Pilot Ready Room.

       The place was packed with green pants and yellow shirts worn by a host of fit-looking young men sprawled on lounge chairs and sofas or maneuvering around a kitchen area. It smelled of smoke and reeked of testosterone. A mute TV hung on the wall displaying images from a helicopter of a high-speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. Charlie had already headed down a hall, glancing into what appeared to be a meeting room on one side and offices on the other, apparently looking for unoccupied space. Jack fell in trail. Charlie made a left at the end of the hall then out a door to a patio area. Jack followed.

       “Might as well hang out here,” said Charlie taking a seat at a picnic table under an awning attached to the building. A fence and another building provided shelter from the wind.

       “Quite the sausage fest. Are there any women in the outfit?”

       “There are a few on the crews.”

       “Nancy and C. J. head out?”

       “Yeah. They’ll probably check in around lunchtime.”

       “Who are all those people? They’re not all pilots are they?”

       “No. The heli attack crew has taken up residence. They’re here all the time. We just come and go.”

       “You’ve been at this a long time now, what, twenty years. The picture you paint is an industry adrift. The model that sustained it, the cheap airframes from the military, doesn’t exist anymore, and nobody in the Forest Service is willing to support the program with anything but hollow pronouncements about the need for more planes. Airplanes specifically built for the job.”

       “The spin doctors call them ‘purpose built’. They spun the reason for the airframe failures to be the planes weren’t ‘purpose built’. When the wings folded on tanker 130 in 2002 that became the mantra. It’s a handy chant to drown out two uncomfortable facts: the lack of oversight by the agency and lack of maintenance by some of the contractors.”

       “But why are the pilots willing to fly the planes? Surely they knew there were problems.”

       “Airplanes always have problems and pilots have their own motives for climbing into one. We train to deal with problems: nobody thinks their wings are going to fall off.”

       “But they have.”

       “I didn’t say pilots were always right or smart. We like the job and make a conscious decision that the risks are acceptable. Part of the appeal, the challenge, is dealing with problems and risk. Life can be a little dreary if you never challenge yourself. If you don’t go to the dance you’re never going to meet the ladies: you’re not going to feel your heart race when you see a pretty one and decide to take a chance. That’s kind of what a fire feels like from the cockpit: that wall-flower could turn into a raging inferno.”

        The analogy drew a pause then Jack went on.

       “When tanker 130 crashed I guess the Forest Service was no longer willing to risk flying the C-130’s and PB4Y-2’s.”

       “They weren’t willing to take the heat. The video of the crash was too compelling. And the media kept playing it over and over. I was there the day tanker 130 went down, on the fire. I talked to Wes Potter, the pilot, that morning and a couple of hours later he was dead.”


To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Love to Lobby

Lancaster, California

June 25, 2013, 1950 Hours

       Commuters flowed from the Metrolink Station into the parking lots lining the Sierra Highway while the Metolink train dozed on the rails in Lancaster, the end of the line. A number of boarded up buildings, chain link fences topped with razor wire, and structures with barred apertures, the gingivitis of urban decay, told Jack they weren’t in the best part of town.  “You’ve stayed at the Inn of Lancaster before?”

       “It’s a fine tradition,” said Charlie. “The best Mexican food in town right out front.”

       “Dad’s taste is suspect in this instance,” said C. J.

       “Just don’t go for a walk at night unless you’re looking for a date,” added Charlie.

      Jack did what he was told and pulled into a pre-interstate vintage motor lodge with drive-through Mexican on the side.

       Jack parked and they all piled out of the car.

       “I’ll make you a deal, Jack,” said Charlie. “I’ll pick up some Mexican to-go and you go buy the beer. We can meet at the pool. And if you’re feeling lucky I’ll get you the menudo. If you can eat it I’ll pay for the beer.”

       “I’ll pass on the menudo.”

       “No guts, no glory?” taunted C. J.

       “I’m not trading my stomach lining for a cow’s,” said Jack.

       “Wise choice,” said Nancy.

       A half hour later dinner was laid out at the pool.

       Jack was on his second beer munching a taco when C. J. arrived for a swim. He was sure she was purposely taunting him and it was working. She dove in and started doing laps; her pace wasn’t leisurely; it was a sprint.

       Charlie and Nancy recognized Jack’s symptoms and kept to themselves, the picture of domesticity.

       Jack knew he needed to break the conversational ice but he was having a hard time thinking of something to say. Charlie finally helped out.

       “She’ll do that all day.”

       “What, is she part dolphin?”

       “Something like that.”

       “Don told me once upon a time you guys went to a wake here in Lancaster,” said Jack pulling the conversation together with a question.

       “He took you for a ride in the way-back machine, did he?”

       “He did. I want to understand where the large airtanker business came from; why it’s where it is now.”

       “The last ten, twelve years they’ve commissioned any number of panels, commissions, and studies to figure that out. You can pick your poison.”

       “A senator’s name came up, Senator Clanton. Don said you had some history.”

       Nancy flared. “He just about got us all killed in a previous life.”

       “Like Nancy said, another life. It’s ironic that he is still a feature in this one,” said Charlie.

       “He’s retired now, but he was a member of the Senate Committee for the Department of the Agriculture?”

       “He wasn’t on Agriculture back then. It was Intelligence, one of those contradictions, government intelligence,” said Charlie.

       “What did Intelligence have to do with the tanker business?”

       “Nothing, theoretically. But he threw his weight around and twisted arms to support the transfer of the C-130’s and P-3’s back in the late eighties.”

       “How do you know that? I’ve done some research and I’ve never heard of that connection,” said Jack. “That Wake, for tanker 82, must have been in ‘95. Was he there?”

       “No. But his evil minion, ‘Emily’, made an appearance. She was chatting up anybody that would listen and I heard his name.”

       “Who is she?”

       “She’s a lobbyist for the Forest Services Industries. She was there with Frank Ponkey and Mike Minder.”

       “They went to jail, didn’t they?” asked Jack.

       “A few years later, the late ‘90’s. Frank was Assistant Director of Fire Aviation in the late ‘80’s to the mid ‘90’s, and Mike was the independent broker for all the planes that were transferred. The other heavy hitter, another lobbyist, Ray Gunnison was there as well. He and Emily both worked for the Forest Industries Association at the time.”

       “George Bush appointed him Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment 2000, right?”

       “Hey, you have done your homework. Fire Aviation fell under his umbrella”

       “So, who was at the wake. What does that have to do with Senator Clanton?” asked Jack.

       “Milo and Frank were there along with Emily. Clanton had been the evil wizard in our life pulling strings like Emily long before I flew tankers and I wanted to know her connection. Three sheets to the wind she was, and with a little prime more than happy to talk. She said the exchange program wouldn’t have gone forward if she hadn’t convinced Senator Clanton to get involved.”

       “How did she do that?”

       “She was a pretty hot number. She suggested she as much as seduced him and told me a story.”



Senator Seymour Clanton lll

Washington D.C.

 May 27, 1988, 1120 Hours

       “Senator Clanton!”

       Startled, Seymour shuffled a half step and kept moving. Normally his strolls from the Senate Chambers to his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building were calm interludes dedicated to introspection, assisted by his efforts to blend with the mix of humanity in flux about the capitol.


       The voice was insistent, female, and now struck a familiar cord. Seymour stopped and turned, attempting to locate the source. A clutch of Japanese tourists following a matronly tour guide formed a dark-haired eddy in the current of humanity moving past him. Possessing a slight height advantage in the Asian tide Seymour was pleased to see his former aid and co-conspirator, Emily, maneuvering toward him.

       She stands out in a crowd, he mused as she approached. Not beautiful, but with a chemically enhanced flowing red mane and body that caused men to grow hair. Seymour was pleased she wished his attention. When she reached him, she laced her arm through his with an air of intimacy and they began to move together, edging to the slower traffic, at the border of the cement walk and the vegetation.

       “Have you ever seen the Summer House?” queried Emily.

       “I’ve passed it on numerous occasions but I’ve never taken the time.”

       “If you have a few moments I could give you the tour.”

       “For you, Emily, I’ll make the time. How long has it been?”

       “Too long, Seymour. We were a good team.”

       “I assume you’re not here to spirit me away and satisfy some sexual fantasy.”

       “Not at the moment; the Summer House wasn’t built with privacy in mind, but who knows.”

       “Now you’re just toying with me. And I do so enjoy it.”

       The open brick hexagon Summer House appeared as they rounded a bed of daises. The structure offered a cool respite for the foot traffic with fountains and various views framed by arches. Emily led the way to an unoccupied stone bench.

       “You’re looking splendid, Emily. You must be enjoying your work.”

       “As it turns out I have a talent for influencing people. The time I spent working undercover for you and your Intelligence Committee was my first taste of what I could do.”

       “My little mole; I enjoyed all our undercover work,” sighed Seymour with a leering smile. “You were in the right place at the right time. That was what, five or six years ago? And now here we are in D.C.”

       “I owe you Seymour; thanks to our time together I know a lot of the right people. I will be eternally grateful to you for that.”

       “I have a feeling we’re approaching the core of the matter. What’s the pitch?”

       “The Forest Industries Association is putting together a fund raiser for some of the senators on the Senate Committee for Agriculture.”

       “Is someone looking for a tax loophole for their lease land? I’ve heard rumblings.”

       “No. Actually it has to do with one of their agencies: The Forest Service. It’s about airplanes.”

       “Airplanes! You know what happened the last time we played with airplanes. It was almost my undoing. And how in God’s name do I have a stake in what’s going on with the Forest Service?”

       “Well, as it turns out, “Smokey” has an Air Force. Not like the real Air Force but they dip into the pool of surplus military aircraft to support their fire-fighting missions. Some of the hardware passes through General Services Administration directly to the Forest Service but a lot of the heavy iron has been sold at auction to private corporations. The businesses modify the planes and bid for contracts. Fire suppression contracts.”

       “How long is this going to take, Emily?”

       “Stick with me, Seymour. You know I wouldn’t waste your time.”

       “Rest your hand on my thigh and I’ll try to concentrate on what your lips are saying.”

       “I knew you’d find our discussion about hardware stimulating.” She reached down and cupped a handful of soft flesh. “Now concentrate on my lips.” She grazed his cheek with a kiss.

       “Okay, you still have my attention,” sighed Seymour.

       “One of the players in Mike Minder. He’s dabbled with the intelligence agencies in the past, mostly logistics in Central and South America. You remember Berry Sales and the C-123 problem in Nicaragua with Hasenfus a few of years ago?”

       “I do.”

       “ Mike was involved with that aircraft as well as some UH-1F helicopters that went to El Salvador. The helicopters didn’t make a big splash like the Hasenfus fiasco.”

       “I have an inkling: my position on the Senate Intelligence Committee? You think the planes could be an asset for some black ops? I really don’t like the sound of this.”

       “Why don’t you come to our fund raiser? I’m sure your campaign finance fund could use a boost. Just meet Frank and Mike and have a great meal and some drinks. I’ll be there. See if any of the other Intelligence Committee members might join us in supporting the bill.”

       “This sounds like a yard sale, nickel and dime deals. Why couldn’t I have had a position on the Defense? That’s where the money is.”

       “Seymour, just do me the favor. You should listen to this guy, Mike. You’re right about the yard sale. The tanker contractors started out buying old planes at scrap prices but they’ve made a lot of money from those yard sales. Mike is convinced they’ve just scratched the surface on the money-making possibilities. The public is very supportive of firefighting efforts and more and more of the covert work the military has done in the past is being turned over to contractors. You’re going to be making decisions in the intelligence committee and there will be more money passing through. Mike sees the value of cultivating friends like you for the future as well.”

       “So, what’s on the menu?”


Washington D.C.

 April 1, 1988, 1710, Hours


            Senator Seymour Clanton III had a seat at the Old Bar, one of four full service bars in the Old Ebbitt Grill. The event sponsored by Forest Industries Association backed up to the Oyster Bar but Seymour wanted to fortify himself before engaging in the commerce of politics. The polished mahogany and artifacts whispered to Seymour as he savored a shot of Glenlivet Scotch. The establishment spoke of power, influence, deals, and money. The location had changed but the name and reputation had endured from 1856 when Washington was considered a sleepy southern outpost.

            “Seymour! You pulled up short. The party is in the Oyster Bar.”

            Startled, Seymour saw a fractured image in the beveled mirror.

            “Emily; now it dawns on me why Ah’m here,” said Seymour turning. “You’re looking Luscious. Can Ah offer you something before we enter the fray?”

            “Finish your drink and take my arm. We have people to meet.”

            “Ah trust you will shepherd me well.”

            “You’ll have a fine time.”

            The velvet burn of the scotch and Emily’s proximity warmed Seymour’s core as they strolled into the Oyster Bar. Lavish displays of cold cuts and fruits surrounded a centerpiece of iced oysters and clams on-the-half-shell, shrimp, and lobster. Men in suits clutching glasses grazed on the offerings. A cocktail waitress greeted them. Seymour double-downed on the Glenlivet and Emily ordered a Mojito.

            “I should introduce you to Ray Gunnison. He’s my cohort at

Forest Industries Association. That’s him by the bar; short with the goatee.”

            “He looks like a professor; who’s that with him?”

            “Milo Minder. He’s the aircraft broker,” said Emily.

            “They look like Mutt and Jeff.”

            “The other tall one, by the oysters, is Frank Ponkey; Assistant Director of Fire and Aviation.”

            “Frank and Milo could be brothers, long and lean.”

            “They’re cut from the same cloth, both experienced pilots.”

            “Shall we engage?” said Seymour.

            “Maybe later,” said Emily with a lascivious smile. “Lets’ just join the conversation for now.”

            “Ah’ll be sure to eat some oysters,” said Seymour letting his hand fall to her butt cheek as they began to move toward the bar.

            “Ray, Milo, this is Senator Clanton,” said Emily as they approached. “He’s on the Intelligence Committee so be careful what you say,” she added, tongue-in-cheek.

            “Senator, it’s a pleasure,” said Ray as he offered his hand. “I’m so glad you could make it to our little gathering.”

The Honorable Ray Gunnison, Lobbyist for Forest Products Industries, had the piercing grey eyes of a predator, a prominent nose hovering above a neatly trimmed mustache flowing around a tight mouth forming a goatee. The facial hair was black with a hint of auburn and looked to have been applied by a professional. Seymour noted an intensity in Ray’s dark eyes when they clasp hands.

            “Have you met Milo Minder,” said Ray gesturing with his free hand.

            “No, Ah haven’t had the pleasure.”

            After a short exchange of pleasantries Frank Ponkey joined the group. Palms were pressed and pumped before drinks arrived. The talk drifted from the food offerings to the Victorian décor of the Ebbitt before the conversational meat of the gathering began to be dissected.

             “I’ve been tasked by my boss, the Director of Fire and Aviation, to find replacements for our aging fleet of firefighting aircraft,” began Frank.

            “Sounds like a noble endeavor,” said Seymour. “Emily has scratched the surface on why that would be of interest to me, as a member of the Intelligence Committee. Perhaps you could elaborate?”

            “There’s some history, connections, between Agriculture and Intelligence and some of their aircraft,” explained Frank.

            “I know some hardware, used by the Department of Defense, is registered to Agriculture, for cover. Usually flown by contract pilots on operations too sticky for the military,” said Seymour.

            “Did you know some of the planes used in the Bay of Pigs invasion were registered to airtanker contractors?” asked Frank.

            “Before my time,” said Seymour.

            “Mine too,” said Frank. “The point being there has always been a lot of slop. The tanker operators needed the bombers and transports, sitting surplus, mothballed in the desert, to fight fire. The government likes some hardware to fly under the radar. The General Services Administration arranged the sale of planes, ostensibly to scrap. Airtanker contractors got cheat platforms to fight fire or use as donors to support the flyers; some disappeared.”

            “So where are we, now?” asked Seymour.

            Milo spoke up. “We’re trying to evolve. The industry needs newer technology; to go beyond big round piston engine transports and bombers. We need C-130s and P-3s with turban engines. The problem is the military. They won’t put them out for auction so Frank and I worked out a plan to exchange planes with historical value but the Air Force Generals won’t buy it. Now we’re working on a fallback where the C-130s and P-3s pass through the Air Force Museum directly to the Forest Service in exchange for planes with historical significance.”

            “And you think there will be some slop, for black ops?” said Seymour.

            “I’d like to propose a toast to slop,” said Milo.

            “And another round,” injected Ray, raising a hand, flagging the bartender.

            Seymour drained his glass then looked to Ray. “So, Ray, what’s your stake?”

            “Forest Industries Association is always interested in protecting our natural resources from the ravages of wildland fires.”

            “Can we go beyond the talking points?” said Seymour.

            “I like to think we’re playing a long game. We represent for-profit enterprises; timber, oil, gas; land leases for mining and grazing. I want to cultivate political resources who share a common vision of free markets where capitalism is allowed to thrive.”

            “Sounds like ideology,” said Seymour.

            “Guilty as charged. I’m afraid I’ve fallen prey to the concepts of Objectivism; Chicago School of Economics; Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman. Government should facilitate capitalism and not interfere.”

            “I’m all about capitalism,” said Seymour.

            “I sensed that,” said Ray. “That’s why we would like to contribute to your re-election campaign. I’d also like you to consider taking a seat on the Agriculture Committee. I know it’s not glamorous, but like I said, we’re playing a long game. Do you know Agriculture manages 192,000,000 acres of land in 44 states? There’s more at stake than most people realize.” 


To be continued...

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. Stalking tanker 48

Lancaster Airport, California

June 25, 2013, 1450 Hours

       She climbed out of an airplane at the near end of a line of planes. A fuel truck pulled in front of the twin-engine craft. She conferred with the driver then started toward the terminal. The truck operator stood, statue still, watching her departure. Jack maintained his position thinking if his luck held, she would enter the terminal through the double glass doors at the northwest corner and walk past, he didn’t care where to. He needed something in his hands and picked up a magazine, then looked back outside. The view kept improving and his plan appeared to be working.

       Looking down at the magazine he made a correction, it was upside down. Looking up, a line from a Mel McDaniel song began to play in his head. “They turn their heads and they watch her till she’s gone; lord have mercy, baby’s got her blue jeans on.” Jack was gaining new respect for the roots of country music. Tropical flora and fauna ranged across a shirt that was a size too large. Sun streaked strawberry blond hair bobbed in a ponytail. He imagined her stripped down, stepping onto the sand for some beach volleyball. There was nothing tentative about her.

       She came through the doors just as Jack had hoped.

       ‘How stupid is this’, he thought staring at the Sunset magazine. As she approached he looked up.

       “Hi,” she said, smiling as she passed.

       Shawn nodded, felt his skin burn, and watched her walk away. “Where do they build them like that?” He stood, took steps in trail, hoping for a scent. She couldn’t have gone far but she was gone. Checking the signage down a hall, he guessed the bathroom or the restaurant. The bathroom didn’t feel like an option, maybe a cup of coffee.

       Inside the restaurant the plot thickened. A greenhouse structure grew off the original establishment. It was a little early for lunch and the clientele was sparse. It appeared the object of his attention had aged gracefully and was seated in the greenhouse. That was one possibility. Jack took a seat embarrassingly close to the older woman because he really wanted to look at her. The resemblance was striking; his attention did not go unnoticed.

       “Nice day,” offered the woman returning Jack’s stare.

       “A little breezy,” added Jack.

       “What are you reading?”

       Jack realized he still had the magazine. “Uh, Sunset Magazine.”

       “Anything interesting?”

       “I don’t really know. I just use it as a prop when I’m stalking women.”

       A waitress appeared with a menu.

       “Just coffee,” said Jack. When he looked back to the woman she was still returning his gaze. Apparently, stalkers didn’t faze her. “I’m Jack.”

       “Nancy,” she offered. “Do you usually stalk at airports?”

       “No. It’s a new venue.”

       Jack’s coffee arrived about the same time the younger woman joined what had to be her mother.

      “Cream or sugar?”

       “What?” Jack hadn’t noticed the waitress. “Sure, cream,” he managed.

       “Are we going to eat? I’m famished,” said the young woman to Nancy, Jack’s new friend.

       “It could be a long day. Might as well,” she responded.

       Jack squirmed and nodded to the waitress when she offered a tiny pitcher of cream. He poured and stirred watching the swirls of white, blend, turning black to muddy brown.

       The young woman plucked a menu from the table and began to study it intensely. Both women ordered breakfast when the waitress returned.

       Jack had gained some of his composure when Nancy introduced him.

       “C. J., this is Jack,” said Nancy, gesturing to him. “He’s trying his hand at stalking women at the airport.”

       The young woman, C. J., looked to Jack. “Slim picking around here. Not much activity.”

       “Worth the wait,” responded Jack, for the first time getting a good look at the young woman’s face. He noted traces of mischief in her eyes.”

       “I saw you in the lobby.”

       “Yeah. The trick is anticipating the subject’s next move,” explained Jack. The women looked at each other with the hint of a smile. “Actually, I’m a writer.”

       “Is that code for unemployed?” responded C. J. with a straight face.

       “Always a possibility but I just turned in two pieces on the L. A. music scene.”

       “Not much music around Lancaster,” said Nancy.

       “There’s a musical highway.”

       “An interesting novelty. I’m always tempted to drive it going the wrong way but they have all those plastic barriers,” said Nancy.

       “That would require at least a twelve pack,” said Jack. “Actually, I’m here working on a story about the tanker business. My editor isn’t too enthused but I think it could be interesting.”

       “You know a lot about airplanes?” asked C. J.

        “Not really. But I saw a tanker drop a couple of weeks ago and met some interesting people. I’ve been doing research. I drove up from L. A. this morning to interview one of the pilots. I got here in time to watch him take off. They said he should come back so I’m killing time stalking. It’s a valuable skill for a journalist. What’s your story?”

       “We flew down from Bakersfield. We’re just here for the food.”

       “You’re a pilot?”

       “Occasionally,” said C. J.

       A muffled roar rattled the windows. The yellow tailed tanker, 48, was rolling out after landing.

       “I better get going. That’s my quarry,” said Jack. “It’s been a pleasure.”

       “Good luck. Are you on foot?”

       “Yeah,” said Jack as he put a five on the table and stood.

       “At least it’s down-wind,” said C. J.

       Jack made inquiries back at the tanker base and picked up on some of the lingo. Charlie was on a load-and-return. The crew stayed with the plane while it was loaded then returned to the fire. Jack resigned himself to spending the afternoon in hopes of cornering Charlie when the fire was done or the day over. He knew enough about the business to understand they wouldn’t work after dark. He pilfered some water bottles from a cooler and retired to his car. With the windows down and the wind, the heat was almost tolerable. He unfolded his seat and took a nap.


       It was after five when the dust settled. Jack had bonded with the ramp people and watched from a covered area next to the tower with a view of the ramp. He figured out who Charlie was and laid in wait. The crews walked around inspecting the planes and talking amongst themselves. One of Charlie’s people stood on a wing pulling a fuel hose up with a rope. The hose unwound from a reel on the side of the fuel truck. Charlie appeared to say something to the guy on the wing, turned, and started walking away from the plane.

       Jack began working on an intercept. Charlie was probably headed to the pilot Ready Room to take a pee. Jack needed to make contact, initiate conversation, and still not interfere with any pressing biological needs. If his timing worked out, he would have about two hundred feet to walk and talk. He launched.

       Charlie wore a grey flight suit, sunglasses, and a ball cap with shaggy gray hair escaping its confines. He was taller than average and, to Jack, looked like he belonged in a cockpit.

       “Charlie, I’m Jack. I was hoping to have a word.”

He kept moving as Jack approached but engaged. “You’re the reporter.”

       “I like to think of myself as a journalist.”

       “Vicky said ‘reporter’ would bug you.”

      “I guess taunting me is another one of her super powers.”

       “She’s pretty cool.”

       “I know you’re busy at the moment but I’m really hoping to have more than a word. I’d like to spend some time with you and dig into the tanker business.”

       Jack got it out with ten feet to spare.

       “I’m going to visit the boy’s room. If you wait here, I’ll be back and maybe we can work something out.”

       Jack had scouted the building and knew there was another door and potential escape route. He took up a position to watch both doors and waited. Five minutes later Charlie emerged from the original door, stepped to an ice chest, and pulled out three bottles of water. Jack made his move when the best looking blue jeans he had seen in a long time reappeared from the Ready Room and joined Charlie.

       Jack had taken a few steps towards Charlie when he saw C. J. and executed a to-the-rear maneuver before coming to a halt to contemplate. He decided on an about-face, turning to face the music. His new friend, Nancy, was now in play as well and Jack had the picture. C. J. looked his way and offered what Jack categorized as a shit-eating grin. He decided to move forward joining the group.

       “Hello again,” said C. J., still grinning.

       “I’ll never play poker with you.”

       Charlie noted the exchange. “You know each other?”

       “We met at the restaurant while you were out playing,” said Nancy.

       “Anything I should know?” asked Charlie.

       “He likes Sunset Magazine,” said C. J.

       “A lot of good information on gardening,” offered Jack.

       “I’m not even going to hazard a guess about what’s going on here. I am going to take some water out to the crew. Then I should be done for the day,” said Charlie. “Do we have transportation?”

       “There’s nothing here at the airport. Budget, in town, might have a car in the morning,” said Nancy.

       “I’ll talk to the base. We can probably hitch a ride with somebody. I’ll be right back,” said Charlie.

       “I’ll go with you,” said Nancy as she reached out and put her arm around Charlie.

       Jack watched them walk away then turned to C. J. “So, he’s your father.”

       “Yeah, I confess.”

       “I’ve been very honest with you, letting you know I was stalking and all. You have to play fair now.”

       “I’ll do my best.”

       “Okay. What’s with C. J.?”

       “Charlie Junior.”

       “What’s that all about?”

       “My name is actually Catherin Lynn, C. L. Dad’s a pilot. My initials, C L, became ‘Charlie Lima’. Of course, people shortened it to Charlie. That didn’t work; his name is Charlie, so I got Charlie Junior, C. J.”

       “You said you came from Bakersfield.”

       “We were visiting Don O’Connell, at the home. Then we flew down here so Dad could go to work.”

       “Don’s quite the character.”

       “He’s kind of like my godfather. He and Dad go way back, even before Mom.”

       “I really want to talk to your father. And I have a plan.”

       “I hesitate to ask. Does it involve stalking?”

       “I have a car. I’ll provide transportation to Lancaster. You have to help me get an interview.”


To be continued...



Lancaster, California


June 25, 2013, 1950 Hours



Commuters flowed from the Metrolink Station into the parking lots lining the Sierra Highway while the Metolink train dozed on the rails in Lancaster, the end of the line. A number of boarded up buildings, chain link fences topped with razor wire, and structures with barred apertures, the gingivitis of urban decay, told Jack they weren’t in the best part of town.  “You’ve stayed at the Inn of Lancaster before?”

“It’s a fine tradition,” said Charlie. “The best Mexican food in town right out front.”

“Dad’s taste is suspect in this instance,” said C. J.

“Just don’t go for a walk at night unless you’re looking for a date,” added Charlie.

Jack did what he was told and pulled into a pre-interstate vintage motor lodge with drive-through Mexican on the side.

Jack parked and they all piled out of the car.

“I’ll make you a deal, Jack,” said Charlie. “I’ll pick up some Mexican to-go and you go buy the beer. We can meet at the pool. And if you’re feeling lucky I’ll get you the menudo. If you can eat it I’ll pay for the beer.”

“I’ll pass on the menudo.”

“No guts, no glory?” taunted C. J.

“I’m not trading my stomach lining for a cow’s,” said Jack.

“Wise choice,” said Nancy.

A half hour later dinner was laid out at the pool.

Jack was on his second beer munching a taco when C. J. arrived for a swim. He was sure she was purposely taunting him and it was working. She dove in and started doing laps; her pace wasn’t leisurely; it was a sprint.

Charlie and Nancy recognized Jack’s symptoms and kept to themselves, the picture of domesticity.

Jack knew he needed to break the conversational ice but he was having a hard time thinking of something to say. Charlie finally helped out.

“She’ll do that all day.”

“What, is she part dolphin?”

“Something like that.”

“Don told me once upon a time you guys went to a wake here in Lancaster,” said Jack pulling the conversation together with a question.

“He took you for a ride in the way-back machine, did he?”

“He did. I want to understand where the large airtanker business came from; why it’s where it is now.”

“The last ten, twelve years they’ve commissioned any number of panels, commissions, and studies to figure that out. You can pick your poison.”

“A senator’s name came up, Senator Clanton. Don said you had some history.”

Nancy flared. “He just about got us all killed in a previous life.”

“Like Nancy said, another life. It’s ironic that he is still a feature in this one,” said Charlie.

“He’s retired now, but he was a member of the Senate Committee for Department of the Agriculture?”

“He wasn’t on Agriculture back then. It was Intelligence, one of those contradictions, government intelligence,” said Charlie.

“What did Intelligence have to do with the tanker business?”

“Nothing, theoretically. But he threw his weight around and twisted arms to support the transfer of the C-130’s and P-3’s back in the late eighties.”

“How do you know that? I’ve done some research and I’ve never heard of that connection,” said Jack. “That Wake for tanker 82 must have been in ‘95. Was he there?”

“No. But his evil minion, ‘Emily’, made an appearance. She was chatting up anybody that would listen and I heard his name.”

“Who is she?”

“She’s a lobbyist for the Forest Services Industries. She was there with Frank Ponkey and Mike Minder.”

“They went to jail, didn’t they?” asked Jack.

“A few years later, the late ‘90’s. Frank was Assistant Director of Fire Aviation in the late ‘80’s to the mid ‘90’s, and Mike was the independent broker for all the planes that were transferred. The other heavy hitter, another lobbyist, Ray Gunnison was there as well. He and Emily both worked for the Forest Industries Association at the time.”

“George Bush appointed him Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment 2000, right?”

“Hey, you have done your homework. Fire Aviation fell under his umbrella”

“So, who was at the wake. What does that have to do with Senator Clanton?” asked Jack.

“Milo and Frank were there along with Emily. Clanton had been the evil wizard in our life pulling strings like Emily long before I flew tankers and I wanted to know her connection. Three sheets to the wind she was, and with a little prime more than happy to talk. She said the exchange program wouldn’t have gone forward if she hadn’t convinced Senator Clanton to get involved.”

“How did she do that?”

“She was a pretty hot number. She suggested she as much as seduced him and told me a story.”

Fire And Aviation-A Love Story. La La land to the place where dirt dies.


Los Angeles, California

June 25, 2013, 0920 Hours

        The insistent vibration of his cell phone penetrated Jack’s consciousness. After a short debate, to answer or not to answer, ‘not’ won the moment reasoning if the call was important it would go to message. He did a cursory exploratory search of the bed confirming he was alone. He had yet to open his eyes but his brain was engaged and he began to assemble his day. The slightly elevated pressure behind his eyes and forehead and desiccated copper mouth whispered hangover.

       Having pumped out two articles in ten days, thus appeasing the employer gods, he took a busman’s holiday going to the Bootleg Theater to check out Shapeshifter, an act from New Zealand. They played an excellent blend of heavy soul with drum and bass.  Bootleg was an intimate venue where you could let your hair down and Jack had indulged. He remembered taking a number of ‘selfies’ documenting some bad behavior with the band between sets. The bands rapid backbeat still resonated in his skull.

       He bit the bullet, threw the covers back, sat up, and opened his eyes. If the clock on the table wasn’t lying he had ten minutes to get to the free breakfast bar. The day began.

       Forty-five minutes later Jack was human race-ready and checked his messages. He didn’t feel like re-financing his non-existent student loan, hit delete, and moved on. He didn’t recognize the second area code or number.

       “This message is for Jack Hart. Vicky here at Pleasant Valley Home Care. Charlie arrived. If you’re still interested in talking to him give me a call.”

       Jack was on it. The last ten days hadn’t been all music and debauchery. He had followed through, digging into the arcane depths of the NTSB and FAA databases. He felt like he knew enough to ask some reasonable questions and he was looking forward to meeting Charlie. He pulled up recent calls on his smart phone and punched the last missed call.


       “He’s not here.”

       “But I need to talk to him,” said Jack.

       “Well, if you’d answer your phone it wouldn’t be a problem,” explained Vicky. “He had to go to work.”

       “Did he leave a number?”

       “No number. I told him you wanted to talk. He wasn’t too enthused about speaking to a reporter.”

       “I keep explaining to people I’m a journalist.”

       “The distinction is lost on some people.”

        “Didn’t you tell him what great guy I am?”

       “I told him you were a prince.”

       “I should be trying to interview sleeping beauty.”

       “You know Don enjoyed your visit the other day.”

        “He told you that?”

       “Of course not. But I know him. He likes people who bite back when he snarls. If you were to tell me you’d stop by and visit sometime, I might be able to help you find Charlie.”

      “This is not a trick question, is it?”

       “I’ll know if you’re lying.”

       “Is that one of your super powers?”


       “I’d love to stop by and visit Don sometime.”

       “Charlie’s plane is in Lancaster.”


      The good news, Lancaster was less than an hour away. The bad news, no idea what reception awaits him. An advantage of sleeping late was maneuvering the Corolla through light traffic. Jack organized his thoughts, reviewing his research, while climbing out of the San Fernando Valley on State Route 14.

       George Petterson had been the NTSB investigator who returned to the 1992 crash site of tanker 82’s after the loss of the second C-130 in 2002. Upon the presentation of new evidence from the debris field of tanker 82, the NTSB had no choice but to make a new finding as to the cause of tanker 82’s crash. Additionally, he concluded both accidents could have been prevented had FAA and Air Force Service Bulletins, issued in 1985 and 1987, identifying the problems and solutions, had been complied with.

       “Mr. Petterson found a preponderance of evidence that the FAA, US Forest Service, and tanker operators failed to provide proper maintenance and failed to comply with critical Safety-of-Flight Service Bulletins” stated one account.

        After the 2002 fire season following the loss of tanker 130 and 123 the contracts for the balances of the C-130A’s and PB4Y-2 tankers were not renewed. The large airtanker fleet shrank once more. The technologically advanced C-130’s fell by the wayside because of doubts about their structural integrity and maintenance concerns.

       Starting in the early 90’s the C-130s were the planes, along with the P3s, that were to be the all turban powered future of the industry, replacing the piston engine fleet. And while recognizing the reliability and simplicity of the multiple doored gravity systems, retardant simply falls from the bottom of the plane, a requirement for an improved, constant-flow, doored system, for a more consistent retardant line, would be mandated. The future had been in sight. 

       From what Jack had gleaned the plan to bring the C-130’s and P3’s into the tanker fleet had been flawed from inception with an array of problems. There were conflicting reports on the number of planes involved in the transactions. Two people had gone to prison ten years after the original transfer of the titles from the Air Force because of irregularities along with allegations of CIA involvement. The status of ten or more of the C-130’s was nebulous to opaque never having been converted to tankers. Two in the nebulous category had been busted trafficking drugs: one for the Cali Cartel the other the Tijuana Cartel.

       How could a government program possibly get so screwed up? thought Jack.

       Passing Palmdale Jack was intrigued by a bat-like aircraft rocketing skyward until a horn blasted, bringing him back to the road. Outside Lancaster he picked out the shadowed image of an airplane on a sign and exited. When he turned south a sign still proclaimed, The Musical Highway. The concept intrigued yet eluded him as he drove, then a car passed on his left, and its tires began to rumble. Notes emerged rhythmically. The passing car belted out the finale to the William Tell Overture courtesy of grooves in the road.

       “Somebody had way too much time on their hands,” he said out loud.

       The car in the left lane pulled in front of Jack and made the turn onto airport road. He followed. He passed an Art Deco era terminal advertising a restaurant. He saw the tails of two rather large airplanes behind some tanks and low metal buildings before he saw the Tanker Base sign. A cloud of smoke erupted enveloping the yellow tail of the closest plane. Jack stopped at the gate, pushed the button next to the speaker on a post, and waited.

        “Fox Tanker Base.”

       “Yeah. This is Jack Hart. I’m looking for a pilot, Charlie Jones. I understand he’s here manning an aircraft.”

       The gate began to roll open. Jack passed through and drove around until finding a place in a dirt parking lot, the asphalt was taken. It was a busy place. A forklift raised a trail of dust as it past when he stepped from the car. The dust was swept away by a brisk wind. He worked his way through a maze of cars and structures, crossed a strip of asphalt road to an extensive cement covered patio area and walks. A path skirted a sparsely limbed and vegetated pine surrounded by a ring of bricks. The cement walk led to a tower with switchback steps climbing five stories. It appeared to be the hub of activity with people gathered at its base. The yellow tailed airplane had a Plexiglas bubble for a nose and a yellow and white fuselage. It was taxiing past, emitting a deep-throated rumble, and marshaled by a man in uniform. The second tankers props were turning; it appeared to be the same kind of airplane in red and white paint. There was something odd about the planes. Jack finally discerned each wing supported a single jet outboard of the big round engines. It looked like a committee had designed it.

       Jack approached a man with a beard, one of the few in a uniform.

       “Who knows what’s going on around here?”

       “Good question.”

       “I’m looking for Charlie Jones. He’s a pilot.”

       “He’s in the yellow plane.”

       “Looks like he’s leaving.”

       “He should be back. It’s a local fire; off I-5; The Grapevine.”

       “I’m Jack Hart. I was hoping to talk to him.”

       “I’m Clay. You can hang around and take your chances. If he doesn’t get diverted he should be back in less than an hour.”

       “Thanks.” Jack extricated himself from the crowd and returned to the bricked off tree to re-group. A helicopter lifted off; a high winged twin-engine airplane roared to life; speakers blared incomprehensively, and a gust of wind liberated a hat. People scurried about looking purposeful.

       Jack noticed a plaque on the bricks. It memorialized a tanker crew. Looking around he saw another shrine off the covered patio. He strolled over to take a look. After reading the inscription he decided to take a walk. Homeland Security apparently had not discovered Fox Airport; vehicles and pedestrian traffic migrated unchecked between the tanker base, the hangars, and ramp to the west. Jack leaned into the wind and headed down the tarmac to kill time. Five minutes later he decided to take shelter when he approached the low fence surrounding the terminal and restaurant.

       The building was an island of calm refuge from the wind and the chaos and noise of the tanker base. Jack occupied a bench seat facing a thirty-foot wall of glass offering a panoramic view of the airport and the mountains to the north.

       That’s when he saw her.


To be continued....

Fire and Aviation-A Love Story. Lloyd

Hemet, California

June 13, 2013, 0820 Hours


      From Palmdale Highway I-38 heads east until Pearblossom where it rides the ridges and creases of the foothills spreading out from the base of the San Gabriel mountains looming to the south. Jack followed the band of asphalt toward a craggy horizon inflamed by the rising sun. The mountains to the east faded to a dim outline in the stagnant air enveloping the eastern reaches of the Los Angeles basin.

      The highways migrated through hills pocked with dry brush and grass, islands in a sea of urban sprawl until highway 74, the last leg to Hemet. Jack’s smart phone led him to a WW-II vintage Quonset hangar at Hemet Airport. A cyclone fence separated the parking area from rows of hangars. Jack found an open gate and strolled onto a ramp in front of the open hangar doors.

      “Can I help you?” came a voice from the hollow interior.

       “I’m looking for Lloyd Clift.” Jack peered into the cavern. An eclectic cache of aircraft lined the interior walls.

       “I can probably help you. I’m Lloyd.”

       Jack finally saw Lloyd when he stepped into the shade of the building. He was prone on a creeper under the engine of some sort of vintage aircraft.  

       “What do we have here?” asked Jack checking out the aircraft.

       “It’s a T-6,” said Lloyd rolling from under the plane with a handful of dirty rags. He had a shock of salt and pepper hair, memory-tinged with crimson and wore faded blue coveralls. “You must be the reporter.”

       “That’s me, Jack O. Hart.”

       “You said you’re with Rolling Stone.” Lloyd stood and dropped the nest of rags on the creeper.

       Jack judged him to be six feet tall, maybe more. He had a ruddy weathered complexion and had likely been thin in his youth.

       “I work with them but in the interest of full disclosure I’m flying solo at the moment.”

       “You’ve been talking to Don O’Connell. How is the old codger?”

       “His back is a real problem.”

       “It’s amazing he’s still kicking. When you called you said you wanted to talk about Bob Buck.”

       “I understand you were good friends.”

       “Nineteen years.”

       “How did you meet?”

      “You want a cup of coffee?”


       Lloyd started walking; Jack fell in.

       “I met Bob in 1975. He was a new hire, a pilot just out of the Navy. I had been working as a mechanic but I had a few hundred hours of flight time.” They rounded the corner and a shingled roof pitched off the side of the hangar stretching over a row of windows forming an eave. “I was finally getting a seat in a tanker.”

       “What do you mean a seat?”

       “A pilot job. I was going to be Bob’s co-pilot. The co-pilot had to work on the plane but you got to fly and build time.”

       “I thought there were limits on how many hours pilots worked?”

       “Duty time. Nobody paid much attention to it back then. There were lots of tanker companies and lots of airplanes and the contracts went to the low bidder. It was pretty hand-to-mouth, pay wise, and you were mostly left to your own devices on contract.”

       Centered on the span of windows steps rose to double screen doors. Lloyd stepped up and pulled one open and held it for Jack.

       “Thanks,” said Jack stepping into the room.

        Several thread-bare over-stuffed chairs beckoned. The walls were covered with pictures of planes and pilots as well as aviation artifacts and paraphernalia. Jack clutched his hands behind his back and leaned in inspecting the pictures on the wall adjacent to the door.

       “It’s like a museum in here.”

       “A misspent youth,” offered Lloyd. “There’s a little shrine for Bob on the end.”

        Jack took his time until he found himself in front of a picture of a youthful Lloyd Clift wearing cut-off jeans, tee shirt, and sandals, standing next to a tall silver haired gentleman with impeccably pressed designer jeans and light blue ‘Captain’ style shirt with long sleeves neatly rolled up just below the elbows. With his hands on his hips and an irreverent grin he was the image of Lothario.

       “That has to be Bob,” said Jack, pointing to the picture and turning to Lloyd.

       “That be Bob.”

       “He must have been a real ladies man.”

       “Never a dull moment. When we arrived at base he would have his ‘seasons project’ identified in a day or two. When I wasn’t changing a cylinder or a tire at night I’d hang out with him at the bar. I liked to sit back and watch him work the crowd. You couldn’t buy a drink when you were with Bob.”

       The two men in the picture posed in front of a large ungainly full-figured aircraft with twin boom tales trailing the engine nacelles to rudders connected by the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. It had a jet-pod mounted on top of the fuselage.

       “Is that a tanker in the background?”

       “Yeah, a ‘box’, a C-119. That’s a picture of us in White River, New Mexico, the first year I flew with Bob.”

       “There’s snow on the ground.”

       “You wouldn’t think snow would burn but we flew the next day. We’d arrived three days early and weren’t even on contract. We’d had a late night and crashed in the ‘box’ the next day because there was nowhere better to go. The Chief came out and beat on the side of the plane. When we woke up he asked if we wanted to go to a fire. Bob said, ‘Hell yes!’ and we staggered out of the plane and hauled three loads that day.”

       “What was he like as a pilot?”

       “I rode with him four years in the ‘box’, one year in the C-130 and I would have gone with him to hell and back.”

       “You were young, impressionable, he was your first captain. Could that affect your judgment?” Jack could see Lloyd’s expression grow dark. He met Jack’s eyes with a hard look.

        “I rode along on his first flight in the ‘box’. We picked up the airplane in Stockton and flew to Hemet with the chief pilot. When we landed at Hemet Bob had three hours in a C-119, a ‘box’, one takeoff and one landing, and a type rating when we climbed out in Hemet. We hadn’t had but a few words when we took off on his second flight in the ‘box’ from Hemet to White River. When we got to White River the runway was under construction, seventy-five feet wide, deep in a canyon. The strip was short, with the pavement rolling up to a sheer two hundred foot drop into the White River on both ends. It was a one-way approach in a big airplane, up canyon, into a mountain. His second landing in a ‘box’ was on-the-numbers. Does that mean anything to you?” said Lloyd taking a step forward and pointing a finger at Jack for emphasis.

       “Sounds like he was a hell-of-a-pilot.”

       “Damn straight!”   

       “Lloyd, I’m trying to make sense out of what’s happened to the large airtanker program. Looking at it from the outside from what I’ve read it appears many of the questions about the industry started when tanker 82 crashed.” 

       “In the Forest Service there is a lot of finger-pointing within two schools of thought about why the airtanker industry has such a dismal safety record. On the one hand, some are adamant the problem is the equipment; the aircraft are not designed for the job, not purpose built. In 2004, all the large airtanker contracts were cancelled based on that conclusion. Another school of thought is that rogue pilots and the culture within the tanker community is responsible for the problem.”

       Lloyd had begun to pace in a small arch as he listened to Jack. “Well I’ve been out of it for a few years and I’m just not that fucking smart. Three C-119’s lost wings before the Forest Service parked them and nobody seemed to give a shit. It didn’t even get serious about investigating 82 until the second C-130 crashed eight years later and Fox News got it on film. Three more people were dead. And then the last investigation only happened because one guy in the National Transportation Board took the initiative.”

       A storm was brewing in the room.

       “It would be handy if things were black and white,” offered Jack. “But what you described, the lack of training in a new airplane and an exceptional pilot willing to take the chance and landing at an unfamiliar airport with all the associated risks reinforces the stereotype of an industry ‘culture’ of cutting corners and pilots taking unnecessary risks.”

       “I love words like ‘culture’,” said Lloyd, his tone derisive. “That was the fucking job back then! If you didn’t like it you did something else! You think what was going on was a big fucking secret! Cheap airplanes, disposable pilots! With all the finger-pointing going on in the Forest Service someone in the agency ought to reach out and grab a mirror. You get what you’re willing to pay for. The agency signs off on every airplane and every pilot before anybody goes to work!” Lloyd took steps back to the door. “I think we’re out of coffee,” he said as he opened the door and held it.

       Jack didn’t take the hint. “Look Lloyd, I’m a journalist. If you’re going to be a good journalist basically you have to commit to being an ass-hole. I ask questions that make people uncomfortable. If I get my ass kicked it’s most likely because I’m doing a really good job or I’ve had too much to drink and mouthed off to the wrong guy at the bar. I would also tell you I am committed to the story. Not the truth. The truth is black and white. I think your buddy, Don, said it best. He said ‘everybody has a piece of the truth. Then they put it in their brain and fill in the blanks and it’s their no-shit story’. My job is to write the story and let you draw your own conclusions.”

       “I’ve seen what reporters do with an interview. They take a steak and make hash,” said Lloyd. He was still holding the door.

       “I’m not a reporter. I’m not here to sensationalize a tragedy. I want to tell the story of the airtankers, and the people. I saw a tanker make a drop outside Porterville three days ago and I was mesmerized. Milo Peltzer was there, taking pictures. He’s like a tanker historian and he invited me into this exclusive little corner of aviation that makes war on fire with big bombers flown by characters out of a Hollywood script. I’ve seen ‘Always’ but this is real. I’m a journalist and I want to sell stories but if I don’t get it right, I’ll be out of business. I’m talking to you because I want to get it right and I know there would be an appetite for this story. So how about a cup of coffee?”

       Lloyd lingered, staring at Jack, then let the door swing shut for effect. “Do you take it black? I know you don’t want sugar.”

       Jack didn’t realize he had been holding his breath. “Black.”

       Lloyd brushed past Jack and stepped into a door to the left labeled ‘Flight Planning’. Jack glanced back at the rogue’s gallery of aircraft and pilots, then followed Lloyd.

       “I would have brought it to you,” said Lloyd when Jack stepped in to the space.

       “I want to make sure you don’t spit in it.”

       “It crossed my mind.”

       Lloyd left ‘Flight Planning’ and settled on the couch balancing a Styrofoam cup. Jack followed finding refuge in a stuffed chair.

       “So, who killed Kennedy?” asked Jack.

       “I guess that’s what you call non-sequitur.”

       “It’s a good question to ease the tension; and who knows, somebody may tell me someday. What were you doing when they crashed?”

        “I was on a contract in Spain, on a C-130 tanker, when it happened.  The boss offered to fly me home but showing up at his service and looking at an empty box wouldn't compare to going out and toasting his memory. I felt that Bob would agree, as close as we were, and I toasted him to oblivion.”

        “The last time I saw him, six months after he was killed, we were flying at about twenty feet over what appeared to be a Kansas wheat field stretching to the horizon.  We were flying under high tension wires for miles: finally got the bitch on the ground.  Then we were standing by the ‘Box’ and Bob said he needed to get going.  I told him I wanted to go with him and he replied I couldn't go where he was going. Then I woke up.” Lloyds voice strained with emotion. “I miss him.”

       “You were on a C-130 tanker in Spain?”


       “Did you have concerns about your plane at the time?”

       “Yes, no, I don’t know. We were all just upset about the crash.”

       “What do you think happened to tanker 82?”

       “The wing box failed.”

       “That’s your theory?”

       “It’s not a theory, it’s a fact. When tanker 130 crashed, in 2002, the media couldn’t get enough of the image of the wings folding and the plane crashing. It played for weeks. It was sickening. There was too much pressure and they couldn’t blow off the investigation. The wing box failed on tanker 130.”

       “After the finding on tanker 130, an NTSB investigator took it upon himself and went back to Pearblossom, where 82 crashed in ‘94. He took the time and trouble to go back to the site: paid for the whole thing out of his pocket. The debris field was still there and he found the wing box. It had the same failure as tanker 130.”

       “Who was the NTSB investigator?”

       “I don’t remember the guy’s name. It only took eight years to get serious about 82 and three more people had died.” 

       “So why the controversy about what happened?”

       “There’s no controversy, now, but it’s 2014. 1994 is ancient history. Nobody gives a rat’s ass. The Forest Service isn’t going to excavate the past.”

       “Tanker 130 wasn’t the only one to crash in 2002, right?”

       “Tanker 123. It lost a wing in Colorado a month after tanker 130.”

       “There was no doubt it was structural failure, right?”

       “Metal fatigue, cracks in the wings. I think the plane was manufactured in 1944. The company, H&P, Hawkins and Powers, converted it to a tanker in the late fifties. It should have been in a museum.”

       “The problems still could have been pilot induced.”

       “You can determine if cracks in metal are new or old. Take a guess.”


      “Correctamundo. I think the correct lingo is ‘crack propagation without detection’. That means nobody was looking. They weren’t doing the required inspections.”

       “How did the operators and the Forest Service respond after 82 crashed?”

       “Aside from blowing smoke with a bogus investigation?”

       “I suppose.”

       “Beats me,” said Lloyd.

       “Why are there so few tankers now?”

       “There are lots of tankers. Just not a lot of large airtankers like C-130s and P-3s.”

       “What do you mean?”

       “Do you know what a SEAT is?”

       “I’ll take a swing. I’m sitting in one.”

       “Single Engine Air Tanker: big crop dusters. Almost exclusively 802 Air Tractors. They’re contracted to the Bureau of Land Management to fight fire. Some are on state contracts. There’s a whole slew of them all over the country.”

       “And then there are the helicopters. The Forest Service even started calling the big helos tankers when they began filling the void. It got a little confusing and the name was refined to helitanker. The helicopters are like fleas on a dog in So Cal now. There used to be at least six large airtankers home based in So Cal in the fire season. It’s unusual to see one now until things go to hell.”

       “I noticed Cal Fire has a base here when I pulled in. I was told this used to be called ‘Top Mud’.”

       “We worked twenty-one tankers out of the base one-day on a fire threatening Idlewild: The Bee Hive Fire. I was turning base to final to land after a run when an S-2 blew a tire on take-off and skidded into the weeds. I took it around and got back in line. On downwind I saw a civilian in the run-up area but he wouldn’t come up on the radio. I kept talking calling downwind, base, and then final when he starts pulling out on the runway and talking. I told him it wasn’t going to work but he insisted saying he would ‘expedite’. Expedite, my ass, I had to take it around again. He pissed me off and I made sure he got a good look at the tanker when I went by.”

       “Sounds crazy.”

       “It was. We kicked ass on the fire but we were lucky nobody got hurt. The community even made up little pins to commemorate the fire and gave them to the crews. It wouldn’t happen like that today.”

       “You sound disappointed.”

        “We were all full of piss-and-vinegar and it was exciting. It’s more civilized now and we’re better for it. But the pendulum swings and tends to overshoot. The buzzword is ‘safety’. Some think you spell it ‘L-A-Z-Y’. It’s a brave new world.”

       “But why not more big tankers?” persisted Jack.

       “You’re the journalist. Figure it out.”


To be continued...

Fire and Aviation-A Love Story-Top Mud

Bakersfield, California

June 12, 2013, 1420 Hours


       “Don. You’ve been out here long enough.”

       Vicky had returned.

       “We’re just getting to know each other,” said Jack. “Can’t Don stay and play a little longer?”

       “If Don doesn’t move we’ll have to put him in traction again.”

       Jack pressed on. “How do I talk to Charlie?”

       “Charlie lives in Honduras, on an island most of the time. He’ll be here for his fire contract in a week or two.”

       “You said Charlie knew Senator Clanton. What’s he got to do with this?”

       “I don’t know but Charlie has some history with the senator.”

       “That’s it, boys. Move it!” prodded Vicky.

       “Alright, alright,” conceded Jack.

       “You’re going to have to give me a hand,” said Vicky. “Your new friend is spineless. Come over here and grab an arm. Stuff your bottle in a dark place, Don, so I can pretend I don’t know.”

       Don took another drag with a defiant look then capped it and packed it. Jack had arrived at his side.

       “Grab an arm,” instructed Vicky.

       Don picked up the cane and tried to lift his leg over the bench. It didn’t respond. “I think my leg died.”

       “Hang on,” said Vicky as she straddled the bench facing Don. She reached down and grabbed his ankle. “Relax Don.” She began slowly lifting his leg. Don started to fall back but Jack caught him.

       “She’s going to kill me,” said Don.

       “Hold your water Don,” said Vicky.

       Feeling was returning to the leg and a shock radiated through Don’s body, he turned to wood. Vicky felt it and waited.

       It took ten minutes to get Don vertical and limbered up. The operation was X rated for language.

       “You’re a real pain in the ass,” offered Jack.

       “Give me my damn cane!” said Don.

       Jack handed it over while Vicky steadied Don. Jack started to step in but Don pushed him away with the cane. It was a slow trip.

       “If I can’t talk to Charlie how about Walter?”

       “He’s gone. Fell down dead in his pasture feeding the cows.”

       “I could hold a séance.”

       “You should talk to Lloyd Clift.”

       “Who’s Lloyd Clift?”

       “He was a good friend of Bob Buck, the pilot on tanker 82. He lives in Hemet. Maybe he could add something.”

       “Hemet. That’s down south of here, where the flight originated back in ‘94, right?”

       “That’s the place. They used to call themselves, ‘Top Mud’. Hemet was the busiest tanker base in the country before the Feds moved their operations to San Bernardino.”

       “What’s Mud?”

       “Retardant, you dumb SOB!”

       Jack took the abuse and turned to Vicky. “Can I come back and play sometime, Miss Vicky?” he said with a wide-eyed, hopeful look.

      “That’s Don’s call.”

      “I think he wants to play with you,” injected Don. “If he wants to see me he has to bring the refreshments.”

       “It would be my pleasure to provide the refreshments at our next get-together. When Charlie shows up for his contract will he stop here?”

       “Who the hell knows,” said Don.

       “If you haven’t met him, this is Don, the martyr,” said Vicky. “Charlie will stop here when he returns. He always does. If you’re lucky his wife, Nancy, might make an appearance.”

       “I’m going to leave my card,” said Jack to Vicky. “Please give me a call if Charlie materializes. I’m off to see ‘Top Mud’.”



Lancaster, California

June 12, 2013, 1830 Hours

       William J. Fox Airport and its tanker base was a distraction but Jack liked to have context when he was researching a story. “What the hell,” it was on the way to Hemet. He peeled off Interstate 14 at West Avenue G. A sign beside the road said it was The Musical Highway. Grasping at straws he harbored hopes he could tie the road to something rhythmic and relevant to report to HQ in New York but the rationale for the name remained obscure. 

       The four-lane divided road paralleled the runway. Red shark-like fins of two airtankers rose out of the sagebrush a quarter mile to the west. Jack decided to press on, passing the turn to the airport where four lanes petered out to two and continued another mile or so then made a left on South West 6th Street at a deserted intersection. The sight of the wake for tanker 82 was down the road on the right, Foxy’s Southwest Steakhouse. It occupied a patch of dirt surrounded by brush looking abandoned but for the two pickups parked outside. Jack parked in the lot, soaked up the ambiance and visualized what it looked like on a night twenty years earlier, brimming with cars, music blaring, the Steakhouse’s sand etched sign a beacon.  

       The GPS on his smart phone next led Jack to a Best Western Motel in Lancaster where he planned to spend the night. Before he slept, he got on-line and dug into Senator Seymour Clanton III, Democrat Louisiana. Then called his boss.

       The phone rang through to message. “Hey Rod, it’s me. You should check out Bakersfield, it’s quite the metropolis. Anyway…”

       “Jack, stop babbling.”

       “Hey, you picked up. I feel important.”

       “Don’t. Tell me you’re back on track. You know, it’s about the music.”

       “Of course, I’m on track, I found a musical highway.”

       “You’re in LA, right?”

       “I’m in LA County.”

       “It’s a big place. Be specific.”


       “Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this?” said Rod, sounding impatient.

       “Probably because you’re not going to like this. I’m going to make one more stop, tomorrow, before I head to the city.”

       “What’s in it for me? You know, me, your boss. The guy paying your travel expenses to go to LA and check out the music scene.”

       “I still think I’m onto something. Ever hear of Senator Seymour Clanton III?”

       “Yeah. Didn’t he cut a rhythm and blues album back in the eighties?”

       “I’m serious Rod. He was a Democrat, now retired, from Louisiana, and on both the senate intelligence and agriculture committees. He was in the senate for thirty-one years and he never sponsored a single piece of legislation. The only thing he appeared to do was get re-elected.”

       “So, let’s see. You see an airplane fighting a fire, then go to Bakersfield and visit an old fart in a rest home, and now you’re curious about a retired senator from Louisiana. What am I missing here? Is this like a country song? If I play it backwards I get my journalist back?”

      “Everything is screwy about this business. Fire is a very big deal in the west and the Forest Service says it needs twenty-five or thirty of these large airtankers yet there’s just twelve or thirteen. It’s been like that for at least ten years ever since the Forest Service canceled all the contracts in 2004. Back then it suggested the airplanes had structural problems or that rogue pilots were threatening the public or both pilots and planes were dangerous. The casualty rates read like combat statistics. The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture; maybe that’s the connection to Senator Clanton.”

       “Are you going to make the rounds of more care facilities?”

       “There was a crash back in ‘94 that I’ve been looking into. I’m going to interview a friend of the pilot that was flying the plane, at an actual airport. Then I promise I’ll go to LA.”

       “The next time we talk I don’t want you to start the conversation with, ‘have you ever heard of,’ unless it’s a band.”

To be continued...

Fire and Aviation-A Love Story-The Wake


Lancaster, California

 August 3, 1995


       Near a year after the crash of tanker 82 people were beginning to show up at Foxy’s Southwest Steakhouse which was a crawling distance from the airport. It was a popular watering hole and the crew of tanker 82 had occasionally gone there, as had most of the pilots, mechanics, and people who worked out of Fox Airtanker Base.

       Fox Airport, named after General William J. Fox, occupies a windswept patch of sagebrush desert in the Antelope Valley outside Lancaster, California. The antelope had long since been exterminated and the skies have thundered for sixty years with the antics of the speed merchants based at Edwards AFB to the north. Amongst the crews, Lancaster was said to be the place where dirt comes to die.

       The wake had materialized like a fire; it wasn’t planned but had been forecast. It was a new fire season and the conditions were right: the accumulation of airtankers and people staged to respond to the threat of fire on the Angeles Forest or Tehachapi mountains to the north.


       “Are you sure this is safe?” asked Charlie. He was new to Foxy’s and music blared from the interior.

       “There’s never been a fatality,” said Don. “A few scrapes and bruises,” he added after some hesitation. “Porterville is where you better pay attention. A couple of the guys got their asses handed to them at the Paul Bunyan recently. They thought it was a fist fight but the cowboys were using bar stools.”

       “Nice,” was all Charlie thought to say. “Isn’t that Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire; pretty appropriate.” 

       “Couldn’t prove it by me.”

       “I suppose you know everyone in here,” said Charlie stepping through the door into a room crammed with people, mostly standing in groups. Some were competing with the music trying to converse, using animated movements and gesticulations to enhance communications should words fail.

       “I know them all but I can’t remember half their names,” said Don. “That’s the trouble with getting old.”

       The interior of Foxy’s was not refined. The low-slung open beam ceiling gave the large main room an intimate air. Raw, rough-hewn, pine plank walls were hung with an eclectic gallery of photos. Exotic military pre-orbital jet powered tubes to vintage piston aircraft and the pilots that flew them: cowpokes on horseback from a bygone era and art imitating life in the form of Hollywood celebrities. The framed images were mostly black and white but that could have been an effect of the lighting. The Art Deco jukebox blasted. The acoustics were dismal. Charlie liked it immediately.

       Don waded in and Charlie followed. Charlie recognized a pilot built like a fireplug named Walter. Don was moving his way; he was a head and a half taller than Walter. Walter clutched a tumbler of amber liquid. He raised it toasting Don’s arrival.

       “Welcome to the wake,” Walter offered with a solemn face. His voice was deep and resonant; it washed over you. If whiskey had a voice it would sound like Walter.

       “You’re been drinking without me.”

       “I resemble that remark,” countered Walter adding a mock serious expression.

       “You remember Charlie Jones, my co-pilot, right?”

       “My condolences,” said Walter, once again sounding solemn. His drink migrated to his left hand and he held his right out while fixing glassy eyes on Charlie. His hand was big with stubby fat sausage fingers.

       “We met yesterday at the base,” said Charlie as he shook hands.

       “As I recall this is not your first pull on the oars of one of Don O’Connell’s slave galleys.”

       “I have some old scars.”

       “You must be a slow learner.”

       “He said flying tankers would be more fun than smuggling toasters into Mexico.”

      “I’m going to go find some glasses while you girls talk about me,” said Don then stepped into the crowd.

       Charlie watched Don disappear then turned back to Walter. “You knew the crew on 82?”

       “I’d known Bob, the pilot, for years. Joe, his co-pilot, was a recent transplant from the airlines. He got screwed out of his airline retirement when the corporate raiders rode Eastern into the bankruptcy. After a career in the airlines he still needed a job. I had met Shawn, the engineer, but that was about it. I ate breakfast with them the day they crashed.”

       Charlie shook his head slowly but didn’t offer a word.

       “We were eating at Denny’s in Hemet. There’s a bar attached to the place and Joe told me they had tipped a few the previous evening and he had immersed himself in conversation with a sweet young thing. As it turned out her mother had been a flight attendant with Eastern. He said my god! I could be your father!”

       “How’d that work out?”

       “I didn’t see any bruising. I suppose she must have had a sense of humor,” said Walter then he put mouth to glass.

       “So, who are all these people?” asked Charlie looking around the room. “Some look to be homeless.”

       “That would be the flight crews and mechanics.”

       “How about the suits?”

        “The uniforms are agency people from the tanker base or dispatch. The ones that look like lawyers could be lawyers or worse, Federal Aviation Administration.”

       “What are they doing here?”

       “We’re here to help,” came a voice from behind Charlie.

       Charlie took a step back and turned. An official looking gentleman in a suit had materialized.

       “Take the fifth, Charlie, don’t say a word,” croaked Walter.

       “Does your parole officer know you’re drinking, Walter?” asked the man in the suite.

       “The terms of my work release allow me to imbibe. Charlie, this is Inspector Clouseau, National Transportation Safety Board.”

       Charlie was checking out the portly gray-haired representative from the Government.

       “The name’s Peter Seller. And you’re Charlie...?”

       “Jones, Charlie Jones. I’m the new kid on the block.”

       “Nice to meet you,” said Peter. “Walter and I go back a-ways.”

       “I was guessing,” said Charlie. Then he listened to the good-natured exchange between the two men. Charlie gleaned that Peter had worked in the tanker industry before joining the NTSB and had been on the NTSB power-plant group investigating the crash of tanker 82. He also figured out Walter and Peter had been to the crash site.

       “What did you make of the engines?” asked Charlie when there was a lull in the verbal banter.

       “They were all running. Number three was in reverse. We estimated 2250 shaft horsepower. It likely contributed to the wing separation,” said Peter.

       “That sounds ugly. What would cause that?” asked Charlie.

       “An inch and a half of power lever cable movement. Possibly when the wing failed,” offered Peter.


       “Why did the wing fail? Eighteen witnesses saw an explosion. The Forest Service and the FAA lean toward an explosion in the center-section fuel bay caused by an electrical short. Some people think the plane was flying too fast and encountered turbulence.”

       “What do you think?” asked Charlie.

       “I think you ask a lot of questions.”

       “I’m a curious guy.”

       “The plane had 20,000 plus hours. The Air Force parked it for a reason. It could have had fuel vapors and an electrical problem.”

       “It would take a big spark to light off jet fuel,” injected Charlie.

       “We need to light you off Charlie.” It was Don. He was back with three glasses and a bottle of whiskey.

       “What kind of bar is this? They hand out bottles of whiskey?” asked Charlie.

       “I just needed the glasses. I brought the whiskey,” said Don. He handed Charlie and Peter small tumblers then poured them full. Walter was next in line then Don filled his own.

       “To the poor bastards on tanker 82,” toasted Don extending his drink.

        The four vessels collided and whiskey broke like waves on the shore from the glasses dousing the hands of the four men, then they all tossed back a generous slug. Charlie turned away barely suppressing an involuntary convulsion. Eyes watering, he managed to swallow. Don and Walter looked at each other, a slight smile playing on their lips.

       “Kids,” said Don.

       Charlie couldn’t talk for a while and when words came they were a raspy whisper.

       “What is that shit!”

       “Nectar,” said Walter.

       “Ten High,” said Don. “I don’t leave home without it.”

       “I’m going to find some ice and tone it down,” said Charlie. A straight shot to the bar was out of the question so he went for an alternate route. It led to a back room where the traffic and decibel level diminished to an inside-voice conversational level.

       That’s when he heard the Senator’s name. Senator Clanton.


To be continued...

Another installment: Fire Aviation-A Love Story

       What is that smell? thought Jack, as he scanned the lounge. He flashed back on the times he had visited his grandmother in a rest home. The facilities had evolved, linguistically. Political correctness spawned euphemistic labels for what for many people here would be the last stop on the subway. But they still smelled the same: some sort of chemical reaction combining Pine Sol, institutional food, and atrophy.

       There were a lot of women. When he had entered the room a ripple passed through the pond of blue hair as heads turned and a huddle of old men around a table peered up from their card game. A fair number of the inhabitants were unaware of his presence. At the far reaches next to a window the lone figure of a man sat in a walker. He was hunched over looking outside. A pretty lady with dark hair in a ponytail and a flowered print blouse hovered with a group painting pictures. When she saw Jack she waved him to approach. Seeing the lack of visitors as he maneuvered the room he made a mental note to call his grandmother.

       “You must be Jack. I’m Vicky.”

       “I’m guessing you don’t live here,” offered Jack.

       “Very astute. But then I would expect nothing less from a journalist.”

       Her words wore sarcasm. She had penetrating dark eyes supporting the look of someone who could handle herself. Jack could see a challenge in her bearing. “I’m looking for Don O’Connell.”

       “So am I. He’s supposed to be here.”

       “I thought that might be him in the walker,” said Jack with a nod to the window.”

       “Don’s too stubborn to use a walker. You’ll know him when you see him. He’s probably lurking outside.”

      “In this heat?”

       “I didn’t say he was smart. Let’s check the picnic area.”

       She led the way.

       “Who do you write for?”

       “At the moment, Rolling Stone Magazine. But that could depend on how this interview goes.”

       “Good luck. His bark is worse than his bite.”

       She tossed the comment without looking up and Jack pondered the meaning.

       “He’s all there? I mean sometimes people his age...”

       “Oh, he’s all there.”

       It sounded like a threat.

       The picnic area was Spartan, a lone fruitless mulberry with three picnic tables spaced symmetrically around it. An irregular medley of grasses carpeted the area. An old guy sat at one of the tables petting a cat.

      “Don, this is Jack. He says he’s a journalist and he wants to talk to you,” called Vicky as they approached.

       Don turned, looking over his shoulder as they neared. He had a receding sparse stubble hairline and a neatly trimmed gray mustache. Long arms hung from a broad shouldered frame above a thick torso. He continued petting a plump black cat reclined between his legs while squinting at the approaching duo. He straddled the bench seat with his free hand resting on a cane on the tabletop.

       Jack made his approach. “Hi, I’m Jack Hart.”

       “Have you got a cigarette?” asked Don. It didn’t sound like a request.

       “Don, you know you can’t smoke,” said Vicky.

       “The smoke Nazis run this place,” said Don still squinting at Jack.

       “I don’t smoke,” said Jack.

       “What kind of a damn reporter are you? You don’t smoke?” Contempt spread across the landscape of Don’s face. “As a rule I don’t speak to reporters. They are not to be trusted. Who do you work for?”

       “Rolling Stone,” said Jack wondering how he had become the interviewee.

       “What? You couldn’t get a real job with Playboy or Hustler?” probed Don.

       “They wouldn’t hire me because I’m gay.”

       “I knew you couldn’t be trusted. You’re not fucking gay. Are you really a reporter?”

       “How do you know I’m not gay?”

       “I saw the way you looked at Miss Vicky’s ass.”

        “Maybe I should leave you two to sort out your manhood,” said Vicky.

       Jack glanced at her. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to leave. She looked back with a smirk then left. Jack watched her depart.

       “Get a grip horn dog, she’s my squeeze,” said Don. He was still squinting at Jack and petting the cat.

       Jack returned his look. “The only squeeze you’ve had in the recent past is that wrinkled flesh you call a pecker.”

       “I get more pussy than your sorry ass. You know how many women around here are after me. The scary part is some of them have started to look pretty good.” Don saw Jack’s eyes gravitate to the cat. “If you drag the cat into this with some inappropriate comment I’ll kick your butt.”

       Jack could see they were making progress.

       “Do you drink? Or is that against the journalist code?”

       “Yeah, I drink.”

       “Then sit down, on the other side of the table. I can’t see crap with the sun at your back.”

       Jack did as he was told. Don pulled a half-full bottle of Ten High from his shirt and passed it across the table. Jack took a slug. He took some time and let the burn settle. Don held eye contract, boring holes.

       “What is that?”

       “It’s labeled.”

       “Ten High. I’ve never had the pleasure.”

       “You should get out more.”

       “You’re a tanker pilot.”

       “I was a pilot. I haven’t flown anything for years.”

       “Why did you quit?”

       “I couldn’t see shit.”

       “I was talking to Milo Peltzer. He said you were disgusted with the Forest Service.”

       “The Forest Service is disgusted with the Forest Service. How’s Milo? He’s almost as old as I am.”

       “Still taking pictures and drinking beer.”

       “He’s one crazy SOB. Is he still collecting airtanker junk?”

       “Oh yeah.”

       “So I guess you’ll get to the point eventually.”

       Jack paused making eye contact then took another pull from the Ten High and handed the bottle back.

       “Milo said when he started in the business back in the 60’s there were fifty or sixty airtankers. Now there are twelve or thirteen and the businesses, the commercial providers of airtankers, have struggled to build more, “next generation”, airtankers. And the Forest Service has been crying the blues for more ever since they canceled all the old contracts.”

       “I’ve been on-line doing research. I’ve watched actual footage of wings coming of an airplane in 2002; and that’s happened at least five or six times before that. Either you guys were flying the wings of the planes or you’re flying junk! It’s no wonder the Forest Service grounded all the airtankers in 2004.”

       Jack paused having flung the spear. Don’s expression was latent volcanic and crimson and he pitched forward. The cat evacuated. Don mouth contorted struggling to form words.

       “You are a complete imbecile!! There’s not even a question in that trash you’ve gathered!!”

       “At least that’s the public’s perception of the business. A bunch of rogue pilots running on testosterone, a hazard to the public, wings falling off airplanes into schoolyards. That, or stone-cold heroes putting their lives on the line waging war on FIRE!”

       “Well you know it all! Go print whatever you want! There’s nothing I can add to your fairytale.” Don took a drink and glared.

       Jack sat; singed by Don’s radar stare; ready to dodge if he decided to employ the cane. There was a long awkward pause.

       “Just for giggles, let’s pretend I’m not an imbecile and I don’t believe the clap-trap spouted by talking heads. You still can’t dispute the numbers or the fact that wings fail. Help me understand. Point me at the people who know the truth.”

       Don eyed the imbecile. “Everybody has a piece of the truth. Then they put it in their brain and fill in the blanks and it’s their no-shit story,” he explained, waxing philosophically, his complexion a paler hue.

       “So what’s your no-shit story? Why do wings fail?”

       “There are lots of ways for an airplane to get old and fail, not just years. The bombers I flew in World War II had aluminum bones and skin. They built them to fly a few missions before they were blown out of the sky. I parked two in the Pacific. But I was working them on fires in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. In the fifties the engineers figured out they could build airplanes like eggs, the skin, the shell, the structure, strong and light, but you crack the shell and you have an omelet.”

       “So you think they were either blown out of the sky or the Forest Service was making omelets,” deadpans Jack.

       “You really are an imbecile.”

       “That’s a possibility.”

       “The wings have failed on both types.”

       “So maybe it is the pilots.”

       “Maybe; but I think it’s maintenance and worn out airplanes. The military parks them for a reason. The first tankers were from World War II. A lot of them were low time, almost new. The C-130’s and P-3’s, the planes what were to replace them had a lot more hours on them, especially the C-130A’s. They were built in the fifties. I watched the spooks flying them in and out of Laos in the sixties, moving whatever was thrown on the back like Fed Ex. When they started breaking they parked them in the desert in Tucson.”

       “So the new turban aircraft weren’t so new?”

       “They were rode hard and put up wet. The World War II stuff was excess and being sold for scrap. The people who started the industry got them for pennies on the dollar, put tanks in them, and turned them into cash cows working fire contracts. When they started wearing out some fellas worked out a deal to trade the old planes for C-130A’s and P-3’s. They started pulling them out of the desert like patients who had been in the hospital for twenty-five years and been cured.”

       “So you think the so-called new turbans had problems before the commercial tanker operators traded for them?”

       “That’s my no-shit story.”

       “Do you think the Forest Service knew they had problems?”

       “The Air Force knew. Maybe nobody asked them,” Don suggested. “They beefed up the C-130B models; used different alloys for the structures.”     

       “The first C130 crash was tanker 82. Not far from here, on the Angeles National Forest. What do you think happened?”

       “I’m thinking you’ve already read the reports.”

       “I read the reports. There were conflicting conclusions. What’s your conclusion?”

       “I think they hit the ground. But I did go to the wake.”

       “The wake?”

       “Yeah, the wake. My buddy Charlie was just breaking into the business when we went to the wake.”

       Jack reached out for the bottle. Don pulled it away. Jack rolled his eyes and Don cracked what passed for a smile and handed it over.

       “I guess you are a reporter. You know how to push buttons and get people talking.”

       “Tell me about the wake.”

To be continued...

Fire Aviation: A Love Story - Jack O. Hart

Bakersfield, California

June 12, 2013, 1310 Hours

     'Bakersfield, what the hell am I doing in Bakersfield?’ thought Jack.
     The air conditioning in Jack Hart’s 2013 Toyota rental had taken a dump and his ‘Deny Everything’ tee shirt clung to his torso feeling like a foam rubber wet-suit. An image of the abandoned weathered-checked vintage Giant Orange Stand he passed in Chowchilla was etched in his brain. He fantasized pulling into the parking lot and ordering a frosted mug of fresh squeezed OJ. His cell phone buzzed, a rattlesnake on the passenger seat, he was pretty sure he was about to get bit. After scanning for law enforcement he plucked it from its lair.
     “I need Blue Tooth.” He punched ‘TALK’ then put it on speaker. “Hola.”
     “You’re driving. Where are you?”
     It was his editor, The Boss.
     “What are you doing in Bakersfield? I think Buck Owens is dead and Merle Haggard lives up north now. I hear the Crystal Palace is still cooking.”
     “It’s not about the music, Rod.”
     “Hey man, you work for Rolling Stone. It’s always about the music.”
     “I got distracted.”
     “A woman?”
     “A fire.”
     “Okay, I’ll bite.”
     “I was camping outside Porterville.”
     “I should cancel your expense report. Where’s Porterville?”
     “Don’t ask. Suffices to say you need a passport if you’re from New York.”
     “I get the picture.”
     “I was heading out of the mountains towards town and there was a fire. They stopped all the traffic. I was watching the fire climbing a ridge when this airplane flew over. It scared the shit out of me, it was flying so low. I mean it was big like an airliner. It made a turn up against the ridge and spewed a cloud of red on the fire and snuffed it. It was awesome!”
     “So you decided to go to Bakersfield?”
     “There was a guy taking pictures. Milo Peltzer. He’s like a groupie. An airtanker groupie. That’s what the airplane was, an airtanker. We got to talking and I explained I was a Journalist. He said he had been a pilot and had retired to the family farm where he had a man-cave full of aviation memorabilia with lots of airtanker paraphernalia; a private museum. Turns out he serves beer. How could I pass that up?”
     “A bar museum. I can see the appeal. That still doesn’t get me to Bakersfield.”
     “He said if I was interested in airtankers I should go see a guy named Don O’Connell, in Bakersfield. I think there’s a story. I don’t want to get into it right now but I’m going to talk to the guy.”
     “Where, at the airport?”
     Jack could hear frustration in Rod’s voice and knew he would not be pleased with the answer.             

     “No. Pleasant Valley Home Care.”

Pleasant Valley Home Care

     “I’d like to speak to Don O’Connell.”
      Jack stood in the lobby of Pleasant Valley Home Care speaking through a gap in the Plexiglas fortification shielding ‘Admissions and Reception’. Jack reflected on the idea that there was no suggestion people might exit having been admitted. The Eagles tune, “Hotel California” came to mind.
     “Are you a relative?” asked a woman that looked suspiciously like his mother.
     “No. I’m a journalist. Jack O. Hart.”
     “Why do you want to see Mr. O’Connell?”
     “A friend of mine recommended I speak to Don as a source for research I’m doing on the Airtanker Industry.”
     “I’ll need to speak to Mr. Belcher, our administrator. Please take a seat.”
     Jack retreated to a stuffed Nag hide sofa, one of two. They faced each other separated by a large rectangular aquarium on a wooden pedestal. He entertained himself with a muscle pose reflected off the aquarium. Not bad he thought. One hundred sevent-five, okay, 180 pounds packed into six feet of muscle and love! A ball cap hid the pre-mature bald spot on the top of his head: a sprig of hair captured with a beaded hair tie dangled down his neck.
     Two large mottled carp-like creatures swam into his image sculling the bottom of what could well have been the Dead Sea. The soft strains of a John Tech medley floated wave-like through the room. Taking a seat, he sank into what felt like fat tissue and time stood still. Waxing morbid he was thinking Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues, or something from the Grateful Dead might be more appropriate.
     “Mr. Hart.”
     “Mr. Belcher, I presume,” said Jack as he stood to face an elderly gray haired man in a blue suit. The suite seemed appropriate. It lacked flair. Mr. Belcher clasped his hands slightly above his navel. A little higher it could have been in prayer, his presentation more mortician than administrator. 
     “I understand you want to speak to Donald O’Connell.”
     “Yes. I’m doing research on the Airtanker Industry and I’ve been told he’s quite the authority.”
     “I don’t know about that. Donald has been living here for over a year. Family members visit occasionally. They haven’t suggested there is some sort of problem I hope?”
     “No, nothing like that. I’ve never met any of his family.” Mr. Belcher’s gaze settled on Jack. He didn’t speak. Time passed. Jack squirmed. “So what are the chances I might speak with Mr. O’Connell?” Mr. Belcher’s eyes continued to rest on Jack. He appeared impervious to the power of speech.
     “I suppose I could ask Donald if he would like to speak to you,” he said eventually.
     A sense of relief swept Jack. Mr. Belcher appeared to be operating in a different time zone. Jack had contemplated slapping Mr. Belcher in a sort of mental Heinlich Maneuver. “That would be great,” said Jack.
     Mr. Belcher had begun to make up lost time having turned and taken a step before Jack finished the sentence. Jack retreated to the Naga and continued studying the sculling prowess of the carp while doubts pulled into skeptical harbor.
     What the hell am I doing in Bakersfield?

To be continued...

Fire Aviation: A Love Story - Prologue

 August 13, 1994

    A shock wave passed through the fuselage and the yoke twisted violently clockwise with sufficient force and movement to sprain Bob’s wrist and break his grip. Adrenalin dumped into his bloodstream blunting what pain he might have felt. His brain struggled to recognize the meaning of the sickening dull pop that had accompanied the physical abuse and spastic movement of the aircraft as he took back possession of the yoke. He looked at Joe, his co-pilot, “What happened!!??” he blurted into the microphone resting on his lips, an appendage of his headset.
Their eyes met. Joe’s mouth parted but there were no words. He was on the controls as well. Strain registered in his eyes and his usual crimson hue drained from his mottled bald pate to his jaw.
Bob pressed the transmit button on his yoke as the plane torqued violently right then left. All that he could manage was “Oh shit!” on the Los Angeles approach frequency. Towering craggy granite peaks began to fill the windscreen replacing the dingy blue Southern California version of sky just before a brilliant flash enveloped the cockpit. Joe winced and turned away from it to the left. The heat would have cooked his skin were it not for its brevity. The view twisted as the whaling moan of the third soul on board, Shawn, filtered through the intercom from the engineer’s position just aft of Bob and Joe. Then the wind came and the world turned. Random pages of a manual swirled around the cockpit chased by the detritus that had accumulated in the nooks and crannies of the thirty-seven-year-old aircraft.
    The instrument panel of airtanker 82, a C-130A, told part of the tale. The vital signs of the number three and four engines were flat lined and their power levers had slammed to idle of their own volition. Bob knew it was futile but it was not in him to quit. He shoved the two power levers forward. They moved without resistance or any discernable response while he stood on the left rudder attempting to arrest the sickening rotation to the right. He pulled one and two power levers back, the left engines, and the acceleration to the right diminished but the plane continued corkscrewing violently down to a discernable point on a slope of granite. Bob could begin to pick out individual trees in the sparse vegetation swirling below. 
    “It’s gone,” spoke Joe, looking right. “The wing is gone.”

Don O’Connell

Pleasant Valley Home Care, Bakersfield California

June 12, 2014, 1131 Hours

    “Don. You startled me.”
    “I think Frank crapped his pants.”
    “Don. I’d like you to go back to your room. And where’s your walker?” asked Rachel, the charge nurse. A helmet of amber blond hair framed angular
features slightly softened by age. The sterile white inflexibility of her white uniform reflected her demeanor. 
    Don hovered over the pale blue Formica topped barrier, disguised as a counter, serving to preserving the personal space of the staff of the care facility. He didn’t move.    
    “I don’t need a damn walker Nurse Rat-Shit. I can maneuver around this Cuckoo’s Nest with this nice cane.” He produced a bamboo cane with a flourish. “It also helps me to fend off all the old women from ward C. They have been making inappropriate advances in the lounge.”
    “Don. You know my name is Rachel and I would appreciate it if you would not equate Pleasant Valley Home Care with that awful movie.”
    “My buddy, Kesey, wrote the book and I know a cuckoo’s nest when I live in one.”
    “Yes, Don,” responded Nurse Rachel, her monotone voice and precisely spaced words producing sentences designed to anesthetize aggressive behavior. “And now I’m sure your friend, Kesey, would want you to go to your room.”
    “You know Nurse Rat-Shit I have some time on my schedule if you’re feeling frisky this afternoon.” Don did his best leering gaze while checking for some response. “You might consider sending someone with a fresh pair of Depends before our rendezvous. Frank has sullied the atmosphere in our room.”
    Nurse Rachel, eyes vacant and focused on a point well beyond the intruder remained impassive; the lone tell of her discomfort was a pen softly drumming her oak desk.
    “Don! What are you doing out of your cage?” 
Rachel swung her head homing on the voice. “Vicky, please do not refer to Don’s room as a cage.”
The aide, a slightly built Latino, wore a flower print blouse and white cotton pants. 
    “Sorry Rachel, I just know what a beast Don can be,” said Vicky, stepping up, teasing Don and pushing the limits with the head nurse, Rachel. “Don, why don’t we go check on Frank? And who is this guy, Kesey?”
    “You have been eves-dropping,” accused Don.
    “I couldn’t help myself. You know how jealous I am when you flirt with other women,” said Vicky, grasping Don by the elbow, gently exerting pressure. 
    Don winked at Nurse Rachel before turning to Vicky allowing her to maneuver him away from the nurse’s station. Nurse Rachel maintained her trance-like focus on a point in space. 
    “You don’t know who Ken Kesey is? I thought you were literate. I’m not sure I can have a relationship with an illiterate person.”
    “Don’t be rude Don,” scolded Vicky. “You’re ninety-five years old and I’m just a kid. You are a vast storehouse of knowledge and I am but an empty vessel.”
    “You’re as full of crap as I am Miss Vicky.”
    “A match made in PVHC.”
    Vicky and Don shuffled at a pace slightly faster than glacial down a hall toward Don’s room. Fluorescent lights illuminated the passage, their glare intensified by stark white walls adorned with a gallery of past administrators. A few straight-backed wood chairs stood like sentinels adjacent to the doors of rooms. Although Don’s frame was slightly stoop-shouldered and cocked to starboard he stood a head taller than Vicky.
    “How’s your back?” asks Vicky.
    “I could use some new vertebra.”
    “That good?”
    “I would’ve taken better care of myself if I knew I was going to get so old.”
    “If I had a quarter for every guy that said that, I’d have a couple of dollars.”
    “You could buy me drink.”
    “So, did you really know Ken Kesey?”
    “Naw. But I know Nurse Rat-Shit.”
    “You’re going to give her a stroke if you keep sneaking up on her.”
    “It’s a good way to kill time. It takes me half a day to get down there.”
    Don flinched spastically and came to a halt.
    “Are you okay?” She could feel him lean into her, tensing, and she steadied him. “Your back?”
    Don’s ruddy liver spotted complexion faded several shades to sallow peach. 
    “Damn that hurts. You should probably just shoot me and put me out of my misery.”
    “Maybe I’ll pour you a thimble of the Ten High you have stashed in your sock drawer. If Rachel finds it, your ass is grass.”
    “Maybe we should finish it off in case she decides to take me up on my invitation.”
    “I think you’re safe.” 
    Don, heaving a deep breath righted himself and took a tentative step. 
    “So, Don, ever met anyone famous like Kesey?” asked Vicky, attempting to distract. 
Squinting, he reached up and pawed at the gray stubble populating the dome of his head with his free hand, considering the question.
    “I got drunk with John Wayne once. Down in Baja.”
    “That’s pretty cool. What was the occasion?”
    “They hired a bunch of us to go down and work on a movie: “Catch 22”. Surely you have heard of “Catch 22”, being so literate.”
    “Joseph Heller, right?”
    “Somebody had told Mr. Wayne we looked alike. When I went into the bar he was seated alone. I pulled up and he looked at me like he was measuring a board. He said he had been told that I walked like him. Then I told him I would have to learn to walk different so people could distinguish us. I don’t remember much more about the evening as we drank a lot. We smoked a lot back then too. You don’t happen to have a cigarette?”
    “You know cigarettes will stunt your growth, Don.”
    “Maybe I should get a prescription for some of that whacky weed. I’m in a lot of pain you know.” Glancing at Vicky, Don looked for a reaction. “I could blow a little smoke in Nurse Rat-Shit’s face. She might relax and the doctor could remove the stick from her butt.”
    Vicky laughed. “Enough Don. You’re going to make me pee my pants.”
    Don furled his brow, mouth slightly agape, presenting a “who me” look of innocence.
    “I want you to behave while I take care of Frank. Take a seat out here and give me some privacy.”
    Looking contrite Don grunted, “Yes ma’am,” 
    It took a few steps to maneuver, then settle into the chair outside his room. Placing the cane on his lap he took some time and surveyed his kingdom. He’d arrived over a year ago after spending a day and a half on the floor of his doublewide trailer in Twain Hart California, unable to move because L3, 4, and 5 vertebras had collapsed on the nerve bundle of his spine. His daughter had found him. He’d passed on offers from family and moved to Pleasant Valley Home Care in Bakersfield. He didn’t require much but he was craving a little heat from his bottle of Ten High.

           To be continued...

Deen Oehl

Deen Oehl, The Deen of Tankers

“Not yet. Hold it. Hold it,” counseled Deen. 

It was a long way down a steep hillside into a narrow canyon with an exit to the West. The lead finally broke right at the end of the retardant line. I waited a few seconds and touched off the load, held the line for a few seconds longer, then turned right trailing the lead. Deen was leaning forward intent on the view through the windscreen. The lead turned right and climbed; we stayed low and flew straight out into clear air.

“We’ll check out the drop and let you know how it looks. Load and return,” called the lead.

“It looked pretty good to me,” said Deen.

“Better than the last one. At least I had the tank armed,” I said.

Deen glanced at me and the crack of a smile appeared.

I’ve known Deen for over thirty years but I had never flown with him until I was assigned to be his student. He was 80 when we made the run down the canyon just west of Hemet three years ago. Within the spectrum of characters and personalities in the airtanker business Deen Oehl, Deen-O, is a class act anchoring the position of true gentleman. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him pass judgment or use an unkind word in reference to an individual although he will give you a critical view of federal firefighting tactics vs. the Cal Fire rapid response and emphasis on Initial Attack.

At an age when most people have spent fifteen or twenty years perfecting their parcheesi or practicing checkers Deen appears to have finally hung up his spurs. To say he has aged well really doesn’t do him justice. I’ve glimpsed bits of his past and met the flamboyant Carmelita but I wanted know more so I asked him to tell me his story.

Deen is second generation from Germany. His grandfather, father, and his fathers’  brothers processed meat in San Bernardino. They couldn’t compete with the big corporate businesses that had prospered in World War II and after so the family business was not an option. Deen took up flying while completing High School at San Bernardino and some Junior College, earning a private license. The Korean War was on-going and the Air Force was looking for Aviation Cadet’s. Deen signed up and traveled to Texas and then to Georgia to begin his training in a Super Cub. He was right at home. The next step was a T-6 Texan. After mastering the Texan he moved to Texas stepping into the single engine fighter pipeline at Laredo AFB in the new T-28A. The Air Force liked the T-28A because the cockpit resembled the F-86 although Deen’s next ride was a T-33. Meanwhile the Korean War ended.

Next stop Del Rio AFB flying T-33’s shooting up targets with a 50 caliber cannon or bouncing bombs off the turf, skip bombing. What could possibly go wrong? Advanced Fighter Tactics training in the F-84 at Luke AFB, Arizona, followed this. As if he wasn’t having enough fun, why not go to Bergstrom AFB, Austin Texas and work on air-to-air skills and formation in an F-84F. Meanwhile the momentum of the Korean War pilot pipeline finally began to encounter friction. The F-84F was used as an “External Nuclear Device” delivery, employing the “LABS manuver” (Low Angle Bombing System): later used with the B-47 for Strategic Air Command, SAC, on a trial basis. But the chill of the Cold War was changing the strategies and demands of the Air Force. Deen was a little vague about his next transition.

The Air Force Gods placed Deen in the B-47 medium bomber based at March AFB, Riverside, California, his old stomping grounds. His training took place in Wichita Kansas where he was checked out as a co-pilot. The Boeing B-47 was the country's first swept-wing multiengine bomber. It represented a milestone in aviation history and a revolution in aircraft design. Every large jet aircraft today is a descendant of the B-47. Deen transitioned from one engine to six flying an aircraft equipped with defenses only in the tail because no fighters could catch it.

While living in an apartment complex in Riverside Deen met Carmelita and Ray Keown. Carmelita was a pretty exotic flower. She had been a performer in the USO in WWII. She sang and danced supporting the troops and later appeared in several movies. When I met her in the 1980’s she drove up in a 1983 Xcalabur, patterned on a 1930’s Mercedes. She wore a floral print and appeared to be, royalty, the reigning queen of Top Mud. When Deen met the couple they owned a Mexican restaurant in Riverside. They became fast friends and later changed the course of his life.

Deen qualified as an Aircraft Commander and IP, Instructor Pilot, in the B-47. He flew the B-47 until 1961 when he transitioned to B-52’s initially training at Castle AFB, California. In 1958 SAC established strategic wings at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, Minot AFB, North Dakota, and Glasgow AFB, Montana. After training Deen reported to his permanent duty assignment in Minot North Dakota. He spent three years at Minot during the hottest part of the Cold War flying B52’s carrying nuclear weapons, missiles, and Top Secret documents outlining what to do if the Russians attacked. Fortunately Dr. Strangelove was not in charge and Deen didn’t have to do a Slim Pickens.

During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 the takeoff intervals shrank to 15 seconds for loaded B-52’s on alert 24/7, missions lasting 24 hours. Departing Minot they climbed to 30 plus thousand feet and flew to New England then headed out to the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft refueled over the Atlantic going north to and around Newfoundland, northwesterly over Baffin Bay towards Thule Air Base, Greenland, orbited Thule for several turns, refuel, then depart west across Queen Elizabeth Islands, the North Pole, and on to Alaska. After once again refueling over the Pacific they flew southeast then returned to Minot.

Deen recounted working 24-25 days at a time and spoke of mass takeoff’s of B-52’s in fifteen second intervals. After ten years the “Who has more fun?” question became more than rhetorical, Deen decided to put in for his resignation from the Air Force to pursue a more entrepreneurial life in California.

Old Chinese saying; “May you have an interesting life.” Old gringo saying; “I’ve got some bad news and some worse news.” The Air Force wasn’t through with Deen. He got orders to report to C-123 training before traveling to exotic Viet Nam. Meanwhile, back in Riverside, Carmelita and Ray were distraught that their good buddy Deen was not leaving the Air Force to work with them managing a second restaurant. But they still had cards to play.

In their circle of friends from Deens time at March AFB was General Old. Carmelita and Ray approached General Old of the 15th Air Force, Command, and expressed their displeasure with the Air Forces decision process. What happens in Riverside stays in Riverside so we will never know the details but new orders materialized and Deen was going to the Boeing Plant in Wichita Kansas, Systems Command, Flight Test. This is where the magic happened to B-52’s. Airframes were modified with the latest weapons and navigation systems. After modification it fell to the crews to calibrate the weapons systems at bomb ranges in Arkansas and operating out of Fort Smith.

Unlike SAC they were down in the dirt, 150-500 feet. I got the feeling Deen found this more appealing than flying nukes at flight levels. They also tested and calibrated the new “Low Level Terrain Avoidance and Following Radar System” and coupled ILS approach systems. He had a gleam in his eyes recounting lightly loaded B-52 ILS departures returning to Wichita. “Just bring the nose up to 45 degrees and climb back to cruising altitude.”

While at Systems Command Deen was qualified in the B-52 E,F,G, and H models as an Aircraft Commander and IP. His rank was captain but he was often times the Aircraft Commander to higher-ranking officer hoping to build time, qualifications or meet flight time minimums. Deen was in charge of scheduling when aircraft were ready to return to squadrons and he liked to write himself in for the California runs. On one flight to Beal AFB his right seater asked if he could take the plane as they approached the Sierras. Deen relinquished the controls. He said the guy started his descent right away, eventually terrain following. He buzzed the field at Grass Valley before landing at Beal AFB. It was years later Deen learned his co-pilot on that flight, Dick Miller, had died flying an F7F out of Ukiah working fires. He finally understood they had been buzzing the base that day. Pretty cool when the first time you do a low pass on a tanker base it’s in a B-52.       

I asked Deen what he preferred flying in the Air Force. He said he would have stuck with single engine fighters but the job at Systems Command held his interest as well. Two years into his tour at Systems Command Deens’ resignation was approved. It had been twelve years in the Air Force.

In 1964 Deen started a new career, restaurant manager. Carmelita and Ray opened a new restaurant in Tustin, Orange County, California. Deen worked with their son at the new location. At the time Deen wasn’t quite through with the Air Force. He joined a Reserve Squadron at March AFB: they operated C-119’s. After one year he decided the reserve gig wasn’t working with his day job but it was a harbinger of the future.

Deen didn’t have a lot to say about the restaurant business, his occupation from 1964 until 1979. He said he learned to deal with “the public” but he did not enjoy it. He said dealing with “the public” was one reason he had no interest in the airlines. It wasn’t completely clear to me but Carmlita and Rays’ son went on to other endeavors and the second restaurant was closed. Deen continues to work with Ray and Carmelita at the Riverside location. At some point they moved from Riverside to Hemet and commuted to work. They left the business in 1979. Another fifteen years had passed and Deen was looking for a third career.

It would be hard to live in Hemet and not know about airtankers. After all it was “Top Mud.” Deen said he was well aware of the activity and the itch to fly needed to be scratched. As fate would have it Hemet Valley Flying Service was operating C-119’s as well as S-2’s and a DC-4. He cornered retired Arizona Highway Patrolman and Chief Pilot, Sonny Morrison, produced a Air Force Form 5 purporting to once-upon-a-time to have been qualified in a C-119, and asked for a job.

“When was the last time you flew?” queried Sonny.

“Fourteen years ago,” replied Deen.

Sonny said, “You need two hundred hours recent flight time in the past year.”

Deen said, “I can’t afford to buy the time.”

Sonny said, “Ever tow a glider?”

A few months later Deen had 240 hours and he began his new career as a tanker pilot in 1980.

He flew with Sonny that summer and got his type rating from him, as Sonny was an examiner. Year two and three he flew with Larry Hill. Larry had been a circus acrobat and had a reputation as a hard-ass. In spite of a rather squat and stout physique Larry would stand on the tarmac and do a back flip or perform a hand stand on the back of a chair. Not especially relevant for flight. 1983 found Deen in North Carolina on a state contract with Sonny. They shared duties and swapped seats when there was activity.

In 1984 Hemet was awarded contracts for two C-119’s in Mexico. Deen worked with Chris Cagle and Sonny, flying out of Guadalajara and Puerto Villarta primarily. They flew with a translator to coordinate with the folks on the ground. They dropped water and worked primarily in rural areas. I asked if fifteen years in a Mexican restaurant had been helpful working in Mexico.

“Not Really. When I was ready for takeoff I’d call the tower, “ochenta dos listo.” They got a kick out of that.”

An act of God ended the Mexico adventure. The earth shook and Mexico City crumbled. Jim Venable and company beat it to the airport and got the last flight out before the airport closed but before they closed the deal on future contracts.

Unlike most Air Force pilots I have encountered Deen is not averse to actual labor and worked in the shop when not on a flying contract. This was pretty common in the “good old days,” especially for someone trying to break into the business. In 1986 Deen had a state contract in Porterville. John Butts signed up to be his first officer. John flew with him for two years. I asked John about his time with Deen. They habituated in Minden on a Nevada Department of Forestry and BLM contract the second year. John recounted a flight to the Eastern Nevada. En route they got a generator light on one of the engines. It wouldn’t reset. Deen told John to take the controls and headed aft. John said after awhile the second generator went off line. Not good. Then the original failed generator was back on line. Then it was off again. Meanwhile they were getting closer to the incident. Then a generator was back on-line. Then the second generator came back to life. Deen was back in the cockpit in time to check in at the incident. That’s old school. Know your plane and do what it takes to complete the mission. I believe it was after some problems with the C-119’s Deen also worked out of Minden with Chris Cagle on a DC-4.

I never flew a C-119 but I’ve been told by some of the people who flew them that they were a pleasure to fly. The design started out as a glider in WWII. Later they install two Pratt and Whitney R-4360 radial engines and loaded them until they couldn’t fly. They just need a little more power so why not strap a Westinghouse J-34 turbojet designed by Fred Flintstone to the top. The jet was a two-fer: (1) additional thrust for takeoff, drops, and backup for a failed round engine: (2) fuel dump. The down side to all this after market fiddling is the occasional wing failure. 

 Meanwhile Deen is working a fire out of Lancaster in the mountains south of Palmdale. An Aero Union DC-4 makes a run and reports a heck of a jolt. That’s code for they got the shit kicked out of them. Deen takes note but decided to work the fire. They encountered a heck of a jolt. There was also a heck of a bang along with the jolt. The parts box had freed itself from its restraints and hit the deck contributing to the chaos. Back at Fox Tanker Base Deen and the mechanic are sitting in the back of the plane eating lunch after securing the parts box. Curiously Deen notices an anomaly in the corrugated stiffeners covering the center wing section. Further investigation reveals an extensive crack. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Harry Chaffee, aka, main maintenance guru, finds a repair in the manuals. Harry had some history. He carried a gun because he needed to. One time his wife ran him down with her car then put it in reverse and ran over him again. Consequently he walked with a limp: all, not relevant to flight. Anyway, repairs were made and Deen and Sonny flew the plane back to Hemet.

If I have my timeline right that brings us to 1987. Deen needs a new ride and gets checked out in an S-2. The next year, 88, I’m flying an S-2 at Columbia when Deen shows up replacing Don Orenbaum who has gone on to greener pastures. As it happens I am also a Dean. For those old enough you may recall the Columbia School of Broadcasting, one of the first for profit private schools. They advertised with Matchbooks. The Deens of Columbia School of Tanker Flying consulted but stop short of using matchbooks to advertise.

 It’s interesting to watch the interaction at the communal eating festivities at Hemet where young pumped up members of the heliattack crew banter and verbally jab in the good natured competitive environment of Perri Hall. The structure has been there for many years. Tongue in cheek it is named Perri Hall after the recently retired captain, Perri Hall by Pat Tomlinson, the BC. Perri had to retire because of health problems but we worked with him when Deen was training me. After I got carded I talked to Perri, asked him if he had any thoughts on my performance, kind of a debrief. He didn’t have much to say. What he did say was all that mattered is what Deen thought. 

Deen was more like an institution than a pilot at Hemet. On average in the summer heat he wears Bermuda Shorts, knee socks, neatly trimmed hair, and a positive attitude. He is far more likely to listen than talk. When he steps into Perri Hall it’s kind of like a reunion. He joins in the verbal exchange as people step aside and move him to the front of the line. The deference is natural, the respect earned, from years of consistent service to the boots on the ground and the community. Deen has a well maintained vintage bike that he occasionally employs. He has a bad sugar habit. Half the hummingbird population of Hemet is powered by Deens’ simple syrup from feeders at the base and his house.

I asked Deen if he had any pictures from his time in the Air Force. He chuckled and said he didn’t think so: pretty typical. With Deen it’s all about the job and getting it done, no fuss, no drama, no ego. If you want to hear a story about him you’ll have to ask someone else, he’ll just smile and chuckle and look thoughtful. Although there was the last flight of tanker 82 he might offer up: a ferry flight to Lancaster to donate the plane to The Milestones of Flight Air Museum. Departing Hemet with minimal fuel conserving weight for the no jet takeoff, no problem, until Mike Venable in the chase plane reports smoke from the right engine over San Bernardino. Inside the cockpit the torque is confirming a failure. What to do? Shut it down before it gets worse? Drop into an alternate? Fire up the jet and continue? But is there enough fuel if you use the jet? If you want to know how it turned out stop by Hemet sometime and ask for the Deen of tankers. Deen Oehl.    






Bob Forbes

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











    It didn’t feel like Christmas. It was hot. The ground crew broke out a twelve pack after my last flight of the night and we watched the sun come up. The ragged remnants of the crater forming Pago Pago bay began to contrast the pale blue morning sky. Stone cold Steve Austin arrived in a Santa suite for his first flight of the day, climbing into the cockpit of the Twin Otter to run his preflight checks. Groggy Samoans filed out of the domestic passenger terminal clutching woven hand baskets stuffed with treasures procured in the bazaars and shops of Pago Pago, the commercial center of the island of Tutuila, the largest island in American Samoa.

    I found myself in this circumstance when the opportunity to spend the winter flying for Samoa Air presented itself. My wife Nancy was enthusiastic about the prospect and our kids, Stephen, 14, Laura, 12, and Michelle, 10, were at our mercy.

    I forged the way leaving in November courtesy of jump-seat rides on Hawaiian Airlines to Pago Pago International airport. After three weeks of classroom instruction, tests, check rides, and a route-check with the FAA I morphed into an airline captain and started earning my keep. Samoa Air operated three Twin Otters on routes to the Manuas, a three island chain and part of American Samoa. We also had scheduled routes to Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, and occasional runs to Vavau, the northern most island of the Kingdom of Tonga.

    Island travel shifts into overdrive during the holidays when family bonds draw Samoans together and scheduled flights run around the clock. Christmas came and went while I plied the airways maintaining a hectic schedule until after New Year when my family arrived. Having paid my dues in the Holiday rush I at last took some time to explore and take advantage of this remote corner of Polynesia. 

    High on my list was the island of Tau, in the Manuas. Forty-five minutes north-east of Tutuilla, by Otter, it remains one of the unspoiled treasures of the South Pacific. The sight of Margaret Meads well-known anthropological study of Polynesian culture, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, it has changed little in the interim. A thin ribbon of asphalt on the south-west corner of the island has been added to facilitate air travel and an alternative to the twenty-four hour ferry ride from Pago. As the only extensive piece of flat real estate on the island the airstrip and its immediate environment host rugby, cricket, and soccer matches as well as the only straight unobstructed stretch of road. 

    The jagged crescent backbone of the island is the remnant of a volcanic crater, rising as high as 2900 feet, festooned with dense tropical vegetation, it sweeps for miles in an arc to the east. A bridge on the east end of the island crosses a narrow channel to the island of Olosega. To the south the striking geologic formation shelters a pristine white sand beach edging and extensive coral reef, part of the only National Park south of the equator. The north side of the island plunges into an often turbulent sea built from prevailing easterly winds. While the local population retains the right to cultivate the reef and the sea around the island the waters are jealously guarded from commercial vessels from other island nations.

    Marge and Tito manage the only part-time living accommodations on the island, a handful of single story bungalows and a larger structure serving as a common area for meals, cooking, or socialization. Breakfast is served for those with the ambition to rise and Marge will pack a lunch and let you borrow the truck if you are compelled to do more than walk the few hundred feet across the end of the airstrip to the beach. Immediately off the beach waist deep water allow the novice skin-diver a maze of coral and a stunning array of tropical marine life. Beyond the coral hard blue marks sheer drops prowled by game fish and shark for the more adventurous and experienced. Our small band spent hours face down on the surface or cruising the wondrous canyons of coral chasing all manner of creature, the activity balanced with stints holding down patches of sand from the ravages of the tropical breeze. Evening meals featured fresh catch of the day, paced relaxed conversation, chirping geckos, and the graceful soaring flight of giant fruit bats, flying foxes.        

    On the big island traveling east from Pago, several miles of memorable coastline lead to Tisas Barefoot Bar, the quintessential Samoa experience. Ideally reservations are made for low tide and a day in advance. Candy Man, Tisas partner, will put to sea shopping for the main course. When guests arrive Tisa welcomes you while Candy Man lectures novice patrons on the hazards of the idyllic cove, the open air backdrop for a memorable meal. Mask and snorkel are provided for the ill prepared. Candy Man stands watch with his surfboard, ready to assist those foolish enough to ignore his lecture. Shower facilities are provided when you’re ready to eat, or simply perch on one of several decks, enjoy a cool drink, and chill. Meals are served on Samoan flatware, woven plates lined with banana leaves and consumed at a leisurely pace. 

    When the sun sets and the flying foxes much flower pods it is most reasonable to ask if coconut crabs really live in trees, or how to find Slippery Rock. Recounting the experience of almost being washed away to the sea at Toilet Bowl requires another round. Where’s the best place to stay in Western Samoa? Aggie Grays or Coconuts. How much for ahi tuna off the dock in Apia? Ten cents a pound. One more round and we decide to spend the night. Candy Man breaks out some mats and we settle in. Rain splatters off the thatched roof of the stilted structure and surf pounds the outer reef. Ahhh Saaamoa.