June 25, 2013, 2050 Hours
Charlie recounted of his exchange with Emily at the wake and her recollection of the meeting in DC. The story held Jack’s interest and offered some explanations to lingering questions.
“Obviously you believed Emily,” said Jack after a pause punctuated by Charlie popping the top on beer.
“It makes as much sense as anything,” said Charlie. “When I got started in ‘95, the business was changing. Nobody cared about the old piston planes. The big turbans, the C-130’s and P-3’s, had been working for a few years but two had already crashed, tanker 82 and a P-3, tanker 24. Another one of the C-130’s had shown up in Kuwait, a war zone, in 91. That pissed off Southern Air Transport. They weren’t too enthused about sharing the spoils of war, competing for contracts with planes the government had handed out to fight fire. Hell, another tanker contractor used a C-130 in a commercial. The tanker operators were greedy and not discreet.”
“The problems became too hot to handle and it was over. Without the exchange program or direct sales from surplus there were no more cheap airframes to convert to tankers or scavenge for parts. And then they went after Mike Minder, the middleman, and Frank Ponkey, the Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation, and eventually put them in prison.”
“Do you think they were guilty?” asked Jack.
“I think Frank put himself out there and tried to work a screwed-up system. He made deals he didn’t have the authority to make with some people who just wanted to take advantage of the situation. The only good deal he got was a type rating, a license to fly a C-130. Mike Minder, the broker, was an FAA Designated Examiner. He could give you a type rating at the bar if he wanted to. Mike ended up with four C-130’s he sold for cash. I think he was pretty much a crook.”
“Sounds like Frank Ponkey became the USFS Designated Fall Guy,” said Jack.
“What do you think the odds are anybody in the Forest Service is going to go out on a limb and find more airframes for the tanker business after that fiasco?”
“It sounds like the tanker businesses, the operators, killed the golden goose being greedy,” offered Jack.
“I think there are some good actors and some not so good. All the P-3’s went to work fighting fire or were used for parts supporting planes in the business. That was Aero Union. They were also the only company that complied with the mandate for the new constant flow drop tank systems.”
Aside from Aero Union and the P-3’s, with few aircraft to replace the old ones they backed off the tank requirements for 2000 as well; and the old fleet of planes soldiered on.”
“Another fact that gets lost in the story is the Forest Service has never paid the real cost of contracting for a fleet of large tankers. Their budgets have been subsidized by the cast-off aircraft from the military, that’s over.”
“About the only thing Forest Service management has done for the last twenty years is cover their ass.”
“Don’t hold back, tell me what you really think,” prodded Jack.
“So how does a girl get something to eat around here?”
C. J. had emerged.
“We have cold tacos and warm beer,” said Nancy.
“Sounds splendid,” said C. J. “You guys look awfully serious.” It was the first time she had entered in eyeshot of Jack and he hadn’t started salivating involuntarily.
“You know how boys are when they start talking shop,” said Nancy.
Jack realized it was time to give it a rest. Charlie had reached a slow boil talking about the tanker business. Another beer was in order and a conversational shift. “You need a bigger pool. I was getting dizzy watching you bounce back and forth.”
“Yeah, I like the ocean,” said C. J.
“So how does that work? Doesn’t seem like you’d see much ocean hauling Charlie around to tanker bases.”
“They’ll bail on me as soon as I get busy and fly away,” said Charlie.
“We’ll go shopping!” said C. J. “That’s the best thing about bringing Dad to work. There’s not much shopping at home.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s an island. Part of Honduras.”
Jack turned to Charlie. “You commute from Honduras?”
“Two or three times a year. I’ll probably work all summer then go home. The girls are on their own until then.”
“Wait, it’s all coming back to me. Vicky, from the home, she told me you lived on an island off Honduras.” Jack turned to Nancy. “She mentioned you as well but said nothing about you,” looking to C. J.
“I have a brother too. He’s home taking care of business. Mom and I get to play awhile.”
“And I suppose you commute from Honduras in that airplane I saw you climb out of this afternoon.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes we just take an airliner. We’re going shopping this time so we need the airplane and we have friends and family in Texas and California. It’s handy,” said Nancy.
“Oh. Oh yeah. We always took the airplane when we went shopping when I was a kid. I lived on Long Island. We had to fly to Manhattan to go shopping. We just took an airliner if we weren’t shopping.”
“I’m trying to decide. Is this envy or sarcasm?” said C. J.
“I’m thinking of another category, possibly wry humor,” retorted Jack.
“The plane is just an old Piper Aztec. It’s more like a pickup,” explained C. J.
“And you’re all pilots?”
“Obviously Dad’s a pilot. My brother and I have licenses. We’ve been around airplanes our whole lives. Mom knows how to fly but she’s mostly into boats.”
“And I suppose you have a boat in the family.”
“The Jolly Roger.”
“A pirate ship?”
“A dive boat with attitude,” said Nancy.
“And you live on an island in the Caribbean. Would you like to adopt me?”
“Do you have any skills besides stalking?” asked C. J.
“Hey, I’m a journalist!”
“Is that a skill? I thought that was a social disease,” said C. J.
“Is that sarcasm or envy?” countered Jack.
“You two are starting to sound like an episode of Jerry Springer,” said Charlie. “I’m going to bed.” With that Charlie sucked the life out of his beer, stood up, and gave a tentative salute. “Hasta mañana.”
“Hey sailor, want some company?” said Nancy.
Charlie reached for Nancy’s hand. “Any time my dear.”
Jack watched the duo depart, acutely aware he was alone with C. J. “Well this is awkward. Who’s going to moderate our war of words?”
“How about a truce?” said C. J., offering Jack a beer.
“That’s just not fair,” said Jack taking it.
C. J. had neglected her tacos and she started to make up for it. Jack opened the beer, sat back, and relaxed looking to the sky. Even with the ambient lights of the city the stars were bright in the desiccated desert air. On reflection, this had been an unusual day, starting hung-over, and ending, sipping beer while sharing space with a bikini clad dolphin woman child. The story of the tanker business was proving to have legs as well. Dolphin woman child has legs. Hard to think lineally. Must be tired.
“Hey, Rocket Man, know your stars?”
“What?” Jack’s gaze dropped to earth and C. J.
“Looked like you were lost in space. Can you find the North Star?”
“That’s probably not even a trick question.” Jack was relaxed, done sparring for the day. “No clue.”
“It helps if you have a vague idea where to look.” C. J. looked to the sky. “Look at the stars on top of that pine tree,” she said pointing to a scruffy example of the species growing in the parking lot.
Jack’s eyes lingered on her for a moment then he followed her lead. “Okay, I see stars.”
“There are three that don’t quite line up. They’re part of the Big Dipper, the handle.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“There are four more stars to the right. If you can find them and connect the dots they form the dipper.”
“I think I see that,” said Jack. “Is the North Star among them?”
“No. But you can use the Big Dipper to find it and you’re on your way.”
“Almost anywhere in a boat or a plane.”
“Sounds romantic. But what if I can’t find a pine tree?”
“You’re a funny guy, Jack,” said C. J. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He held his tongue while giving her a cursory toast with his beer can. He watched her police up the remnants of their dinner then leave. His thoughts trailed her then returned to the tankers.
‘They appeared to be the abandoned children of an ugly polygamist divorce. Set adrift from the Forest Service, the spawn of aging matrons bereft of virtue, the operators that had born them, having succumbed to the call of easy money.’
Wow. It’s definitely time to go to bed, thought Jack after reviewing what he wrote in his mind. He returned his thoughts to the dolphin woman-child and wandered to his room.
June 26, 2013, 0700 Hours
The Inn of Lancaster had a decent breakfast. Jack toasted an English Muffin, smeared it with crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam; OJ and a bowl of Raisin Bran rounded it out and he took a seat at a long communal table. The local news was reporting an accident on the 10 freeway. The wide-eyed, happy-faced, loquacious anchor team appeared to be main-lining Starbucks. Jack decided to join them and got up for coffee. Charlie and the Jones clan filed in.
“Good morning,” offered Jack.
“Another day in paradise,” said Charlie.
“Morning Nancy. You’re looking lovely today.”
“He may be a keeper,” said Nancy to C. J.
“C. J,” said Jack. “nice to see you.”
“Don’t be too cheerful. I’m not a morning person.”
There were three or four other guests coming and going; two TVs dominated the Spartan, functional, mostly windowed space. The fronds of the tall palms and pine boughs spoke silently of the wind gusting outside. Subdued conversation drifted from the far end of the table while Charlie and the Joneses concentrated on breakfast.
On the trip back to the airport, Charlie asked Jack what his plans were.
“I don’t really know. Yesterday was a little like spontaneous combustion. I don’t have any commitments but my editor will expect me to pitch something or go home.”
“If you’re interested, I could talk to the base and you might hitch a ride on the Air Attack if we get a dispatch. We’re fairly likely to have some activity today with the winds and temperatures.”
“That could work, thanks.” Jack was pleasantly surprised at the offer. On the Musical Highway he belted out the William Tell Overture in the middle lane and looked in the rear view mirror. It was hard to suppress a smile even for those who weren’t morning people.
“You know, if you ladies are interested you can take the car and get a jump on your shopping if I’m just hanging out at the airport.”
“I may have to reconsider my offer,” said Charlie with a baleful look at Jack.
“Too late,” said Nancy. “We can check on a rental car as well.”
“Just goes to show. No good deed goes unpunished,” scowled Charlie.
“It’s okay’ Dad. We’ll leave a little in the kitty.”
Jack dropped Charlie and Nancy and went in search of parking at the base with C. J. The frenetic pace of the previous day was absent although parking was still a challenge.
“How about dinner?” said Jack turning to C. J. “Not now, tonight.”
Jack didn’t usually feel quite so inept. C. J. left the question hanging, adding to his discomfort. He found an open spot and parked.
“So, are you asking me for a date?”
“That sounds so official.”
“Are you going to buy?”
“That’s a date. Where I come from, that’s a date.”
“Well, I’ll split it with you and call it dinner.”
“You’re quite the romantic.”
Jack climbed out of the car. C. J. joined him. “Here’s the keys,” he said, handing them over. “Have fun shopping. If you feel like dinner, my calendar is open. I’m going to find out if I have a ride.”
Jack led, C. J. trailed, and they found their way back to the tower where the bulk of the personnel milled. Charlie was talking to a guy in a gray flight suit, Nancy was nowhere in sight. When Charlie saw Jack approach he motioned for him to join them.
“Mark, this is Jack Hart, the journalist I was talking about,” said Charlie as Jack joined them. “Mark is the Air Attack pilot. He says if you behave it will be okay if you want to ride along today.”
“That would be great,” said Jack offering his hand.
“Mark Chevers, at your service.”
His grip was firm. He smiled and didn’t seem to be making a point: middle aged, tall and thin, with a touch of down-under accent. Jack felt a twinge of nervousness at the prospect of flying.
“I’m going to check on the girls,” said Charlie.
Jack realized C. J. had disappeared and experienced either relief or disappointment, or both; it was confusing. Looking for his happy place, he started asking questions.
“So, I’m new at this. What’s an Air Attack, Mark?”
“I’ll show you. I need to give you a brief on the plane before we go for a ride anyway.”
They broke from the herd around the tower and started walking toward a high-wing, twin-engine plane on a part of the ramp just past the pilot Ready Room.
“This is a 690B Aero Commander,” began Mark as they approached the airplane.
“Looks pretty spiffy. How long have you been flying it?”
“Six years. It’s a nice ride. Don’t bash your head,” said Mark as they ducked under the wing. Mark went to the door just aft of the cockpit and opened it. “Climb in and take a seat.”
Jack did as instructed finding a seat across from the door.
“I’ll set you up with a headset.”
Mark showed Jack where to plug it in. “We usually orbit a fire in right turns so you’re in a good spot. The right seat, up front, is the Air Attack officer. He coordinates the flight activities with the ground. The boss, the IC, Incident Commander, is on the ground. The Air Attack’s primary job is to keep all the aircraft on the fire organized. It gets pretty interesting when you have a bunch of tankers, helicopters, and maybe a media ship or two. We usually have a lead plane working with the tankers. That helps. I’ll handle a radio if it gets busy.”
“How do you keep the planes organized?” asked Jack.
“The aircraft report in before they get to the fire; they get an altitude assignment and we talk about all the other aircraft one the fire; anything pertinent to the fire: hazards, terrain, escape routes if any of us has a problem; maybe an overview of the fire. No aircraft enters the FTA, Fire Traffic Area, until everybody is on the same page, then they’re cleared in. You’ll be able to listen to the radios; hopefully it will make sense.”
Mark stepped back out of the plane and Jack followed.
“Make sure to clear the “prop”, know that it’s stopped, before you get in or out of the plane. With the noise and confusion, it’s surprisingly easy to forget,” said Mark putting his hand on the prop spinner. It was disturbingly close to the door.
“That wouldn’t be too handy,” was all Jack could think to say.
“I’m going to the morning brief. You can do as you please. If we get a fire, just show up at the plane.”
Jack decided to be a fly on the wall at the briefing, an outside gathering of twenty or so people in a circle. It appeared to be primarily about the weather: wind, temperature, humidity were highlighted; something called a Haines Index and LAL. Jack took notes to remind himself to figure out what they were. They finished off with housekeeping details about paperwork, keeping the place picked up, and a reminder about the hazards of driving in Southern California. When it was over Jack followed Charlie into the Pilot Ready Room.
The place was packed with green pants and yellow shirts worn by a host of fit-looking young men sprawled on lounge chairs and sofas or maneuvering around a kitchen area. It smelled of smoke and reeked of testosterone. A mute TV hung on the wall displaying images from a helicopter of a high-speed chase through downtown Los Angeles. Charlie had already headed down a hall, glancing into what appeared to be a meeting room on one side and offices on the other, apparently looking for unoccupied space. Jack fell in trail. Charlie made a left at the end of the hall then out a door to a patio area. Jack followed.
“Might as well hang out here,” said Charlie taking a seat at a picnic table under an awning attached to the building. A fence and another building provided shelter from the wind.
“Quite the sausage fest. Are there any women in the outfit?”
“There are a few on the crews.”
“Nancy and C. J. head out?”
“Yeah. They’ll probably check in around lunchtime.”
“Who are all those people? They’re not all pilots are they?”
“No. The heli attack crew has taken up residence. They’re here all the time. We just come and go.”
“You’ve been at this a long time now, what, twenty years. The picture you paint is an industry adrift. The model that sustained it, the cheap airframes from the military, doesn’t exist anymore, and nobody in the Forest Service is willing to support the program with anything but hollow pronouncements about the need for more planes. Airplanes specifically built for the job.”
“The spin doctors call them ‘purpose built’. They spun the reason for the airframe failures to be the planes weren’t ‘purpose built’. When the wings folded on tanker 130 in 2002 that became the mantra. It’s a handy chant to drown out two uncomfortable facts: the lack of oversight by the agency and lack of maintenance by some of the contractors.”
“But why are the pilots willing to fly the planes? Surely they knew there were problems.”
“Airplanes always have problems and pilots have their own motives for climbing into one. We train to deal with problems: nobody thinks their wings are going to fall off.”
“But they have.”
“I didn’t say pilots were always right or smart. We like the job and make a conscious decision that the risks are acceptable. Part of the appeal, the challenge, is dealing with problems and risk. Life can be a little dreary if you never challenge yourself. If you don’t go to the dance you’re never going to meet the ladies: you’re not going to feel your heart race when you see a pretty one and decide to take a chance. That’s kind of what a fire feels like from the cockpit: that wall-flower could turn into a raging inferno.”
The analogy drew a pause then Jack went on.
“When tanker 130 crashed I guess the Forest Service was no longer willing to risk flying the C-130’s and PB4Y-2’s.”
“They weren’t willing to take the heat. The video of the crash was too compelling. And the media kept playing it over and over. I was there the day tanker 130 went down, on the fire. I talked to Wes Potter, the pilot, that morning and a couple of hours later he was dead.”
To be continued...