Air tanker pilot deals with constant risk of death
Air tanker pilot Andy Brucker knew fighting fires was risky business but he still wasn’t prepared to see a good friend die in an airplane crash last week.
Brucker, 54, an Aspen High School graduate and a longtime Basalt resident, was flying his Douglas DC-4 just behind and above an air tanker piloted by friend Rick Schwartz when disaster struck July 18.
The left wing of Schwartz’s PB4Y-2 Privateer ripped away from the fuselage while he was preparing to release a load of retardant on the Big Elk fire near Rocky Mountain National Park.
The air tanker crashed, killing 39-year-old Schwartz and Milt Stollak, 56.
Brucker said he and Schwartz were coordinating their last run of the day. “What I was going to do was tie onto his retardant,” he said.
Brucker was positioned to watch where Schwartz’s load went, then he was going to drop his own 2,000 gallons of retardant right next to it. He looked away, and in that split second, the wing of the other air tanker started ripping away.
“There was something wrong with the symmetry of the airplane when I looked back,” he said. “I watched it further and couldn’t believe it – the wing was breaking right off.”
The accident is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. All air tankers were grounded for 48 hours after the accident. Tankers such as the one that crashed remain grounded.
Brucker predicted it will force some monumental changes in his business, though he doesn’t know what.
Although the tankers were flying 150 mph at 150 feet off the ground, Brucker said “this wasn’t a difficult drop.”
Crashes and the possibility of death come with the territory for the pilots and co-pilots of the 44 air tankers in service across the country for firefighting. The tankers are mostly World War II vintage airplanes, built to withstand the rigors of war.
Brucker said too much has been made of maintenance needs of Schwartz’s plane and other tankers. Like any plane in the air, they always are in need of maintenance, but it is routine maintenance, he stressed.
The problem experienced by the tankers may simply be age. “Two weeks ago I would have argued vehemently that’s not the case,” Brucker said. “Now I can’t say.”
His employer, Aero Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., ordered its three DC-4s back to headquarters for a thorough check after last week’s crash of the Privateer, which is owned and operated by a different company. Aero Flite wants to apply an ounce of prevention to avoid pounds of cure.
Brucker is on vacation and will remain off-duty until he feels ready to go back up in the air. He figures that will be about the same time his craft is deemed airworthy.
He said he has little reluctance about going back on duty. He compared it to NASCAR drivers returning to the track despite racing legend Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash.
“It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at. I’m an adrenaline junkie,” said Brucker.
“They all are. They’re crazy,” said his wife, Tina.
She said she had a feeling of dread on July 18 that something was going to happen. She warned Andy to be particularly careful but feared the worst when she heard a plane had crashed. She hightailed it back to the airport where the tankers were stationed and was overcome to see Brucker’s tanker 161 on the ground.
She’s nervous about his return to duty. For Brucker, there is no question that he must and will go back.
There will be no shortage of demand for his skills.
“I’ve already flown more this year than any year in the past,” said Brucker. His busiest year ever was last year when he logged 245 hours going to and returning from retardant drops. This year he has already put in 266 hours.
He has been on fires since mid-February.
He doesn’t see it letting up. Usually there are short stretches through the season called, in firefighter slang, a fire bust – when conditions are most conducive to conflagrations. This year the fire bust started May 22 and hasn’t let up across most of the West.
Brucker is frustrated by what he views as problems with the firefighting efforts.
First, he said, more money should be spent designing airplanes that can handle the slow speeds and heavy payloads required of tankers. Newer aircraft are needed to replace the aging fleet of 44 tankers.
Second, a change in strategy is needed. Air support is being relied on too heavily in firefighting, in part because of deaths of ground firefighters like the 14 at Storm King Mountain in 1994. Federal firefighting managers were too aggressive with ground forces, now they are too conservative with deployment, Brucker claimed.
“You need the infantry,” he said.
Third, the bureaucracy needs to be culled. Stockpiling and fighting among agencies for resources results in too many inefficiencies.
Brucker said an overhaul is needed soon because potential exists for a long drought. Traditionally, drought and wet patterns were on 20-year cycles. Now it’s been 54 years since the last drought cycle.
“All this malarkey about thinning the woods – it’s impossible,” said Brucker, noting that he has flown over most of the vast forests of the United States. “The problems of forest health are severe. I don’t know what the answers are.”
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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