June 17, 2002, 0750 Hours
“Any news from the front?” asked Wes Potter stepping into the Pilot Ready Room.
The limited space was packed with crews jostling and foraging from a small breakfast banquet spread out on various flat surfaces. The room, designed to accommodate five or six, allowing for personal space, was host to twenty or more. The question, directed at no one in particular, was absorbed by the chatter and shuffling of crews getting ready to do battle with the fire.
“The Air Attack took-off twenty minutes ago. We’re expecting an update,” responded Charlie, posted close to the door, clear of the flow.
“Waiting for an opening?” asked Wes, squeezing past bodies.
“It takes weeks to heal from a plastic fork wound. I’m not going to risk it until it thins out,” said Charlie.
“I got a nasty paper cut from one of those Dixie plates last year,” deadpanned Wes.
“You did an excellent job with the Safe Comm; I agree; Styrofoam could save lives.”
“If there weren’t so many unemployed comedians we could do standup and give up this flying gig.”
“How’s your plane doing?” asked Charlie, conversationally.
“We have a few deferred discrepancies, nothing serious. One of the comm radios is almost useless and our Auxiliary Power Unit sounds like it has pneumonia.”
“You better belly up to the table,” said Charlie. “You’re first-out aren’t you?”
“I think so. Have you seen Mark? These young co-pilots are like kittens.”
“He was headed out to your plane with a sausage biscuit when I came in earlier. He’s probably got the pre-flight done and his seat warmed up.”
“His girlfriend pulled in last night. He wanted to give her a tour this morning.”
“Where’s Mark from?”
“Montana. His girl, Wanda, is from Missoula.”
“I thought they only dated sheep up there?”
“This is home for you, right?”
“Home is pretty relative. I grew up here. This is the first fire I worked out of Minden in years. I have an ‘ex’ in Carson City, family in Yearington, and an apartment that I slept in for the first time in three months last night.”
“It just doesn’t get any better,” said Charlie.
“You know Charlie, I work too much. I’ve chased around my whole damn life flying gliders, doing charters, tankers, playing music…”
“Hey, that doesn’t sound that bad.”
“Yeah, I know. But I need to say ‘no’ once in a while. My girlfriend wants to get married but she’s just going to be another future ex-wife if we get hitched and I don’t show up.”
“You need a Region Five contract. I’m on a bungee cord attached to North Ops. I go home most of the time.”
“That’s okay. You keep California, I’ll practice saying no.”
As they spoke, a man in green Forest Service shirt and pants stepped into the room with a handful of papers. Eric, the base manager, hesitated as he scanned the room until he spotted Wes and Charlie. He stepped to them and handed each a sheet of paper with the dispatch information.
“Are we going to do a brief?” asked Wes as he took the sheet.
“I don’t think so. The weather’s posted outside on the board; Julie has your times from yesterday, upstairs, check them when you can. They’re calling for tankers as soon as the lead gets on-scene.”
“I better get serious about breakfast,” said Wes.
June 17, 2002, 1040 Hours
“Did you see that last drop, Charlie?” asked Ron.
Ron Johnson, Lead 51, was flying a tight orbit in his twin engine Beechcaft Barron, a thousand feet above the Cannon fire. The 15,000-acre fire was currently being driven down a slope by a fifteen-knot wind, air desiccated from a trip across northern Nevada. It was consuming grass and scrub brush making a run at highway 95, a strip of asphalt following the Walker River.
“Yeah. Looks like it almost made it to those rocks,” replied Charlie, peering out his side window in a left turn to watch the lead while maneuvering the P2V-7, tanker 48.
“I’m going to make a run and check out the air,” said Ron. “You need a lead?”
“It looks pretty straight forward. What’s the drop altitude?”
“I’ll check,” said Ron.
“I’m turning base-to-final,” said Ron on the tactical air-to-air frequency. “There’s a little down air but it’s pretty smooth.”
“I’ve got the line,” said Charlie. “Looks like a left turn after the drop.”
“That would work. There are some power lines along the road but you should be well above them. Don’t go below 5,200”
“We’re downwind if we’re clear to maneuver,” said Charlie.
“You’re clear,” responded Ron.
While Charlie talked and flew Taylor had started the jets and set them at idle.
They rode the air climbing the ridgeline on the east side of the Walker River. The airspeed spiked to 145 knots and Charlie walked the throttles back on the 3350 Wright engines to compensate.
“We’re turning base,” reported Charlie. “Flaps Full,” he called on the intercom.
“Full selected, tank is armed, level 4, full load,” replied Taylor, then, “flaps full, jets on, drop check complete.”
Turning, they left the up air, Charlie trimmed nose up. With flaps full the airspeed quickly dissipated. “Don’t let me go below 120. Plan on flaps 20 on final.”
Charlie was focused on the line of retardant forming a barrier adjacent to a line of fire. He could feel the ship sinking while adjusting the bank to roll out in line with the swath of retardant smeared through the grass and stunted juniper. They cleared a pine tree by 90 feet at the top of a hill and the terrain fell away.
“Turning final,” transmitted Charlie on Air-to-Air.
“Clear to drop,” responded Ron.
Charlie reduced the power again, held his pitch attitude, rolled wings level then called for flaps 20. With wings level, he lost sight of the retardant but as the flaps retracted to 20 the nose fell and the view improved. He banked right correcting, an educated guess judging from the feathery fingers of smoke off the charred vegetation. The plane accelerated. The rock formation rose from the horizon of the hill and the near side of the valley opened before them exposing highway 95 lined with the vanguard of troops and equipment poised for the approaching flames. He held the drop button well before the end of the line of retardant compensating for the downwind approach while pushing the nose over, contouring the ground, as the tank door lights lit up, sequencing open in a row on the instrument panel.
Taylor automatically pushed the jet throttles up as Charlie reefed back on the yoke and called “flaps 10” while adding power to the big round engines and initiated a gentle left turn to follow the Walker River. Looking down he could see the faces of the firefighters track the plane like radar.
“Load and return. Looks like a good tie-in,” called Ron.
“See you in bit,” responded Charlie.
On the tactical frequency, Wes Potter, in tanker 130, called 14 miles. Lead 51 cleared him into the FTA.
“I’ve got him in sight, eleven o’clock,” said Taylor.
“130, 48. We have you in sight. We’re at 8,500 headed down the river back to Minden,” called Charlie.
“Okey dokey,” responded Wes.
To the northwest the slopes of Sierra Nevada sloughed into the south end of the Carson Valley. Charlie could make out the scar of a ski run below the tree line. He switched frequencies and called Minden Tanker Base telling them he was five minutes out for a load and return, negative fuel.
Charlie continued north along the west side of the valley while descending before beginning a turn back to the south for a left downwind for runway 34.
When they rolled out on downwind a new column of smoke boiled from the fire to the south.
“Looks like it crossed the road,” said Taylor.
“Job security,” said Charlie as he put the gear down. “Landing Check.”
The landing was routine. After clearing the runway, it was a short taxi to the base. Taylor did the After Landing Checklist while Charlie called the base.
“You’re going to be on hold. Just pull into pit two,” replied Julie.
“Roger, pit two,” repeated Charlie on the radio. He hadn’t expected to be on hold. “They must have lost it on the fire. I guess we get a break while they regroup.”
After securing the airplane Charlie took a seat in front of the base and watched the activity on the ramp. Tanker 21 had been ahead in the rotation and had been shut down in pit one when they pulled into pit two. The ramp people busied themselves arranging hoses and washing retardant spills off the cement around the planes. The breeze and quiet felt good.
Taylor had stopped to talk to one of the retardant loaders. He broke free, headed toward the bench and took a seat. “That smoke; tanker 130 crashed.”
June 26, 2013, 1021 Hours
“You feel kind of numb when something like that happens,” said Charlie. “I saw this girl wandering around awhile later: she looked lost. I didn’t know who she was. I found out later she was the co-pilot’s girlfriend. She had left the base when we started flying that morning. When she came back that afternoon she didn’t know what had happened until asking around. Hard to imagine what that feels like.”
“We had home bases back then. Tanker 130 was based out of La Grande, Oregon. But Wes and tanker 130 hadn’t been to La Grande that whole summer: the Forest Service sent a team of investigators to look into their personal lives anyway: questioning people at the base and in town I guess. I heard they found a gun and possibly a pipe for smoking weed in the wreckage. Like that might have contributed to the wings falling off? Give me a break.”
“You think they were building some narrative to place the blame on the pilots?” asked Charlie.
“Somebody’s always trying to cover their ass; who knows? I saw the video on the news for the first time that night: hard to think about that ride. They kept playing it all summer. It still shows up whenever the subject of the aging fleet of airtankers bubbles to the surface. Whenever I see it I remember what Wes said, about working all the time, and how he waited a little too long, and I think I should just go back home to the Island.”
“Tell me about the island,” said Jack.
“We don’t have that much time,” said Charlie. “I’m going to do some paperwork out on the airplane.”
To be continued...