Fire and Aviation-A Love Story-The Wake


Lancaster, California

 August 3, 1995


       Near a year after the crash of tanker 82 people were beginning to show up at Foxy’s Southwest Steakhouse which was a crawling distance from the airport. It was a popular watering hole and the crew of tanker 82 had occasionally gone there, as had most of the pilots, mechanics, and people who worked out of Fox Airtanker Base.

       Fox Airport, named after General William J. Fox, occupies a windswept patch of sagebrush desert in the Antelope Valley outside Lancaster, California. The antelope had long since been exterminated and the skies have thundered for sixty years with the antics of the speed merchants based at Edwards AFB to the north. Amongst the crews, Lancaster was said to be the place where dirt comes to die.

       The wake had materialized like a fire; it wasn’t planned but had been forecast. It was a new fire season and the conditions were right: the accumulation of airtankers and people staged to respond to the threat of fire on the Angeles Forest or Tehachapi mountains to the north.


       “Are you sure this is safe?” asked Charlie. He was new to Foxy’s and music blared from the interior.

       “There’s never been a fatality,” said Don. “A few scrapes and bruises,” he added after some hesitation. “Porterville is where you better pay attention. A couple of the guys got their asses handed to them at the Paul Bunyan recently. They thought it was a fist fight but the cowboys were using bar stools.”

       “Nice,” was all Charlie thought to say. “Isn’t that Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire; pretty appropriate.” 

       “Couldn’t prove it by me.”

       “I suppose you know everyone in here,” said Charlie stepping through the door into a room crammed with people, mostly standing in groups. Some were competing with the music trying to converse, using animated movements and gesticulations to enhance communications should words fail.

       “I know them all but I can’t remember half their names,” said Don. “That’s the trouble with getting old.”

       The interior of Foxy’s was not refined. The low-slung open beam ceiling gave the large main room an intimate air. Raw, rough-hewn, pine plank walls were hung with an eclectic gallery of photos. Exotic military pre-orbital jet powered tubes to vintage piston aircraft and the pilots that flew them: cowpokes on horseback from a bygone era and art imitating life in the form of Hollywood celebrities. The framed images were mostly black and white but that could have been an effect of the lighting. The Art Deco jukebox blasted. The acoustics were dismal. Charlie liked it immediately.

       Don waded in and Charlie followed. Charlie recognized a pilot built like a fireplug named Walter. Don was moving his way; he was a head and a half taller than Walter. Walter clutched a tumbler of amber liquid. He raised it toasting Don’s arrival.

       “Welcome to the wake,” Walter offered with a solemn face. His voice was deep and resonant; it washed over you. If whiskey had a voice it would sound like Walter.

       “You’re been drinking without me.”

       “I resemble that remark,” countered Walter adding a mock serious expression.

       “You remember Charlie Jones, my co-pilot, right?”

       “My condolences,” said Walter, once again sounding solemn. His drink migrated to his left hand and he held his right out while fixing glassy eyes on Charlie. His hand was big with stubby fat sausage fingers.

       “We met yesterday at the base,” said Charlie as he shook hands.

       “As I recall this is not your first pull on the oars of one of Don O’Connell’s slave galleys.”

       “I have some old scars.”

       “You must be a slow learner.”

       “He said flying tankers would be more fun than smuggling toasters into Mexico.”

      “I’m going to go find some glasses while you girls talk about me,” said Don then stepped into the crowd.

       Charlie watched Don disappear then turned back to Walter. “You knew the crew on 82?”

       “I’d known Bob, the pilot, for years. Joe, his co-pilot, was a recent transplant from the airlines. He got screwed out of his airline retirement when the corporate raiders rode Eastern into the bankruptcy. After a career in the airlines he still needed a job. I had met Shawn, the engineer, but that was about it. I ate breakfast with them the day they crashed.”

       Charlie shook his head slowly but didn’t offer a word.

       “We were eating at Denny’s in Hemet. There’s a bar attached to the place and Joe told me they had tipped a few the previous evening and he had immersed himself in conversation with a sweet young thing. As it turned out her mother had been a flight attendant with Eastern. He said my god! I could be your father!”

       “How’d that work out?”

       “I didn’t see any bruising. I suppose she must have had a sense of humor,” said Walter then he put mouth to glass.

       “So, who are all these people?” asked Charlie looking around the room. “Some look to be homeless.”

       “That would be the flight crews and mechanics.”

       “How about the suits?”

        “The uniforms are agency people from the tanker base or dispatch. The ones that look like lawyers could be lawyers or worse, Federal Aviation Administration.”

       “What are they doing here?”

       “We’re here to help,” came a voice from behind Charlie.

       Charlie took a step back and turned. An official looking gentleman in a suit had materialized.

       “Take the fifth, Charlie, don’t say a word,” croaked Walter.

       “Does your parole officer know you’re drinking, Walter?” asked the man in the suite.

       “The terms of my work release allow me to imbibe. Charlie, this is Inspector Clouseau, National Transportation Safety Board.”

       Charlie was checking out the portly gray-haired representative from the Government.

       “The name’s Peter Seller. And you’re Charlie...?”

       “Jones, Charlie Jones. I’m the new kid on the block.”

       “Nice to meet you,” said Peter. “Walter and I go back a-ways.”

       “I was guessing,” said Charlie. Then he listened to the good-natured exchange between the two men. Charlie gleaned that Peter had worked in the tanker industry before joining the NTSB and had been on the NTSB power-plant group investigating the crash of tanker 82. He also figured out Walter and Peter had been to the crash site.

       “What did you make of the engines?” asked Charlie when there was a lull in the verbal banter.

       “They were all running. Number three was in reverse. We estimated 2250 shaft horsepower. It likely contributed to the wing separation,” said Peter.

       “That sounds ugly. What would cause that?” asked Charlie.

       “An inch and a half of power lever cable movement. Possibly when the wing failed,” offered Peter.


       “Why did the wing fail? Eighteen witnesses saw an explosion. The Forest Service and the FAA lean toward an explosion in the center-section fuel bay caused by an electrical short. Some people think the plane was flying too fast and encountered turbulence.”

       “What do you think?” asked Charlie.

       “I think you ask a lot of questions.”

       “I’m a curious guy.”

       “The plane had 20,000 plus hours. The Air Force parked it for a reason. It could have had fuel vapors and an electrical problem.”

       “It would take a big spark to light off jet fuel,” injected Charlie.

       “We need to light you off Charlie.” It was Don. He was back with three glasses and a bottle of whiskey.

       “What kind of bar is this? They hand out bottles of whiskey?” asked Charlie.

       “I just needed the glasses. I brought the whiskey,” said Don. He handed Charlie and Peter small tumblers then poured them full. Walter was next in line then Don filled his own.

       “To the poor bastards on tanker 82,” toasted Don extending his drink.

        The four vessels collided and whiskey broke like waves on the shore from the glasses dousing the hands of the four men, then they all tossed back a generous slug. Charlie turned away barely suppressing an involuntary convulsion. Eyes watering, he managed to swallow. Don and Walter looked at each other, a slight smile playing on their lips.

       “Kids,” said Don.

       Charlie couldn’t talk for a while and when words came they were a raspy whisper.

       “What is that shit!”

       “Nectar,” said Walter.

       “Ten High,” said Don. “I don’t leave home without it.”

       “I’m going to find some ice and tone it down,” said Charlie. A straight shot to the bar was out of the question so he went for an alternate route. It led to a back room where the traffic and decibel level diminished to an inside-voice conversational level.

       That’s when he heard the Senator’s name. Senator Clanton.


To be continued...