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?”

       “Roatan.”

       “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?”

       “Sure.”

       “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.

       “Seymour!”

       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?”

       “Yes.”

       “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?”

       “Sure.”

       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?”

       “Yeah.”

       “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.”

       “Old.”

      “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.”

       “Lancaster.”

       “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.

       “And…?”

       “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.
     “Bakersfield.”
     “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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Samoa

    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.   

 

Man and Machine

Things are pretty quiet this time of the year. Hard to think of anything current and relevant to talk about and for some reason Facebook keeps deleting our posts. We’ll be back with the most current agenda post haste. We will be adding Clint Crookshanks from the NTSB to our presenters list. Meanwhile I thought I’d add something irrelevant. 

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of burning up a lot of dinosaurs in a wide range of flying machines. After a brief flirt with a Lotus Cortina and a Porsche 911 in my youth my carbon footprint on the highway has been more subdued and my ground transportation mundane. 

Some might find it odd that a relationship can form between man and machine, that you can come to depend on each other, learn quirks and moods. My first long-term relationship was a VW van I bought in Pensacola, Florida. Unlike most of my peers in flight school I lived hand-to-mouth. The van was cheap to buy and operate and transported any number of people. We went to Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, and spent many nights sleeping with the white noise of wave’s breaking on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, rising to the morning light bouncing off the ripples of an infinite sea. 

An old VW van is also a good test for relationships. Not long after I’d met my future wife we took a trip. I gave her a sleeping bag for a wrap as heat was limited. When the car wouldn’t start after a pit stop I adjusted the points with my Swiss Army Knife and we proceeded. This impressed her. 

She was a keeper.

My mother-in-law was appalled with our vehicles in later years and generously offered to buy us a car. A used 94 Plymouth Grand Voyager, gray minivan, with 64,000 miles was selected. I think of it as a soccer van. It was a cliché in the 90’s. We had accumulated a small tribe of three children and it fit the bill, soldiering on through soccer, swim teams, basketball, vacations, and visits to relatives in far off Sacramento and beyond. The three kids learned to drive in it. We loaned it to the pre-school in later years when they needed the extra space. 

The two vans cohabitated for several years before I parked the VW and moved on to a new Chevy truck in 1998. Several years later our youngest daughter began to drive and she fancied the truck: over time she took possession: my wife evolved to something small and efficient. Typically the last thing left to drive was the soccer van. It grew on me. Unlike my old VW it had heat in the winter. It had cool until a couple of years ago when the compressor died. It had cruise control and a descent radio. It had immense power and superior handling compared to the VW bus. I could put a 4x8 sheet of plywood in it and close the door.

My son and I drove 8000 miles exploring Mexico in the old Plymouth in 2008. The premise, if it quit, we would leave it there. It used half a quart of oil and came home. It had become Super Van.

It has suffered cosmetically but we’ve kept it mechanically sound over the years, spending more than most would deem reasonable. At some point people we haven’t seen for awhile are surprised we still had the car and it ran.

I got a new job with Cal Fire last year and I struck out for So Cal in Super Van. It’s transmission started slipping and shifting erratically south of Stockton on I-5, not good. Judicious use of the gas pedal allowed me to pace the traffic around me. I slid in behind a big rig to draft, a technique reminiscent of my VW days. I needed an off ramp, hopefully with services. Roth road, one mile said the sign. I coasted from the I-5 artery coming to a stop at the junction of Roth. Looking under the overpass to the left a convenience store gas station beckoned. I waited for traffic to clear then pressed the gas pedal gently. The engine sped but it didn’t translate into movement. I tried abuse. With the motor roaring the vehicle lurched ahead, I coaxed it to a dimly lit parking spot, took a breath and felt tension subside.

Fortunately, my wife is prescient and opted for the 200-mile towing with AAA when Super Van died in Stockton. She rescued me and I went to work. The transmission problem was a broken fluid line, minor, but the front wheel bearings are evaluated to have not many miles remaining. They want $1,100 for the repairs, substantially more than the value of the car. I’m looking for my Swiss Army Knife.

It’s Monday, Carpe Diem

Under the category of shit happens I was driving back to work after a day off last week, my Monday, when I saw a flash in the darkness up ahead. At the same time an insulator on the power line paralleling the road looked like a sparkler on my right. I whoad-up my ride a little and speculated that the power would be out in the area. I was headed west on highway 20 out of Willows Ca. and mostly surrounded by orchards. I passed a house, lights on, interesting.

The road swept left gradually then went straight for a quarter mile before another gradual right. It was dusty ahead for some reason and then I saw three power lines. They were draped to the asphalt ahead and I was under them. I swerved right to the shoulder to avoid them and tried to slow down. I slid sideways left overcorrected and continued to perform the maneuver, right and left, until I came to a stop in the middle of the road with three power lines suspended at an odd angle above me. One was lying on the hood of my car. The thought that I might become a crispy critter crossed my mind. I was also sideways in the middle of the road waiting for the next vehicle. Mindful not to touch anything I pressed the gas pedal and watched the power line slide over my windshield and across the top of the car. I drove down the road fifty yards or so and stopped. On the opposite side of the road the lines were laying in the grass hissing as a dozen fires bloomed.

I was driving that same stretch this morning after another day off. It’s good to be alive crossed my mind as I passed the place without the drama. I thought about the evening before at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s “Big Room” where my bride and I had dinner, imbibed, and listened to Steel Wheels, a string blues quartet from Virginia: they were awesome: eat your heart out.

With the time change last Sunday, saving daylight, it was light as I headed into Williams Gap on highway 20 toward Clear Lake. I had already witnessed a spectacular visual feast, sunrise on I-5 framing the Sutter Buttes, and now as I turned south into Mitchell Flat a herd of 50 or more elk grazed on the slope of golden grassland climbing Cortina Ridge to the east. The road climbs, winds, and then descends crossing Bear Creek where highway 16 follows it south.

The hills are stained with ash and fire scarred vegetation on the south side of highway 20. Crews had back burned off highway 20 and 16 on the Rocky Fire to good effect. A half hour later I’m approaching Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown, both had been devastated by the Valley Fire back in September. Occasional piles of brush on the roadside, the charred remains of a hundred cars are lined up neatly in a field, mangled twisted remains of metal buildings resemble abstract sculptures, all random victims of the fire. A burnt fence exposes a swing set and a foundation. The power poles are new now and the fleets of utility trucks have vacated their encampment.

The Valley Fire ultimately burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1958 structures: 1280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 minor structures. Four people died.

Four members of the Boggs Helitack crew were burned over, all survived, two are back on duty. One, the captain, was well known for his skill with the bagpipe and had often served with the Honor Guard. He will never play the pipes again. They are hoping to move him soon, from UC Davis Burn Center, to a facility in San Francisco, his hometown.

I have no concept of what they went through yet I have a sense of the shock involved when something completely unexpected tries to blow you away. They had been situated on the top leeward side of a ridge in a pen worn to mineral earth, set to wait out the storm. They heard something downwind and one of the crew went to look down the slope. He saw nothing and was returning to the group when a mass of super-heated air climbed from the downwind slope. Within seconds all four had sustained burns. They abandoned their position, having to scale a fence, and took up a location behind a metal building. The captain called on the radio, “deploying shelters”.

The intensity of the original blast of heat shrink-wrapped the shelters in their plastic covers. The plastic from one pack had bonded with the plastic cover rendering the shelter useless. We think the protective gloves did not allow for the dexterity to remove the shelters from the damaged plastic covers and gloves may have been removed for the effort. The position by the steel building was so intensely hot two crew moved to open ground several yards away and found some relief. The two at the structure joined them. They shared the viable shelters by draping them over their heads. The ground they held was covered with light fuels and on fire, so they stood. At some point the captains helmet melted on his head. Whatever had been stored in the metal building began to blow up. They were too close. They moved back toward their original position to a two-track road and bedded down. That’s where they were found.

If you ever think you’re having a bad day, take a deep breath, it could be worse. The sun will be brighter and the rain therapeutic. Kiss your wife, hug the kids, pet the dog, kick the soccer ball and scream Goalllllllll!

Monday Morning

It’s been a busy summer. I’m flying an OV-10 Air Attack and staying marginally proficient with occasional flights in the S-2T. It’s been thirty-four years since I flew Air Attack and it has changed a bit. I went to work in April but it was July before we lost the first fire, the Wragg. It grew to 8000 thousand acres destroying two out buildings. It cleaned up a lot of brush. Fortuitously, based on the burning indexes, we picked up a couple of potentially destructive starts, starts with forest structure interface, because resources were plying the skies working the Wragg Fire.

The next big thing was the Rocky Fire. It started in the back of a pot growers cabin. It might have been corralled but a second fire broke out about a mile west, immediately threatened structures, and it was off to the races. 70,000 acres, 43 residences, and 53 outbuildings later it was contained.

I thought we’d hold the Jerusalem Fire at a half-acre but the second tanker had a bad igniter and was late to the party. Another 25,000 acres of brush cleared, 6 residences and 21 structures written off.

We were on a roll for weeks, holding off one or two starts a day until the Valley fire. It began less than a mile from Boggs Helitack Base. When we arrived on-scene copter 104, from Boggs, was doing bucket work supporting its crew from a pond about a half-mile upwind. Four of the crew had separated, walking in checking residences to make sure they had been evacuated. The fire was three or four acres burning up a small hill in brush and timber pushed by the wind. The Air Attack Officer remarked how he had been thinking we were due to loose one.
Immediately it started spotting a quarter mile in front of the head, beyond four to eight properties with multiple structures lined up in the path of the advancing flame front. A paved road out in front was a thin hope for containment. Spots sprouted like mushrooms in light grassy fuels and tanker drops were directed for structure protection and efforts to contain the spread in the light fuels.

The usual chaos of radio traffic generated by a new fire emanated from the six radios in the Air Attack platform, all insistently demanding priority. The Air Attack Officer immediately grew the resource orders for airtankers, a lead plane, helicopters, engines, crews, and dozers responding to requests from the ground and his own judgment of the situation.
It was apparent the fire was going to get ugly quick threatening the town of Cobb. That’s about when out of the din of radio traffic we heard the helitack crew call saying they were deploying shelters.

I wheeled the Air Attack in a tight circle over their last reported position, the right shoulder. Copter 104 with a bucket of water queried the crew, trying to locate them. The fire was spreading laterally and what had been a well defined position became a matter of speculation.

“Can you see blue sky!”

“No,” was the terse response.

The Air Attack Officer began describing our best guess of their location to two circling S-2 tankers while we pin-wheeled overhead trying to pierce the flames and smoke, hoping for a glimpse of the foil enclosures.

“We’re next to a metal building!” called the strained pitchy voice of the Captain.

“Any blue sky!” called the pilot of 104.

There was no reply.

Sheltered in thermal reflecting aluminum bags with skins thickness measured in millimeters the crew of 104 bedded down in the inferno.

The pilot of 104 continued calling, “Crew 104!” over and over.

After minutes of silence there was a last pleading call from the flames. “104.”

It was their last transmission.

The fire had been burning for about a half hour when we heard the last call from the trapped crew. An hour into the fire rows of houses in the town of Cobb were being consumed while air resources concentrated on supporting the evacuation efforts. In at least one instance tanker drops were directed to protect people fleeing, on foot, and being overtaken by flames.
The four crew burned over were eventually located by their brethren who risked their own lives in the effort. They were transported to Boggs Helitack Base by pickup where two were loaded onto separate medevac ships and flown to UC Davis Burn Center: the last two were transported by 104 from Boggs Helitack to Davis. Minutes after 104 departed Boggs the base was burned over.

In almost any situation a series of events line up leading to an outcome. At the Valley Fire the most chilling unseen component, in my mind, was an unusual localized wind event spawned by the breakdown of a hurricane off the coast of California. Winds on the fire were initially between ten and thirteen when the fire started. They were reported to be 53 knots by one aircraft an hour into the conflagration. Positions deemed defensible from past experience were cooked by radiant heat and unseen moving masses of superheated air created by churning vortices and the desiccated vegetation.

The fire consumed over 50,000 acres in the first eight hours.
It’s now Monday morning and it’s interesting to read and hear the pundits. It refreshing to see the out porting of support from the community in support of those affected.
It is my hope that those compelled to place blame or assign responsibility will recognize that fighting fire is an imperfect science and a potentially deadly occupation. And that the lessons learned will be implemented to facilitate more desirable outcomes.