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.”
“How did you meet?”
“You want a cup of coffee?”
Lloyd started walking; Jack fell in.
“I met Bob in 1975. He was a new hire, a pilot just out of the Navy. I had been working as a mechanic but I had a few hundred hours of flight time.” They rounded the corner and a shingled roof pitched off the side of the hangar stretching over a row of windows forming an eave. “I was finally getting a seat in a tanker.”
“What do you mean a seat?”
“A pilot job. I was going to be Bob’s co-pilot. The co-pilot had to work on the plane but you got to fly and build time.”
“I thought there were limits on how many hours pilots worked?”
“Duty time. Nobody paid much attention to it back then. There were lots of tanker companies and lots of airplanes and the contracts went to the low bidder. It was pretty hand-to-mouth, pay wise, and you were mostly left to your own devices on contract.”
Centered on the span of windows steps rose to double screen doors. Lloyd stepped up and pulled one open and held it for Jack.
“Thanks,” said Jack stepping into the room.
Several thread-bare over-stuffed chairs beckoned. The walls were covered with pictures of planes and pilots as well as aviation artifacts and paraphernalia. Jack clutched his hands behind his back and leaned in inspecting the pictures on the wall adjacent to the door.
“It’s like a museum in here.”
“A misspent youth,” offered Lloyd. “There’s a little shrine for Bob on the end.”
Jack took his time until he found himself in front of a picture of a youthful Lloyd Clift wearing cut-off jeans, tee shirt, and sandals, standing next to a tall silver haired gentleman with impeccably pressed designer jeans and light blue ‘Captain’ style shirt with long sleeves neatly rolled up just below the elbows. With his hands on his hips and an irreverent grin he was the image of Lothario.
“That has to be Bob,” said Jack, pointing to the picture and turning to Lloyd.
“That be Bob.”
“He must have been a real ladies man.”
“Never a dull moment. When we arrived at base he would have his ‘seasons project’ identified in a day or two. When I wasn’t changing a cylinder or a tire at night I’d hang out with him at the bar. I liked to sit back and watch him work the crowd. You couldn’t buy a drink when you were with Bob.”
The two men in the picture posed in front of a large ungainly full-figured aircraft with twin boom tales trailing the engine nacelles to rudders connected by the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. It had a jet-pod mounted on top of the fuselage.
“Is that a tanker in the background?”
“Yeah, a ‘box’, a C-119. That’s a picture of us in White River, New Mexico, the first year I flew with Bob.”
“There’s snow on the ground.”
“You wouldn’t think snow would burn but we flew the next day. We’d arrived three days early and weren’t even on contract. We’d had a late night and crashed in the ‘box’ the next day because there was nowhere better to go. The Chief came out and beat on the side of the plane. When we woke up he asked if we wanted to go to a fire. Bob said, ‘Hell yes!’ and we staggered out of the plane and hauled three loads that day.”
“What was he like as a pilot?”
“I rode with him four years in the ‘box’, one year in the C-130 and I would have gone with him to hell and back.”
“You were young, impressionable, he was your first captain. Could that affect your judgment?” Jack could see Lloyd’s expression grow dark. He met Jack’s eyes with a hard look.
“I rode along on his first flight in the ‘box’. We picked up the airplane in Stockton and flew to Hemet with the chief pilot. When we landed at Hemet Bob had three hours in a C-119, a ‘box’, one takeoff and one landing, and a type rating when we climbed out in Hemet. We hadn’t had but a few words when we took off on his second flight in the ‘box’ from Hemet to White River. When we got to White River the runway was under construction, seventy-five feet wide, deep in a canyon. The strip was short, with the pavement rolling up to a sheer two hundred foot drop into the White River on both ends. It was a one-way approach in a big airplane, up canyon, into a mountain. His second landing in a ‘box’ was on-the-numbers. Does that mean anything to you?” said Lloyd taking a step forward and pointing a finger at Jack for emphasis.
“Sounds like he was a hell-of-a-pilot.”
“Lloyd, I’m trying to make sense out of what’s happened to the large airtanker program. Looking at it from the outside from what I’ve read it appears many of the questions about the industry started when tanker 82 crashed.”
“In the Forest Service there is a lot of finger-pointing within two schools of thought about why the airtanker industry has such a dismal safety record. On the one hand, some are adamant the problem is the equipment; the aircraft are not designed for the job, not purpose built. In 2004, all the large airtanker contracts were cancelled based on that conclusion. Another school of thought is that rogue pilots and the culture within the tanker community is responsible for the problem.”
Lloyd had begun to pace in a small arch as he listened to Jack. “Well I’ve been out of it for a few years and I’m just not that fucking smart. Three C-119’s lost wings before the Forest Service parked them and nobody seemed to give a shit. It didn’t even get serious about investigating 82 until the second C-130 crashed eight years later and Fox News got it on film. Three more people were dead. And then the last investigation only happened because one guy in the National Transportation Board took the initiative.”
A storm was brewing in the room.
“It would be handy if things were black and white,” offered Jack. “But what you described, the lack of training in a new airplane and an exceptional pilot willing to take the chance and landing at an unfamiliar airport with all the associated risks reinforces the stereotype of an industry ‘culture’ of cutting corners and pilots taking unnecessary risks.”
“I love words like ‘culture’,” said Lloyd, his tone derisive. “That was the fucking job back then! If you didn’t like it you did something else! You think what was going on was a big fucking secret! Cheap airplanes, disposable pilots! With all the finger-pointing going on in the Forest Service someone in the agency ought to reach out and grab a mirror. You get what you’re willing to pay for. The agency signs off on every airplane and every pilot before anybody goes to work!” Lloyd took steps back to the door. “I think we’re out of coffee,” he said as he opened the door and held it.
Jack didn’t take the hint. “Look Lloyd, I’m a journalist. If you’re going to be a good journalist basically you have to commit to being an ass-hole. I ask questions that make people uncomfortable. If I get my ass kicked it’s most likely because I’m doing a really good job or I’ve had too much to drink and mouthed off to the wrong guy at the bar. I would also tell you I am committed to the story. Not the truth. The truth is black and white. I think your buddy, Don, said it best. He said ‘everybody has a piece of the truth. Then they put it in their brain and fill in the blanks and it’s their no-shit story’. My job is to write the story and let you draw your own conclusions.”
“I’ve seen what reporters do with an interview. They take a steak and make hash,” said Lloyd. He was still holding the door.
“I’m not a reporter. I’m not here to sensationalize a tragedy. I want to tell the story of the airtankers, and the people. I saw a tanker make a drop outside Porterville three days ago and I was mesmerized. Milo Peltzer was there, taking pictures. He’s like a tanker historian and he invited me into this exclusive little corner of aviation that makes war on fire with big bombers flown by characters out of a Hollywood script. I’ve seen ‘Always’ but this is real. I’m a journalist and I want to sell stories but if I don’t get it right, I’ll be out of business. I’m talking to you because I want to get it right and I know there would be an appetite for this story. So how about a cup of coffee?”
Lloyd lingered, staring at Jack, then let the door swing shut for effect. “Do you take it black? I know you don’t want sugar.”
Jack didn’t realize he had been holding his breath. “Black.”
Lloyd brushed past Jack and stepped into a door to the left labeled ‘Flight Planning’. Jack glanced back at the rogue’s gallery of aircraft and pilots, then followed Lloyd.
“I would have brought it to you,” said Lloyd when Jack stepped in to the space.
“I want to make sure you don’t spit in it.”
“It crossed my mind.”
Lloyd left ‘Flight Planning’ and settled on the couch balancing a Styrofoam cup. Jack followed finding refuge in a stuffed chair.
“So, who killed Kennedy?” asked Jack.
“I guess that’s what you call non-sequitur.”
“It’s a good question to ease the tension; and who knows, somebody may tell me someday. What were you doing when they crashed?”
“I was on a contract in Spain, on a C-130 tanker, when it happened. The boss offered to fly me home but showing up at his service and looking at an empty box wouldn't compare to going out and toasting his memory. I felt that Bob would agree, as close as we were, and I toasted him to oblivion.”
“The last time I saw him, six months after he was killed, we were flying at about twenty feet over what appeared to be a Kansas wheat field stretching to the horizon. We were flying under high tension wires for miles: finally got the bitch on the ground. Then we were standing by the ‘Box’ and Bob said he needed to get going. I told him I wanted to go with him and he replied I couldn't go where he was going. Then I woke up.” Lloyds voice strained with emotion. “I miss him.”
“You were on a C-130 tanker in Spain?”
“Did you have concerns about your plane at the time?”
“Yes, no, I don’t know. We were all just upset about the crash.”
“What do you think happened to tanker 82?”
“The wing box failed.”
“That’s your theory?”
“It’s not a theory, it’s a fact. When tanker 130 crashed, in 2002, the media couldn’t get enough of the image of the wings folding and the plane crashing. It played for weeks. It was sickening. There was too much pressure and they couldn’t blow off the investigation. The wing box failed on tanker 130.”
“After the finding on tanker 130, an NTSB investigator took it upon himself and went back to Pearblossom, where 82 crashed in ‘94. He took the time and trouble to go back to the site: paid for the whole thing out of his pocket. The debris field was still there and he found the wing box. It had the same failure as tanker 130.”
“Who was the NTSB investigator?”
“I don’t remember the guy’s name. It only took eight years to get serious about 82 and three more people had died.”
“So why the controversy about what happened?”
“There’s no controversy, now, but it’s 2014. 1994 is ancient history. Nobody gives a rat’s ass. The Forest Service isn’t going to excavate the past.”
“Tanker 130 wasn’t the only one to crash in 2002, right?”
“Tanker 123. It lost a wing in Colorado a month after tanker 130.”
“There was no doubt it was structural failure, right?”
“Metal fatigue, cracks in the wings. I think the plane was manufactured in 1944. The company, H&P, Hawkins and Powers, converted it to a tanker in the late fifties. It should have been in a museum.”
“The problems still could have been pilot induced.”
“You can determine if cracks in metal are new or old. Take a guess.”
“Correctamundo. I think the correct lingo is ‘crack propagation without detection’. That means nobody was looking. They weren’t doing the required inspections.”
“How did the operators and the Forest Service respond after 82 crashed?”
“Aside from blowing smoke with a bogus investigation?”
“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.”
“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...