June 27. 2013, 0600 Hours
Jack’s smart phone played reveille. Fatigue hung like a veil but he was immediately conscious. The rerun of the previous evening continued playing in a loop through most of the previous night. In spite of an instinct for self-preservation and rational reservations he knew he was hooked. Digging into a story with tragic heroes, lascivious lobbyists, greedy politicians, backpedaling bureaucrats, against a backdrop of flaming disasters; he couldn’t resist: and now a gun toting twenty-four-year-old woman out of a pulp fiction novel was going to fly him to Chico, California. The thought of Rod, his Boss, was a mental toothache. Not much of a ring to Chico thought Jack, writing the script in his mind. He showered and put himself together, packed his backpack with his tools of the trade plus underwear and socks.
C. J. was quick answering the door. She wore baggy khaki pants and a faded tropical print blouse. Her hair was draped over one shoulder and she was pulling a brush through the damp tangles.
“Remember, I’m not a morning person,” she warned.
“I’m going to see what’s cooking downstairs,” said Jack.
“Don’t drink a lot of coffee. We’ll be in the plane two and a half hours.”
“I’m an Air Attack veteran now. I learned my lesson. The car is open if you want to deposit anything for the trip.”
Jack was mid peanut butter muffin when C. J. arrived for breakfast. She surveyed the selection looking indecisive then plucked a hard-boiled egg from its nest. Yogurt and a cup of OJ followed suit and she joined Jack at the table.
“I appreciate you going out of your way doing this, C. J.,” said Jack after she had shelled the egg.
She inspected her efforts then took a bite and looked at him with a similarly detached expression as her mouth worked over the morsel, then she chased it with OJ. “We live in a very small self-sufficient world on the island,” she said. “When we come to the states I want to get away from Mom and Dad. I haven’t had many opportunities in the past.”
“They seem pretty reasonable.”
“They’re my parents. I need a break.”
Until they arrived at the airport further conversation was limited to the weather and generic vacuous observations.
Jack hadn’t seen the plane up close. It had two engines and the wings were low on the fuselage. Its nod to eccentricity was a hibiscus flower painted on the tail, a la Hawaiian Airlines. He followed C. J. as she checked various caps and fluid levels and removed the chains anchoring it to the ramp. She explained the plane had six fuel tanks and narrated her activities under the wings and in the engine and fuselage compartments.
“I’ll have to climb in first unless you want to ride in back,” said C. J.
“I’ve never been up front.”
“The view is better and I can put you to work.”
After they climbed in, C. J. showed Jack how to secure the door and saw that he was strapped in correctly; then she pulled out a check-list and set the plane up to start.
She yelled “Clear” out a little vent window and the left propeller began to turn, the engine sputtered, then ran. When the right engine was running they both donned headsets and tested the intercom, making adjustments. While the engines warmed, she handed a chart to Jack. It was already folded and she pointed out their position and where they were headed.
“After we take off, see if you can correlate what you’re seeing outside with what’s on the chart.”
“I feel like Magellan,” said Jack following C. J’s hand on the chart.
“Okay, let’s do it,” said C. J.
The evolution of the flight was similar to the previous day’s adventure and C. J. was right, the view was much better. She appeared to know what she was doing, handling the airplane and talking on the radio with an air of confidence, sounding professional. Jack did as instructed and found he could translate the contour lines on the chart to the terrain out the windscreen. He marked their progress noting towns and the roads connecting them like a vascular system.
“Where are we?” asked C. J., looking to Jack after twenty minutes. It was posed like a test question. He pointed to a place on the chart. “That looks about right. Let me know when we’re close to Porterville.”
“Roger,” said Jack, playing to the crowd. “So, what do you do on your island?”
“Mostly work on the boat.”
“The Jolly Roger?”
“Yeah. It’s a dive boat. Usually tourists.”
“Is that how you learned to channel dolphins?”
“Pretty much. I grew up going out on the ocean. Mom made sure I was a strong swimmer. She’s the boat person.”
“What’s Charlie’s role on the island?”
“He keeps things running: does some charters with the Aztec. There are airline connections to Roatan but TACA is not known for its reliability.”
“And you have a brother that’s down there running the show now?”
“Yeah, Davey. He’s the old one, by year and a half.”
“Davey Jones. Your parents appear to have a sense of humor. How did they end up in Honduras?”
“That depends on who you ask. Dad was recovering from a gunshot wound and he said he just fell in love with the place.”
“Your family seems to have a lot of weapons history.”
“Mom hates them. She really doesn’t like me carrying.”
“Did they meet on the island?”
“They met before the island. Mom was working on sailboats: charters, dead-heading boats.
“Moving boats for people with more money than time. Anything to make a living and get experience for her captain’s licenses.”
“I guess it worked out. She got her boat.”
“She’d rather have a sailboat but there’s no money in it. The Jolly Roger was a lobster boat. They claim they bought it: people on the island say Dad won it in a poker game.”
“Sounds like Ozzie and Harriet,” said Jack.
“So, where’s Porterville?”
“That’s not fair, you’ve been distracting me.”
“Typical male: easily distracted; unable to multitask.”
“Stand by captain, I’ll come up with a fix.”
While Jack studied the chart, C. J. centered the needle of the Course Deviation Indicator, CDI.
“So, what do you think, Magellan?”
“I think we passed the Spice Islands.”
“It’s a little tougher when we get out here in the valley. Fortunately, we have a few tools. We’re about fifty miles north of Bakersfield.”
“One of my favorite places.”
C.J. continued to school Jack as they flew while responding to occasional queries from air traffic control. Somewhere north of Fresno she had him take the controls and she took a break while talking him through the use of the yoke and rudder pedals and critiquing his performance. Passing Sacramento, he pleaded for relief and she took over.
“That’s a lot like work,” said Jack flexing his fingers.
“You learn to relax after awhile.”
“Deep breaths, calm the mind; become one with the machine. Kind of Zen like.”
“Something like that.”
Twenty minutes later they were in Chico.
“Well, that was relatively painless,” said Jack when C. J. shut down on the ramp in front of Chico Aviation.
“The painful part is topping off the airplane with fuel.”
Jack thought about that for a moment wondering what he had gotten into. His plan was to write the gas off as a business expense and charge Rolling Stone but he hadn’t cleared it with the editorial staff. It would fall under the category of it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.
Jack unwound from the plane. “I’m going to find the boys’ room.”
C. J. was on her phone and offered a nod. A fuel truck was moving toward the plane before Jack entered the building. He met C. J. in the lobby when he left the restroom.
“Walter is on his way.”
C. J. flashed some teeth then headed for the ladies’ facilities.
Fifteen minutes later Walter arrived. Jack had dinged his credit card for four hundred and twenty dollars and eleven cents and learned that money is what makes a plane fly.
With smiling eyes and an easy laugh, Walter would have had the Santa part with a red suite and a hat to cover his clean shaved head. He hugged C. J. with gusto and turned to Jack.
“You’re the reporter,” said Walter, turning serious.
“Who have you been talking to?” asked Jack.
“Charlie. He wants to know what you’ve done with his daughter.”
C. J. looked a little sheepish when Jack glanced at her for help. “I’m obviously out of my depth in this conversation but it’s nice to meet you, Walter.”
Walter laughed and reached out, offering his hand. “I should probably report to the authorities that you have been found. Just another victim of C. J’s wiles.”
Jack was getting the picture.
“He didn’t do anything stupid like report the plane stolen, did he?” asked C. J.
“You didn’t tell Charlie we were going to Chico?” Jack was a bit stunned.
“I figured that would be the only way to escape. I texted Mom this morning.”
“Don’t worry, Jack. I don’t think Charlie ever killed anybody,” said Walter with another chuckle.
Jack wasn’t sure what to make of his abduction.
“Where’s Chris?” asked C. J., steering the conversation on a tangent.
“She’s home whipping up some treats. I hesitate to ask what your plans are.”
“Maybe knock over an ATM. Stealing an airplane is just the start,” offered Jack.
“Enough with the drama,” said C. J. “I’ll call Dad and make peace. I’d like to say hi to Chris and see what she has cooked up. You boys can talk shop.”
“Ever been to Chico, Jack?” asked Walter.
C. J. took the back seat in the SUV and called Charlie while Walter drove back streets to his house. Jack tried to ignore the monologue from the rear while talking to Walter about some of what he had learned from Milo Peltzer, Don O’Connell, Lloyd Clift, and Charlie about the large airtanker business.
“Why do you think the Forest Service created such a void and why hasn’t it been filled? I’ve come to some conclusions but I’m hoping you will talk to me about what you know, fill in some blanks. Maybe draw conclusions.”
“I work for Cal Fire and it’s a whole different animal,” said Walter.
“But you have some insights about the federal program, right?”
“I know a lot of Forest Service people,” said Walter. “Almost home.”
C. J. had stowed the phone when Jack craned his neck to check on her. “I like the pouty look,” said Jack. She scowled.
Walter’s neighborhood was neatly groomed with a gardener’s finesse, the houses tidy and closely spaced; a lot of stucco. He pulled up a steep driveway into an open garage and parked next to a gray convertible BMW Z4, YOGA 1 on the plate. Jack was pretty sure Walter was not the practitioner.
A door from the garage led to a hall. There was a bedroom on the left, Walter’s office on the right, a man cave. Jack couldn’t resist and stepped into Walter’s lair. The walls chronicled years of flight in images, certificates, and awards. There were models suspended by filament and topping various flat surfaces. A bank of computer screens sat in front of an ergonomic swivel chair.
“You found my closet,” said Walter.
“More like a museum.”
“When I’m gone you can call it a museum.”
Jack looked for a pattern. “You were in the Navy?”
“See the world.”
Jack inspected a framed certificate. ”That’s a Distinguished Flying Cross. How do you get one of those?”
“They give them to people who are young, stupid, and think they are invincible.”
Jack strolled. “Hot air balloons, Air America, Air Cal, American Airlines, airtankers; am I missing anything?”
“Gliders, helicopters, and hot air balloons.”
“And here’s a catamaran. Do you ever walk the earth?”
“In short bursts and in confined spaces. We should check on the women.” Walter led the way. “Clear the decks!” he called announcing their imminent arrival.
In the hall Jack was once again distracted. One wall hosted rows of magazine covers, mostly Cosmopolitan, just one model in a range of poses, in various states of dress and undress. She was a classic fair-skinned blond with striking green eyes set appropriately wide. In a variety of photos, she exposed the contradiction of youthful naïveté and seductress. Interesting, thought Jack, pulling away.
Walter already had a glass of amber fluid on ice when Jack found the kitchen. C. J. stood with a seasoned version of the model on the hallway wall.
“Jack, I presume. I’m Chris,” She moved past C. J. around a butcher-block island with an assortment of carefully arranged hors d’oeuvres and gave him a hug. He returned the favor.
“Nice to meet you in person. I previewed the wall.”
“My checkered past. Something to drink? Beer, wine, whisky, we can please most palates.”
“Water would be great. I have to keep my wits about me. I’ve been kidnapped, you know.”
“I heard. If you’re lucky maybe she’ll tie you up,” said Chris with a lascivious look. “She’s pretty handy with ropes; all that time on the Jolly Roger.”
“That’s probably what made Roger jolly,” offered Walter toasting the air.
“I think I’ll have a glass of that rosé,” said C. J. “I can see it’s going to take awhile to recover my dignity. I might as well enjoy my discomfort.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Walter. “We have food as well. Chris has performed her usual culinary magic. Grab a plate.”
Jack dutifully filed past the assembled platters and loaded a plate. C.J. followed, then snagged a glass of wine from the counter and headed out a sliding glass door to a patio. Jack hesitated in a doorway leading to the living room that reflected a well-traveled life, tastefully eclectic.
“Maybe we should divide and conquer,” said Walter balancing a plate and manipulating his glass. “We can consort in the living room and give the women time to gossip.”
“We don’t gossip. We’re going to plot our next move,” said Chris.
“Now I’m nervous,” said Jack.
Jack and Walter settled in the living room.
“What is your take on what happened to the large airtanker program. The Forest Service cancelled the contracts because the planes weren’t safe. The wings were falling off,” prodded Jack.
“Lets go back in time. Tanker 130 and 123 had the wing failures in 2002. All the C-130’s and PB4Y’s had been taken out of service after 2002. None of the tankers left in the fleet in 2004 had any history of structural failures.”
“So why did it happen in 2004?” asked Jack.
“Ah, now you’re thinking like a reporter.”
“Journalist,” corrected Jack. “What happened after the contracts were pulled?”
“Within days, at most a week, the Forest Service came up with a plan. I’d been to a Forest Service Safety Meeting in Sacramento, in March 2004. Steve Canyon, Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation led the discussion. There was a lot of talk about new technologies, potential new airframes, and that the large airtanker operators had to do a better job maintaining their airplanes.
"I think Steve looked out and saw a bunch of crop dusters and he wanted an Air Force. Anyway, after some discussion he came up with a number. At the time there were around thirty-three large airtanker exclusive use contracts. And he said there was thirty-three million dollars to pay for them. Then he laid it out pretty clearly. If it cost a million dollars to hire a plane there would be thirty-three on contracts. If it cost two million, there would be sixteen or seventeen.”
“What’s the message?” asked Walter, rhetorically. “The more money you spend on maintenance, the fewer airplanes there will be on the payroll. That’s the take home for a room full of competitors at a safety meeting. Two months later, less than a week after the contracts are pulled, there was a hundred million on the table to fill the void until the large airtanker problem was solved.”
“Interesting,” said Jack
“A friend of mine, Slim Davis, was caught up in the middle of it.”
Boise Idaho, National Interagency Fire Center
May 17, 2004, 1705 Hours
It was late, on a Friday, when the phone rang. Not good, thought Slim.
His desk was already packed up for the weekend. He had a short debate with himself about answering the phone.
“Fire Aviation, Slim Davis speaking.”
“What the Fuck is going on!” said Ron Hunter, Director of Operations of Aero Union Corporation.
Slim recognized the voice but he had never heard the tone. “Slow down Ron.”
“We just got a fax saying all the large airtanker contracts have been withdrawn. If this is a joke it’s not funny.”
“Where did it come from?”
“From the National Interagency Fire Center. Maybe you could walk down to the fax machine and see who’s standing there,” said Ron.
“I’ll call you back,” said Slim then he hung up.
The phone was ringing again but he ignored it. Mary, a secretary, was at her desk behind the glass encased reception area.
“I thought you might be showing up,” she said.
“Did you send a fax to Aero Union?”
“Yes. I sent it to all the large airtanker contractors. The letter came from DC. They said to wait until the end of the day.”
“Get him on the phone. I’ll be in my office.”
Is this really happening thought Slim, pacing?
Mary appeared at his door. “Nobody’s answering. It’s seven o’clock in DC. They’ve probably gone home.”
“I’m flying to Washington. Arrange a ticket.”
“When do you want to leave?”
Slim went to his desk and called Ron Hunter. “It’s not a joke.”
“What the fuck! We’ve just spent the last year jumping through hoops complying with continuing airworthiness mandates! We’ve spent millions! We have three tankers on contract, in Texas; they flew today!”
“I don’t know what to say. I’m flying to DC, tonight,” said Slim.
The line went dead. As soon as he hung up the phone rang. Slim spent the next twenty minutes explaining to the balance of the large airtanker contractors he didn’t know W-T-F was going on. Mary had ducked in leaving a note saying he had a flight at 7:15. He was spent, feeling empty, verging on nausea, when he left the building. Driving home to pack for the trip he recalled a meeting he had attended. Steve Canyon had been a presenter speaking to a conference of regional foresters about the upcoming fire season. He had been quoted in the November 2003 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology.
"We're redefining what 'airtanker' means. In 2004, we're going to see larger numbers of Type-1 (heavy) helicopters operating in what used to be a traditional fixed-wing role . . . In many cases, when you call for an airtanker, you're going to see a big helicopter show up -- and be glad it did."
May 18, 2004, 0815 Hours
Slim stood in front of the Sidney Yates Building, the Washington DC home of the US Forest Service. Its foreboding Romanesque architecture would serve as a fine backdrop for Frankenstein remake thought Slim. The building held a place on the US Registry of Historical Buildings. Inside he signed the guest registry at the receptionist’s desk and asked if Steve Canyon was available.
“I’m not sure if he’s here. It’s the weekend; I’ll check,” said the gentleman in Forest Service green uniform at the desk as he picked up a phone. After a short pause and a longer conversation, he hung up. “Do you know the way Mr. Davis?”
“Yes, I’ve been here before.”
“Have a nice day.”
“I don’t think that’s in the cards but thanks for the thought,” said Slim.
On the ride-up in the elevator Slim took time trying to sort out his emotions. He reflected on his decision to take the job of managing the fleet of large fixed wing airtankers for the Forest Service. It had been a promotion but as he had known there was an element of politics, unlike his long operational career as a firefighter, smokejumper, and pilot, and at the moment it felt like it had been the wrong decision. The door to Steve Canyon’s office was open, the name emblazoned on the opaque white glass of the door. Slim took a deep breath as he stepped into the room.
Any thought of a one-on-one conversation or explanation evaporated. Slim recognized some of the people in the room, they all had looks of solemn intensity.
“Slim, I’m surprised to see you here,” said Steve stepping around his desk.
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
“I understand. I’m sorry we sprung this on you but we didn’t want to let the cat-out-of-the-bag too soon.”
“It’s more like a sabre-tooth-tiger; oh yeah, they’re extinct.”
“Look Slim, I know this isn’t easy for you. But we’ve decided we need more than putting band aids on the large airtanker problem.”
Looking around the room Slim recognized, Ray Gunnison, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment. A former lobbyist and advocate for Forest Products Industries, he had earned the moniker, Ray Guns, for what had been considered his scorched-earth policy by the previous administration with its liberal environmental agenda.
“Let me introduce you to our team,” said Steve.
“Team?” repeated Slim, as he was shepherded to a seat at a conference table.
All eyes had turned to Slim; it was not comforting.
“This is Slim Davis,” began Steve. “Legendary smokejumper and pilot. I think he stood beside Gifford Pinchot when the Forest Service began,” said Steve in a genial tone.
First up was a distinguished, grey haired, goateed, man sporting a red bow-tie.
“Senator Seymour Clanton.”
“Senator,” said Slim nodding.
Steve continued around the table.
“Emily Adams; our interface with the helicopter operators that are going to help us out of this jam. And this is James Hill, the State Forester and Director of the Texas State Forest Service. He held a seat on the ‘Blue Ribbon’ Panel on aerial firefighting.”
“Slim is in charge of contracting and managing the large airtanker program. He’s probably feeling left out,” said Steve sporting a sheepish grin.
Slim folded his hands on the table, looked from face to face, and waited for someone to speak.
Ray broke the silence.
“I’ve decided the large airtanker fleet represents too much of a liability to continue operating. We can’t afford another incident. We’re going to move on to a new era with different platforms that will do a better job, safely.”
“You’re discounting all the time, effort, and money the contractors have invested to meet our continuing airworthiness program?”
“As Steve has said, it’s time to move on,” said Ray.
“How do you intend to do that? We have ongoing fires in Texas right now,” said Slim.
James Hill spoke up.
“I’ve contacted some of our SEAT operators in Texas. They stand ready to help out immediately.”
“You already have commitments? I just found out about this last night.”
Nobody offered a word.
“The SEATS don’t have nearly the capacity of a large tanker,” said Slim.
“There are a lot of AG operators in Texas. We can make up for it with more planes,” explained James.
“We’re also going to line up some heavy helicopters. They can handle the big loads,” said Steve. “Emily has contacts with all the heavy helicopter people.”
“How are you going to pay for that?”
“That’s where Senator Clanton comes in. He sits on Senate Committee for Agriculture. He’s arranging to provide one hundred million dollars to make sure we have the resources we need for the coming fire season,” said Steve.
“Hell, I thought we might have a problem, but I guess you people have it all figured out,” said Slim.
“Look Slim; It’s time to get on-board. We’re moving ahead,” said Ray.
“That’s okay; I think I’ll pass. It doesn’t look like you need a large airtanker contracting officer anymore.”
To be continued...