CHICO, Calif. -- They're among the last of the barnstormers, the plane jockeys who fly World War II-era bombers through blinding smoke and wrenching turbulence to dump retardant chemicals on wildfires.
They grew out of that tradition, piloting planes until they broke and often beyond, sometimes working and sleeping in crude quarters for months at a time so long as there were fires to be fought.
"You fly this big airplane down into these little canyons and think, 'What the hell are we doing here?'," said Dean Talley, who has flown airtankers for 24 years.
Pilots such as Talley spent a record number of hours in the air last summer, as fires scorched miles of matchstick-dry forest across the West. After decades of fire suppression, there's enough fuel built up to keep them flying for many summers to come.
But after two airtankers disintegrated in mid-air this summer, killing their crews, critics say it's time the nation's aerial firefighting fleet be treated more like commercial airliners and less like chewing-gum-and-baling-wire cropdusters.
"Simply put, the lives of the men and women who fly these aircraft are in constant jeopardy, and so are the lives and property of the people they are supposed to protect," said U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.
He called the federal government's lack of safety standards and short-funding of the private contractors who provide the planes and pilots "appalling" and "intolerable."
Jim Lyons, who directed the Forest Service as assistant agriculture secretary for natural resources during the Clinton administration, talks of altering the fire culture.
In commercial airliners, "if two coffee makers went out at the same time, that was a major problem," said Walt Darran, safety committee chairman for the Associated Airtanker Pilots and the California Fire Pilots Association, who has flown both tankers and commercial aircraft.
But airtanker crashes have been considered "just part of the job," Darran said. "Everybody likes to minimize the losses, but part of it's (a lack of) money and part of it's a lack of appropriate standards."
Jim Hall, the former National Transportation Safety Board chairman who co-chaired a special committee reviewing the summer's crashes, said it's time for the government to end "a double standard when it comes to safety."
That standard dates to the industry's beginnings following World War II, when surplus warplanes were plentiful. Ex-military pilots came in with a combat mentality, an attitude that in many ways survives to this day. Companies began on a shoestring and often collapsed just as quickly.
"Planes were cheap," said Talley, whose father crewed bombers in the war. "If you lost an airplane, you just pulled another one out of the stack."
Harold "Buzz" Schaffer flew five years for Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc. of Greybull, Wyo., until this spring.
"When I took off I figured as long as the airplane was going to hold together and I had a power plant to push it through the air, I was a happy man," said Schaffer.
Both planes that crashed this summer belonged to Hawkins & Powers, as did since-grounded C-119s that lost wings in 1987 and 1979. A plane that crashed under similar circumstances in 1994 previously belonged to the company.
Hawkins & Powers co-owner Duane Powers and U.S. Forest Service safety officer Barb Hall said much has changed already as companies use better technology to inspect and maintain its aging airtanker fleets.
"Back in the early years there were a lot of accidents, but over the last 10 years or so the record has really improved," said Barb Hall, who was called upon to defend the Forest Service's contracting system after this summer's crashes.
"It's almost like having a black sheep in your family," said Powers. "If you look at the industry 20, 30 years ago, the industry's entirely different today."
Bill Waldman refused to fly the C-119s after the company he worked for -- now-defunct Hemet Valley Flying Service -- had one break apart in mid-air in 1981.
"I have a lot of memories of the C-119 -- all bad," he said. "After the second one, I said, 'Guys, after the third one goes down, that'll end the program.'
"When you're just flying along and the wing comes off, there's not a damn thing you can do about it," he said. "They're hard to fly when the wings come off."
But Waldman was also among airtanker pilots who said the industry is much improved as the worst companies have been weeded out.
Talley, too, survived several near misses with a series of slipshod, now failed aerial firefighting contractors that in hindsight "probably epitomized what's wrong with this industry."
One company lost two of the 19 planes it contracted to fly and maintain for the state of California one summer -- but collected $200,000 in insurance it had taken out on the two dead pilots.
"As bad as everyone portrays it (today), that's where we came from," Talley said.
Talley flew gliders as a boy, soloed at age 14, and flew Coast Guard search and rescue missions out of Miami.
He turned down an airline job to fly crop-dusters for $3.50 an hour, until he signed up with Aero Union Corp. as a co-pilot in the summer of 1978. He left a year later rather than haul fish around Alaska for "$500 a month and all the salmon you could eat."
He went back to Aero Union in 1989, where he now has benefits like health insurance and 401(k) plans that "were just wishes and hopes 20 years ago."
Talley and Waldman were among airtanker pilots, industry experts and a government inspector who held Aero Union out as an example of a company that has been able to maintain high standards while competing for government low bids.
Company officials worry the government is about to reject the use of perfectly servicable aircraft just because they're old. Court records show Aero Union spent $3 million to modify each old military plane it obtained from the government, and the company says the planes have since been regularly inspected and upgraded.
But the pendulum seems to have swung, if the federal government heeds this month's report from its expert panel.
"What began as an innovative program in the 1950s...now needs improvement," concluded the heads of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
U.S. Forest Service Fire Director Jerry Williams suggested the government might have to build new airtankers from scratch, at up to $20 million apiece.
It seems you go from one extreme to the other, from 'Let's do something with nothing' to 'Let's build a new airplane"' said Talley.
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