The pilots in the SEATs |

The pilots in the SEATs

Chelsea Self
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
David McAnally and Lukas Johnson stand near an Air Tractor 802 Single Engine Air Tanker at the Rifle Garfield County Airport SEAT base.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

When the Grizzly Creek Fire erupted in Glenwood Canyon on the relatively normal afternoon of Aug. 10, Glenwood residents were stopped in their tracks as the intimidating plume of smoke quickly grew in the sky and loomed to the east.

Rafters floating on the Colorado River helplessly watched on as the blaze tore up the side of the canyon walls, engulfing what so many know and love.

Longtime No Name resident Greg Jueng was home with his wife when the fire started and remembers seeing the smoke billowing not far from his house.

“The day it started coming over the ridge towards No Name Creek and going west, that was pretty scary because at that point it was only a quarter mile away,” Jueng said. “The air resources helped so much.”

“I almost want to kiss the ground they walk on because I know that it’s a hard job … and to just thank them for their availability and ability to come from far away to be able to help as needed.”

David McAnally

While most people in their teenage years look forward to gaining the independence of a driver’s license, David McAnally was focused on flying. He received his pilot’s license at the age of 18 in New South Wales, Australia, where he was born and raised.

“All of my family was involved in aviation. My grandma was a pilot; she was one of the first female pilots in our area that had a license,” McAnally said. “When my mother was growing up, she was always getting hustled into an airplane when she was a kid with her Barbie dolls and things like that.”

McAnally grew up around aviation and agriculture. Some of his earliest memories are of his mother marking fields for agriculture pilots before the use of GPS devices.

“I was always interested in agriculture and flying. I just felt like that is what I was drawn to,” he said.

After graduating from the Royal Newcastle Aero Club, most of his fellow classmates went on to work for commercial airlines, and he was one of the only pilots who went into agriculture.

“I was quite fortunate that I had a company that was willing to take me on board and a boss that was willing to train me right from the start,” McAnally said. “I stayed with that company for 20 years.”

Fires in Australia

During a particularly dry season in 2003, the aircraft McAnally was flying was needed to fight fires. As the pilot, he went with his plane.

“I never really looked at going into the fires, it was just sort of the hand I was dealt because there was no other work,” he said. “The camaraderie, the good mentors … I really enjoyed it. Ever since then, that is what I do for my summers.”

CO Fire Aviation Inc.

Around the same time McAnally started fighting fires he began flying with Chris Doyle in Australia, who is now one of the co-owners of CO Fire Aviation.

Doyle later went on to collaborate with Kyle Scott in the United States and the two started the CO Fire Aviation Inc. based out of Fort Morgan in 2014. The Garfield County Airport in Rifle became a Single Engine Air Tanker base in 2016.

McAnally started flying for CO Fire Aviation in 2018 and spends the summer months in Australia fighting fires and then spends the winters (United States summers) in Colorado doing the same.

He admits that being away from family and home for three to four months of the year is undeniably difficult.

“I have a wife and three young kids at home. … They are back in sports now and want to share their victories. You get photos and videos but it pulls at the heart strings when you are on the other side of the world,” McAnally said.

“It’s kind of a tough one. You do want to fly because you want to go out and work but you also don’t want to fly because that means that there is a fire and something is at risk,” he said.

Lukas Johnson

Lukas Johnson is a native Montanan who also knew at a young age he wanted to be a pilot, though he never imagined he would be flying an air tanker.

“It was always kind of a goal to be a pilot — in high school I thought it would be a good career path. I never dreamt I would be flying tankers or crop-dusting airplanes, but I wanted to fly,” Johnson said.

He attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, and graduated with the intent of working for a commercial airline. At the time, however, the industry wasn’t hiring due to a surplus of pilots.

After a few years of flight instructing, Johnson landed a full-time gig crop dusting in Nebraska after attending Ag. Flight Inc. in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 2009 and did that until 2017.

Johnson’s employer in Nebraska introduced him to CO Fire Aviation.

“Because I’ve cropped dusted with the same airplane that we use to fight fires, it kind of gave me a shoe-in,” Johnson said. “Having time in an 802 (Air Tractor AT-802) was a critical path to get here.”

Ready for a change, Johnson asked his employer to throw his name in the mix for the chance to fly a tanker in Colorado.

CO Fire Aviation

Johnson started flying for CO Fire in 2018 and spends most of his summers in Rifle.

The pilots are contracted to be in the state flying for various lengths each year depending on the contract type. Exclusive use contract lengths have a set length of 90 days while other contracts are based on pilot need and fire danger assessments.

“Some of it is situational but we do have pre-determined contracts,” Johnson said.

The pilots can only fly a maximum of 8 hours a day and 42 hours a week before they are required to take a day off. They are on call during the day when not flying and must remain at the airport ready to fly on a moment’s notice.

“Our fatigue really isn’t based on how much we are flying but it’s how long we sit,” Johnson said. “We are sloppier if we have been sitting for a long time.”

Grizzly Creek Fire

Johnson and McAnally were both working the Pine Gulch Fire on the day the Grizzly Creek Fire erupted in Glenwood Canyon. Their mission was quickly redirected to begin initial attack on the Grizzly Creek Fire.

“We were actually getting photos (of the Grizzly Creek Fire) sent to us as we were flying,” McAnally said. “The photos started as just a little puff and it just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

During August, the two pilots flew all but three days between the Grizzly Creek and Pine Gulch fires.

“They call them campaign fires, these long-lasting incidences and the past two years we have never been right in the middle of two campaign fires,” Johnson said. “It seemed like if one didn’t call us, the other one did.”

Barb Huffman is a CO Fire crew chief as well as part of the ground support crew that helps to refuel and reload the planes for the pilots, giving them the quick turnaround during busy days.

“That’s what these planes specialize in, is initial strike,” she said. “We can get them loaded and ready to fly in a short amount of time.”

The pilots have an immense amount of experience and skill set and must have not only a lot of hours but the skills to fly in low altitudes, Huffman said.

“It’s amazing what they do, really.”

McAnally and Johnson thoroughly enjoy their jobs and don’t see themselves doing anything different anytime soon.

“We don’t relish in the fact that we are going out and fighting fires and taking advantage of other people’s misfortunes, but someone has to be there to respond,” Johnson said. “We are pleased to see that no homes or lives were lost. It’s been a good summer so far in Colorado, all things considered.”