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.