What’s safe about planes flying apart?
The plane was an air tanker – what Coloradoans call a “slurry bomber” –a Korean-era CJ-119, if I recall correctly. The J was the designator for a jet engine mounted atop the body of the prop plane later, when they made jet engines I guess, to give it extra juice. That came in handy for powering out after a retardant drop and taking off with a little heavier load.
The air tanker, a twin-tailed boxy beast, ugly and ponderous as a desert tortoise, had been dispatched to an escaped campfire in the national forest about a three-hour drive from my station in backcountry Santa Barbara.
The copilot on that plane was a good friend. Ted Sveum had encouraged me to try firefighting five years before while a housemate who also had provided some well-timed perspective when things had soured with my live-in girlfriend. The girl moved on, but Ted and I remained friends.
All the pieces of his and the pilot’s bodies had been picked up and bagged just before my hotshot crew arrived a couple of hours before sunset. The fire that the plane had been sent to knock down and the bigger fire started by the crash were pretty much out. Great. A mop-up shift where a buddy died. Plenty of time to think. It was a long night.
I recall walking well out beyond the perimeter of the fire itself, just in case Ted was out there and the coroner had missed him, or a part of him. I guess that’s what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking much, other than a vague thought that maybe he was still alive somehow and I might find him.
Pretty irrational, really. Other than that I was cool, numb no doubt. Crewmates who knew Ted was a friend of mine kept an eye on me, I heard later. But all I did strange was go out into the green. And all I found were two blue feathers, like on the cover of Richard Bach’s “Illusions.” That was one of Ted’s favorite books, I learned at his memorial, with his family and closer friends than me quoting passages, along with the memorial pamphlet including a line or two from the story.
Bach, in case you don’t know, is a pilot himself, and is best known for his best-seller “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” I’ve since read “Illusions” a few times, seeing a side of a friend I hadn’t known before. Coincidentally, it’s one of my wife’s favorite books, too, and she’s given it to our son, who would like fly planes someday.
The air tanker had sheared a two-foot-thick pine and dug quite a crater at impact. All the windows had broken out, and although the plane itself was scorched, intact pieces of notebook paper from inside blew about the fire scene, unburnt, white on black.
Someone else found the wing tip, also unburnt and unbent. How the hell does that happen? Why are these old crates still flying?
This was in July 1981.
The same planes dropping red, snotty retardant on fires I fought, and sometimes on me, are still flying today. They were ancient then and I’m not sure what that makes them now, two decades older.
I’m told that planes in general are remarkably durable. As long as they are kept up, they can fly forever. It was just my friend and his pilot’s bad luck that whatever caused their wing to fly off hadn’t been caught during an inspection.
Air tanker pilots and their companies today still swear by the old workhorses – DCs, C-130s, PB4Ys, Grummans and I guess some of those World War II B-24s are still flying. Museum pieces all, and still making gun runs.
I have to admit feeling sickened at learning about the two air tanker crashes this season – one the result of a wing coming off while the plane dove for a retardant drop, the other this past week in Colorado that witnesses observed flying apart in the air.
Ted’s ship was a beater, no question. Dents, duct tape strategically applied, shiny metal where hands and boots had scuffed and gripped for generations. The plane wasn’t exactly airliner pretty. No need for that. It sure had character, and Ted loved it with a passion I could never summon for my firefighting tool, a customized pulaski we called a super-P – a “smart” tool for ground pounding, most akin to a pick-mattock.
We argued over who had the more dangerous job, each looking to the other from our vantages. He’d shake his head looking at the ground and what the hand crews went through on the line. We looked at the planes with pure awe at times, as they dove into canyons and wheeled out, sometimes saving crews below if they had gotten themselves into a tough spot.
One air tanker a season goes down on average. A handful of ground firefighters are killed each year, too, from accidents on the road, health afflictions like heart attacks and the hazards on the fire ground itself. On the line, flames are just one of the dangers – there also are the loose boulders, trees, slopes, bull dozers, chain saws, and we lost a crewmember for the bulk of a season after a friendly air tanker dropped its load too low and knocked him down a hillside. Make no mistake, this is dangerous work.
Speaking coldly, the cost-safety issue has been within reason with the old birds over the decades. And the contractors who run the vast bulk of the air tanker force aren’t in position to buy planes created specifically for the job, or apparently to invest in new planes at all. So they’ve made do, year after year.
They keep insisting the planes are safe. They said that after Ted’s damn wing flew off. They’re saying it now. I wasn’t buying it then, and certainly not now.
I might be thinking irrationally here. But I believe that I ought to be nursing a beer and shooting the breeze with my buddy instead of pondering an imagined message left behind with two blue feathers in the brush, where pieces of my friend came to rest because a plane was too old to hang together.
I can understand nicking trees, smacking a mountainside, hitting some nasty turbulence at low altitude in steep terrain – the chances you take flying fires. I just don’t get wings falling off supposedly safe planes.
I have the same question we had at dusk that July evening 21 years ago. How in the hell does that happen, again?
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at firstname.lastname@example.org