SONOMA, Calif. — In the worst cases, the haze and the smoke cloud visibility, the heat warps the air and the wind blows everything every which way. You know going in it's going to be bad, and you hope your 40-year-old surplus-part plane hangs together and there's not a mountain hidden inside the smoke.
This wasn't a worst case.
"I've never seen anything like it. I've been doing this 26 years and never saw anything like it," said Bob Valette, who was flying Tanker 86. "I was setting up for the drop, my eighth drop of the day. Getting ready to go down. Lars was supposed to follow, so he was right next to me. I looked over at him once, and he was right where he was supposed to be. I'm on the downwind leg, opposite the drop. I'm flying in perfectly clear, smooth air. It's just a ho-hum run. No bumps, no smoke. I look out, and there's Larry coming right at him, right at Lars. That's when I went horrified."
Air tankers 87 and 92, piloted by Larry Groff and Lars Stratte, collided above a grass fire in southern Mendocino County on Monday. Both men died.
The air tanker community is a tiny fraternity of veteran pilots. There are fewer than 100 of them nationwide. Almost all are men, many of them combat veterans. They don't need to be reminded it is dangerous work.
In such a small group, every death strikes a chord that rumbles through the small world they inhabit. There's been a lot of rumbling. From 1958 through last week, 146 tanker pilots, helicopter pilots and crew had been killed fighting fires. Groff and Stratte were Nos. 147 and 148. Friday, when a helicopter crashed on a routine flight at a wildfire in Montana, Nos. 149, 150 and 151 were added to the list, making it one of the deadliest weeks ever for pilots.
Everybody in the business at one time or another does the math, some more often than others, said Bob Wofford, chairman of the national Associated Airtanker Pilots. After running the numbers, most pilots make one additional calculation, he said. "We all think it's not going to happen to us."
Last week's crashes make that answer harder to believe, occurring as both did during mundane operations, presumably as far from danger as you can get in this business. Monday's crash just northwest of Hopland remains inexplicable even, or especially, to those who witnessed it.
"A freak," Valette called it. "I've seen four pilots die previously. Personally, I've seen 'em die. In those cases, every one, they pushed the limit, tried to do too much. I'm going down next, where the danger is, and I watched 'em. This didn't have any of that. This was like going to lunch someplace."
Flying any sort of aircraft involves an assertion of control over tons of wire, rubber and metal. Maintaining that control is the essence of flight safety. Fighting wildfires with planes requires the deliberate sacrifice of some of that control.
"Operating an airplane, you're always trying to preserve your safety envelope," Wofford said. "Operating an air tanker, you're pushing it to the edge of the envelope all the time. You're going low and slow. It's hot. You're near max gross weight on the aircraft. You want to go as slow as possible, not too far above stall speed."
Fire pilots typically work five to six months of the year. Most work under contract to private companies that in turn contract with state and federal agencies. Pay varies by company, but most pilots receive a basic standby pay of $1,000 to $1,500 per week, plus per diem pay for food and lodging. Pilots are additionally paid as much as $100 per hour of flight time.
They are usually assigned for the duration of a fire season to one of dozens of what are called Air Attack bases scattered around fire country in the West. They work six-day weeks. A short day is 10 hours. Most of that time is spent like most time at most firehouses: Pilots sit around waiting for a call.
Once it comes, they're up and in the air in minutes. Unlike most states, California keeps its fleet of fire tankers loaded with retardant even while parked on the ground. Other states and the federal government prefer not to add the additional stress to the aging airframes of the planes they use. Most air tankers are surplus military planes, bought at auction and retrofitted with tanks to carry the retardant.
Many of the airplanes--including those involved in Monday's accident--were manufactured in the 1950s for use in the Korean War. A handful are an additional 10 years older--older in many cases than the pilots. "If you see those go up in the air, you think World War II," said Chuck Abshear, an assistant chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The largest of the planes can carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, the smallest a third that amount. The retardant itself is a basic phosphate fertilizer, colored with an iron oxide to make it easier to see and mixed with water into a watery sludge. It is dumped through computer-controlled hatches that are able to vary the pace of the drop.