July 26, 2002, 1330 Hours
Seymour preferred to be inside for meetings but the board walk lined seating of the Sequoia offered some splendid views of the Capital across the Potomac River. A slight breeze rustled the tasseled fringes of the umbrellas. He followed a member of the wait staff speculating about what Ray Gunnison wanted to talk about. Ray had been appointed Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment in October of 2001 by George Bush. Seymour had been an advocate for his appointment in the senate. He was not expecting much in the way of scintillating conversation, yet there had been an air of intrigue along with the invitation. The mid-afternoon timeframe and river-side seating offered privacy.
“Senator Clanton; thanks for joining me,” said Ray as Seymour approached.
“It’s been awhile Mr. Undersecretary,” said Seymour. “Ah don’t think Ah’ve spoken those words to you until now; it suits you.”
“Thank you, Seymour; the appointment, to Director, is something that I, we, have worked for, for years. I am changing the culture of the Forest Service; although I have to say it has taken me more time to find my rhythm than I would have expected, but we’re just getting started.”
“Sounds like you have plans.”
“As my mentors espoused, only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change,” quoted Ray, looking pleased with himself.
“Who said that?”
“Ayn Rand: Objectivism: Allen Greenspan’s girlfriend. Milton Freedman and the Chicago School of Economics.”
“You are indeed the ideologue; a true believer.”
“As I once told you, guilty as charged.”
“And Ah’m a true Pragmatist. What the hell has this conversation to do with me?”
“Two of our airtankers had structural failures, the wings folded.”
“Yes, Ah saw the news clips. It’s certainly a blessing we stayed in the background when those aircraft were exchanged. They’ve been nothing but problems for Mike Minder and Frank Ponkey; are they in jail?”
“I’m not sure; it did cost them dearly. But once again, one man’s tragedy is another man’s opportunity. I’ve studied the large airtanker program and the contractors more closely since this latest issue and I have a plan. But it will take some time to put the pieces in place, to be ready when the next crisis occurs.”
“The next crisis; another crash?”
“Possibly, but the important thing is to be ready, with the pieces, to have the solution in place with a narrative to support the it.”
“Okay, Ah’m on the Senate Committee for Agriculture, we oversee the program; your responsible of managing the program. What problem are we going to solve?”
“The large airtanker problem; we need to get rid of them,” said Ray.
“Whoa! That seems pretty draconian. What have they done to deserve this fate?”
“The airtanker contractors are standing in the way of progress. Their flight line looks like a third-world air force; crews are undisciplined; their business model is failing. Mom and Pop operations squabbling and back-stabbing each other for scraps.”
“We provide the scraps. Maybe if we sweeten the pot it would be an incentive to improve?” offered Seymour.
“We need to sweeten the pot but we also need a cultural shift and these old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks. No, we need to start over.”
“That’s a pretty tall order.”
“Not as much as you might think. And you will be glad to know your old friend Emily is to be involved in this endeavor. A big part of the solution is going to be coming from our nations forest industries, my old clients when I lobbied for them at Forest Industries Association. As you know Emily is their big-gun now.”
“It’s been some time since I’ve spoken to Emily. I bet she could still make my pulse quicken,” said Seymour. “Tell me more.”
As if on que drinks arrived.
“I assume you are still a fan of quality whiskey,” said Ray.
“One of life’s little pleasures.”
“Let’s toast; to the next crisis,” proposed Ray raising his glass.
Seymour raised his glass and took a sip. He never understood why people chugged good liquor. He liked to experience the subtleties of the spirits. Life was too short to live it hastily.
“I’m going to be appointing a new Deputy Director of Fire Aviation. The man I have in mind will be a good fit. He’s had a career in the Air Force as a pilot and taught at the Air Force Academy. He’s studied aberrant pilot behaviors and written books about it.”
“What does he know about fire?”
“He will learn what he needs to know.”
“What’s his name?”
“Appropriate,” said Seymour.
“Beyond that we need a narrative to support the kind of change I want to make. We’ll frame the airtanker problem as a safety issue.”
“With the wings falling off that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s hard to imagine what would happen if the wings off one of the planes fell off into a schoolyard,” said Seymour.”
“Damn, Seymour that’s good. That’s the sort of talking point we need to build our narrative.”
“We definitely don’t want old planes falling apart killing schoolchildren,” reasoned Seymour.
“Not just old airplanes; planes that weren’t built for the job. We need planes that were built to haul the heavy loads of retardant. Aircraft that are built to handle the stress of the fire environment. Aircraft that are ‘purpose built’. I’ve put some thought into it and I want that to be a talking point.”
“That’s all well and good but where do you find ‘purpose built’ aircraft’?”
“Ah might have thought Canada. Canadair builds airtankers.”
“They’re scoopers; they drop water. Our infrastructure is built around tanker bases pumping retardant. No, we need landplanes. Fortunately, we have a real innovator down in Texas, Leland Snow. He’s building planes designed for the rigors of firefighting. The State Department has been using them in the drug spraying program in Central and South America. There are a few already working fire, mostly on state contracts. I know the Bush administration would be supportive of a Texas manufacturer.”
“I’m not exactly an airtanker historian but as I recall the Forest Service got out of the single engine airtanker business in the seventies. Bigger was better; more engines, more retardant. These new planes are single engine planes, right? How are you going to replace the big tankers?”
“With big helicopters. That’s where Emily comes in. She’s will be interfacing with the logging companies. We’ve been logging with big helicopters for years now. They have a comparable capacity. They’re designed to handle the heavy loads and turbulence of the fire environment. Some of them have been used on fires; when we need them, we’ll have to pull the plug on the money, they’re expensive.”
“Ah think Ah get the picture,” said Seymour.
“When there is a crisis we will need to respond quickly; to have resources available to pay for the solution.”
“A slush fund,” suggested Seymour.
“That sounds so...”
“Look, I just need to know that when we have a problem there will be money available to deal with it.
“How much money?”
“I’m thinking about a hundred million.”
To be continued...