Last September, while Grass Valley was quiet, a busted gas main in San Bruno, to the south, had started a raging fire. Wagstaff and tanker pilots Joseph "Hoser" Satrapa and Craig Hunt were looking at photos of it from the night before. One particularly dramatic photo was on television and in the newspapers: an Associated Press shot of Charles Lees dropping a red curtain of retardant into the roiling smoke and flames while flying a CalFire tanker past an airborne fireball.
This fire was a rare monster, and the firefighters talked about it on and off all day: how they had never been in that kind of heat before, how the air was so hot it scorched the paint on the tanker’s fuselage, how a tanker flying through the airborne fireball would have surely crashed. Then over the next few days, the talk turned to past fires. Satrapa recalled that during one, his front window was plastered with retardant slurry from another tanker. Worse, he was at 150 feet. "I climbed straight ahead to a good altitude, slowed to about 95 knots [110 mph], opened the upper hatch, cleared a four-inch space on the windscreen, and headed straight back to Grass Valley," he said.
They talked about how they flew other fires. When they talked about being in the smoke, thinking about a dozen different variables and making split-second decisions, I could see they felt the same heightened awareness that airshow pilots feel low to the ground on a difficult day. I understood how this, too, is Wagstaff’s kind of flying: the quick thinking, the need for exquisitely tuned maneuvering, the adrenaline-producing challenge of managing the risk factors that are always present, just as they are in airshow flying.
She learned to fly in the early 1980s, in Alaska: in extreme weather, near treacherous mountains and icy glaciers. Then she discovered aerobatics, and by 1984 Wagstaff was flying airshows and aerobatic competitions. She became consumed by the pursuit of precision, and rose quickly into the ranks of airshow superstars and world-class aerobatic competitors.
In 1990, then again in 1991 and 1992, she became the first woman to win the overall U.S. National Aerobatic Championship title. After 12 years of winning national and international contests and awards, she stopped competing. In 1994, she donated her Extra 260 to the Smithsonian Institution, which hung it—inverted—in the National Air and Space Museum. She continued performing in an Extra 300S and completed 25 years of full-time airshow flying.
"In 2001, I started thinking about other kinds of flying," she says, "and I had some interesting offers with the airlines, corporate and helicopter test flying. Airshows are pretty tenuous as far as sponsorships.… I realized I needed to think about my future a little bit. It is not like you can’t do airshows forever, because you can, but do you want to do them full-time forever? That’s when I first talked to Hoser and started thinking about fire flying." He told her that she would love the excitement, and the satisfaction of stopping a fire and saving somebody’s life and property.
In 2004 she was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, got other sponsorships, and volunteered every winter as an instructor to the pilots of Kenya Wildlife Service, an organization devoted to animal conservation. She also spent nine years flying a turbine-powered Raytheon T-6A Texan II as a demonstration pilot, and kept performing in her Extra 300S. But she continued to think about expanding her career into aerial firefighting. Last year, after learning as much as she could about the business, she sent in an application for a slot with CalFire.
She was experienced with turbine engines, mountain and bush flying, and low-level flying, and had an accident-free record, but she had been warned that it would be tough to get hired. In fact, everyone said that the hiring folks would not consider airshow flying a positive. CalFire had one pilot who had flown some West Coast airshows, ex-Marine Bob Finer, but it had never dealt with a full-time airshow pilot before. Jeff Cavarra, DynCorp’s program director for CalFire, was one of the team who interviewed Wagstaff; he says: "We told her, ‘There is zero aerobatics allowed and none of the crazy stuff that you do in the airshow.’ "
Wagstaff replied, "Wait a minute! Aerobatics is the most disciplined form of flying. I don’t do crazy stuff. My flying has to be especially disciplined in an airshow because I do some maneuvers that can hurt me if I am not disciplined."
Cavarra says, "That really impressed me, because we don’t ever deviate unless we have to, but you’ve got to be prepared for the unexpected."