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Air Tanker Pilots Downplay Danger : Ramona-Based Unit Battles Worst Fire Season in Years

Times Staff Writer

The air tanker pilots at the Ramona Air Attack Base insist that their jobs are not dangerous.

In fact, most say their dare-devil sweeps as low as 100 feet over blazing brush and canyon fires are “no more dangerous than driving a truck.”

The only two accidents on record in the base’s 28-year history occurred before the air tankers even left the ground, said Darrell C. Campbell, air ranger for the California Department of Forestry.

“There was the time a pilot’s ground gear collapsed during takeoff, and the time a tanker’s hatch doors opened prematurely, sending 800 gallons of bright red fire retardant out onto the runway,” Campbell said.

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In both cases, the pilots escaped unharmed.

“It’s a record that we are proud of,” Campbell said.

However, CDF officials confirmed Sunday that they have grounded a pilot in connection with an incident Saturday in which five ground firefighters were injured and several fire engines damaged in an airdrop by the CDF pilot.

They refused to identify the pilot, saying they were still investigating the case. Three CDF firefighters were bruised and one San Marcos firefighter may have broken a rib when the pilot apparently dumped fire retardant from a low altitude, sending rocks and debris flying, firefighters said.

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CDF officials said they would make an announcement in the case today.

This year’s fire season--the worst in six years--promises to keep the tanker pilots busier than usual going into the fire season’s peak this month.

San Diego County already has experienced more fires during the first eight months of this year than during all of last year.

And according to Campbell, San Diego hasn’t seen anything yet.

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September and October are traditionally the peak of the county’s fire season. But this year’s season could stretch into December because of an unusually long stretch of hot and dry weather in June and July, said Doug Allen, a CDF fire prevention officer.

“If we don’t see fall rains immediately on the heels of the Santa Ana winds in October, we’re in for a catastrophic season,” Allen said.

That ominous possibility keeps the four-member, Ramona-based squadron poised to go when fire erupts in the county.

The squadron makes an average of 18 to 20 sweeps over a typical San Diego County brush fire, carving a path through billowing smoke to drop as much as 20 tons of fire retardant.

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At times, the pilots fly ahead of the fire. But in most cases the pilots dive directly into the path of smoke and flames, unloading their liquid cargo on either side of the fire’s path.

The sticky chemical retardant, called Firetrol, coats the ground’s brush and outgrowth, making it difficult for the fire to spread and suffocating the existing blaze.

“It’s no different than crop dusting or irrigating a field,” said John Norman, a 25-year veteran at the Ramona air base.

“The only difference is that the ground is on fire,” Norman said.

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The accident Saturday occurred during an 80-acre brush fire in San Marcos. According to firefighters, retardant landed on two San Marcos fire engines and one Vista fire engine, causing extensive damage, including smashed windows and windshields and crushed doors.

There was no official explanation Sunday for the accident, which firefighters said was unusual. But one San Marcos fire official suggested the pilot dumped the retardant from an unusually low altitude. He said the low drop may have been a mistake, or the pilot might have believed it was unavoidable.

The official, Capt. Clay Howe, said loaded planes are extraordinarily heavy, carrying 2,000 gallons of retardant weighing 12 pounds a gallon. When working in a confined space, a pilot might find it necessary to drop early to maintain mobility.

“The pilot was doing an excellent job of keeping the fire off the houses,” Howe said, referring to the homes on Meadowlark Ranch Road that were endangered. “But he was having to do very tight drops.”

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John Norman, who has been flying air tankers since 1961, has spent most of his time on the ground fighting boredom instead of brush fires.

Norman admits that tanker pilots’ thresholds for boredom must surpass their thresholds for danger.

The pilots, who work seven days a week from roughly 10 a.m. to just before sundown, spend most of the day in the air-conditioned sitting room inside the Base’s only building--a 50-foot Quonset hut.

Some pilots read voraciously. Others play cards or watch movies on the base’s new video recorder unit. Chris Cagle, an 11-year veteran, spends countless hours strumming on the mandolin he keeps in the cockpit of his plane.

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Cagle said he would like to convince his fellow pilots to form a band. “If practice makes perfect, then we would be as close to perfect as you could get,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we have more time on our hands than we know what to do with,” he added.


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