They torpedoed enemy ships during World War II. Now they fight fire.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 4 of 8)
The second and third tankers are directed to drop retardant along the fire’s flanks to pinch it off. The third tanker is flown by Bob Blanchard, a temporary pilot who is working his first fire. He hits his target. “Not bad for the first time out,” observes MacDorman.
Steeves asks the tankers to refill with foam. In a few minutes they are back again to make drops directly on what’s left of the fire. By the time we head back to Miramichi, the blaze has been doused. Only strings of white smoke drift up from the blackened patch of woods. MacDorman radios to the ground crews, “It’s all yours now.”
The fire season in New Brunswick starts around the first of May and ends in mid-September. Pilots contract to work only during that time, during which they earn a base salary plus pay for the hours they fly. Flying time ranges from 60 to 100 hours for the season, depending on fire conditions. “They’ll make the money and then they’ll all quit flying through the winter,” says chief pilot Eric Bradley. “Most of them will stay at home and do other things they want to do.”
Pilots based at Miramichi have no scheduled days off during the season. Seven days a week, they gather in the operations headquarters building about noon. After meeting in the conference room, where they read the weather forecast and fire hazard reports, they wander into the lounge or out to the flightline to check their aircraft. Most of the time they wait, talking shop. The all-clear usually sounds about 6 p.m.
The pilots are Canadian; most are from New Brunswick. All are middle-aged. Conversations are in English, often tinged by the inflections of Acadian French or the throatier accents of the Québécois. Their collective flying experience is impressive—none is military, but they have logged thousands of hours of low-altitude, single-engine time as instructors, bush pilots, cropdusters, tanker jockeys, and charter pilots.
“This is blue-collar flying,” says Bradley. “Some people look down on it but we love it. You get your hands dirty. There’s no epaulets, there’s no white shirt and tie. These pilots actually work. I think the guys who do this, they’re more type-A personalities. They get bored easily. They need that constant stimulation of takeoff and landing. They think of themselves as stick-and-rudder pilots.”
Bradley himself is a former member of a championship Canadian skydiving team, with more than 3,000 jumps. Twenty years ago he gave up a job as a biology teacher and turned to cropdusting. “My father was a private pilot and had a Tiger Moth,” he says. “I was weaned on that. I have it in my blood.”
Offered a ride in an Avenger, I accept happily. Tanker 23 has had the rear crew seat reinstalled, and it is the only TBM that can carry a passenger. The pilot is John Gomany, a young-looking 60-year-old grandfather from Alberta. He hands me his business card: “Commercial Pilot. Fire Bombing. Spraying. Bush. Charter. Advanced Flying Instruction. Test Pilot. Fly Anything Anywhere. Single and Multi-Engine. Wheels. Skis. Floats.” Gomany has flown 55 types of aircraft and logged more than 10,000 hours. He has been working for FPL for 25 years and has over 1,500 hours in the Avenger.