None truer than air tanker pilots |

None truer than air tanker pilots

Don Rogers

This is a critical time for the air tanker community, on the heels of two crashes this fire season, one of those in Colorado near Estes Park, that killed five crewmembers and apparently happened because parts of wings flew off. A fatal helicopter crash on the same Colorado fire has only helped prompt the U.S. Forest Service to set up a commission to examine its firefighting from the air.The planes, many of them built in the World War II to Korean War eras, are only getting older, with parts harder and harder to find. The private companies that provide air tanker services during wildfire seasons don’t seem to quite earn enough to freshen up their fleets with newer planes or provide comparable death benefits as the federal government to the families of aerial firefighters.This pattern, left to continue, would seem to mean more planes falling apart in the sky and fewer pilots crazy enough to keep flying.Why should we in Eagle County care? Well, consider this: But for the cavalry in the sky, one or two or three of our little wildfires this summer might have challenged the 130,000-acre Hayman Fire for largest in Colorado history. Timely drops from “slurry bombers” stopped these blazes cold, so that the ground troops could catch up.Incredibly, to me anyway, the pilots of the air tankers that make such a difference in stopping fires, protecting property and saving lives on the ground are not considered firefighters by the U.S. government when it comes to death benefits for their families. That has got to change.Today’s column is extra long, and I apologize for this. But I wanted to include a couple of messages in reply to the column that speak to the air tanker issues better than I could.The first is from Diana Lynn, whose husband, Donn Johnson, died in an air tanker crash in 1987:Like your tanker pilot friend who died fighting fire from the air, my late husband, Donn Johnson, also loved Richard Bach’s books, and he too was killed in action. His tattered and half-burned copy of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was handed over to me as part of what was left of him at the crash site. He was flying his tanker over a mountain ridge, made his drop, circled back to check it, and then fell from the sky. “Pilot error” raced across the grapevine before the smoke even cleared. Donn had thousands of flight hours as a Navycaptain, and he flew smart, but we were told he had stalled his own plane – an old S-2 that continually worried him.So the story of your tanker pilot friend brought familiar tears to my eyes. It seems my tears would have dried by now – it’s been 15 years since Donn’s crash. I’ve spent countless time grieving, and then found a new, happy remarriage. But every time another tanker goes down, I die a little bit more. So do other widows – there is no closure for us because we still have to talk among ourselves about decrepit planes, poor maintenance, and difficult flying.Although many of us are sad and angry, we try to avoid bitterness, even as we are having to ask why our husbands had to die, what could have been done, should have been done, to protect them, and why it still isn’t happening.No doubt about it, Donn identified with Jonathan the seagull, doing life mostly his way, apart from the pack, and squeezing every drop of life out of his short 50 years. He was a special kind of guy. So are the rest of these aerial firefighting pilots. It takes a special kind of person to fly “combat” missions on a daily basis. They deserve the very best – the best planes, the best airplane maintenance and equipment, hot meals, decent schedules, and a major voice in policy making. But that is not what they are getting. Until they do, we surviving families cannot come to peace with our husbands’ and fathers’ and sons’ and brothers’ deaths. And even worse – we watch other families tragically join ours as more planes go down.Unfortunately, just as the pilots are treated in life, we surviving families are treated after their deaths. We have to fight for crash information and access to the investigations. We are denied the federal Public Safety Officers death benefit (PSOB) that goes to every other firefighter in America, including all volunteer firefighters. We can be treated like welfare recipients when we have to deal with state workers compensation. And while many of our husbands were once insured by the companies that contracted them – with all benefits going to those companies instead of to the families – we have not qualified for private insurance because the job is too risky.Please keep the discussion going, and keep the pressure on the policy makers until America’s aerial firefighters are given back some the credit they pay for with their lives.Diana LynnnnnThis next message to me counters some of that PR I read in the wake of the air tanker crash a few weeks ago in Colorado, the industry spokesman talking up all the safety procedure and mechanical upkeep and so on. This e-mail came from pilot Jim Baughman, with 22 years of experience flying these planes:I had the pleasure of reading your article through a link on the AAP (Associated Airtanker Pilots) message board. It brought back a lot of memories. Although I was only casually acquainted with Ted, I knew Louie Remschner well. We had worked together two years previously.Lou liked Santa Barbara and basically worked for anyone who had the contract. He was a seasoned airtanker captain, typed in about every aircraft in the arsenal, skilled and extremely “smooth.” Contractors liked him because he took care of the airplane.In 1980, while working on my initial attack card in Porterville, I worked several fires with Lou and Ted. Lou routinely gave me encouragement, constructive criticism, and pointers on how to keep my ass out of the fire and the shiny side up. Late in the season in 1980 I finally got my initial attack card and Lou was one of the first to congratulate me.Early in the season of 1981 I was the first airplane to arrive over the crash site where they were killed. I dropped, or tried to drop on the fire that they had caused. I guess the point is that I spent that day probably thinking and going through the same motions and emotions that you did.The previous year, a C119 had crashed on the Dryfaults Fire (SE of Palm Springs), the wings had come off and it was blamed on turbulence. Two years after Lou and Ted went in, a C119 took off from Lancaster and promptly landed with the rear spare broken and flexing enough for the crew to see daylite. It flew one more time, after jury rigging a patch on the spare, it was ferried to an Air Force base in Northern Cal where it became a static display, traded for a C130A in the infamous a/c swap.Finally, in 1987, a C119 crashed on the Shasta-Trinity (I believe), a wing came off.They finally grounded the C119s and set up the aircraft swap that led to charges of corruption and bribery, prison sentences, and lawsuits that are still on going today. These involved the Orion P3s and A model C130s. Both aircraft have had problems with wings cracking. One P3 has been lost, due to pilot error, and two C130s, probably due to wing failure.The problem is with the culture in general. USFS is as much as fault as the contractors. I’ve flown air tankers for 22 years. With your experience, I’m sure you are aware of what I’m talking about so I’ll shut up. …Jim BaughmannnnWilliam B. Scott of Aviation Week & Space Technology has a detailed and excellent report on the air tanker situation in this week’s issue of the magazine. You can read it on the magazine’s Web site at’m no expert in the field, just an alumnus of a ground-pounding hotshot crew grateful to these pilots from our vantage below. Occasionally an air tanker drop has saved crews on the ground directly. And, close to home here, a timely and early retardant drop on the Storm King Mountain fire near Glenwood Springs would have averted the deaths of 14 firefighters when that fire blew up. I can’t help but wonder how many times an early drop might have saved my life.So in my book, these pilots deserve everything we can do to make their work safer and to take care of the families of the 85 pilots who have died fighting fire since the federal government in 1976 began paying out death benefits for all the other firefighters who have been killed protecting us.I’d settle for something more than letting planes fly until their wings come apart in the air and the families of those brave pilots treated better than the utter disrespect they receive from the government.Not true firefighters? Are you kidding? None are truer than the pilots who accomplish so much from the sky.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at

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