Fire Aviation a Love Story

Tanker 82

            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 if not control 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 sun scarred bald pate to his jaw.

Bob pressed the transmit button on his yoke as the plane torqued violently right then left. On Los Angeles approach frequency “Oh shit!” was all that was heard.  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 it’s brevity. The view twisted as the whaling moan of the third soul on board, Shawn, filtered through the intercom from the engineers 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 the C-130A, tanker 82, 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 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.”

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.