Patty Wagstaff’s Second Act

An airshow superstar adds firefighting to her repertoire.

Patty Wagstaff’s latest mission: use the discipline of aerobatics to combat the chaos of California wildfires (photo-composite). (Portrait: Robert Seale; Background: Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Dept.)
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When Patty Wagstaff rolls the OV-10A Bronco into a smooth right turn to look at the white smoke below her, she is not above a runway. There are no cheering spectators, no crowd lines, and no ribbon cutting poles. Instead, there are tall trees, rocky hills, and flames. Often, she and her backseater, an air tactical group supervisor, who acts as an air controller, are the first people at a wildfire. Wagstaff will circle well above so her air controller can take in the slope of the hills, the wind that drives the fire, the fuel source, the hazards, and the best path for tankers to swoop down and disperse their retardant chemicals. By the time the tankers, fire engines, bulldozers, helicopters, and ground crews begin to check in on her Bronco’s six radios, her group supervisor will have a plan for them all.

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Wagstaff, one of the aerobatic world’s most celebrated champions and a longtime star, still flies airshows, but not during the California fire season. From June through mid-October, she is now part of a team of aerial firefighters with CalFire (the shorthand name for the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). Like all of CalFire’s new pilots, she began her job in the Bronco. In addition to providing the aerial platform for the air controllers, she is learning to make her way around the world of smoke and fire.

Toward the end of last year’s fire season, I flew out to visit her several times. Now at a base in Santa Rosa, back then she was at the Grass Valley Air Attack base, about 50 miles northeast of Sacramento, which has the feeling of a summer camp. It’s located on an airpark on top of a hill, surrounded by tall trees with a wonderful long view to the west. The rocking chairs on the front porch overlook the base’s three red-and-white airplanes, the Bronco and two Grumman S2T Airtankers. On a quiet late afternoon, they sparkled in the sun like polished sculptures, and it was hard to imagine them as bedraggled workhorses returning from a big fire in need of a scrubbing. But when the quick-call buzzer sounds over the loudspeaker and the crews scramble into their flightsuits, it is thrilling to watch the Bronco dash out like a long-legged horse, followed by the two lumbering, heavily loaded tankers.

I met the people Wagstaff worked with six days a week: the firemen, the dispatchers, the mechanic, the tanker pilots, one U.S. Forest Service pilot, plus the Bronco and tanker relief pilots. They seem to get along like a family, which is partly luck, partly due to the screening process used by DynCorp International, the company that interviews, hires, and manages CalFire pilots. The screeners attempt to pick not only the most qualified fliers but also those with the temperament to endure the extreme rhythms of the job. During the peak of a fire season, the pilots may fly seven hours a day, six days a week, while at the end of the season they could be sitting around the base for days. They read, write, nap, talk, exercise, cook, eat, watch movies, sit on the porch, and hope for a fire call.

Wagstaff and I have been friends and fellow airshow pilots for a long time, and I have seen her at dozens of shows, either performing or poised to perform. In addition to flying, she signs autographs, gives talks, supervises her ground crew, and answers the demands of what seems like ten thousand people. So it was a refreshing contrast to hang out with her at Grass Valley, where she was happy and relaxed among co-workers who liked and admired her, but did not treat her like the aerobatic version of Wonder Woman. In fact, none of the people I met at Grass Valley had ever seen her perform.

"I knew her name and had seen pictures of her in magazines," said tanker relief pilot Charles Lees. "She’s all over the place. But last summer when I was scheduled for a training class, I asked who was in the class with me. They said ‘Patty Wagstaff,’ and I asked, ‘Who is Patty Wagstaff?’ thinking it was a nickname for some pilot who had flown inverted or something.…Then when I met her I expected her to be outgoing, the way she looks in her pictures, but she was very humble.

"Within a day, however, I realized she is also very driven and focused. She doesn’t just assume that she is going to jump in and be able to go do something. She wants to learn from everybody."

Grass Valley Battalion Commander Don Cockrum is one of two air tactical group supervisors who spent a lot of time in Wagstaff’s back seat, and he provided much of her on-the-job training. "I’ve got to hand it to Patty," he said; "she may be a diva in her old profession with many great accomplishments, but here she is the boot camp rookie. All that stuff doesn’t mean anything when you are new to this. But she is a good sport and quick to learn." And there is a lot to learn.

The air attack pilot’s job is to provide a stable platform for the group supervisor: She flies in a way that helps him see what he needs to see, especially the tankers approaching the fire and dropping retardant. Over her radio frequencies, she gets traffic clearances, and she broadcasts to nearby airports to warn other pilots to stay away from the area around the fire. She also listens to her ATGS’s radio conversations.

Cockrum and fire captain Kurt Chamberlain split the work week as Wagstaff’s group supervisors. "It was a steep learning curve for her," Chamberlain says. "We started out by explaining the parts of a fire to her: the flank, the heel, and the head. So pretty soon she understood our strategy of attack. Now she positions me where I can see what I need at all times. Being an ATGS is a multi-tasking job from hell, and she has got to monitor everything I do so she knows where to go and who is calling in on every one of our six radios while I am talking to someone else. After a while I was able to hand off a lot more to her. A lot of pilots just want to fly the airplane, but she’ll check tankers into the fire area for me when I am talking to guys on the ground, if I ask her to." Checking the tankers in means establishing radio contact with them, and giving them the orbit altitude they should reach, the number and altitudes of other airplanes at the scene, ingress and egress procedures to the closest reload base, and hazards in the area. Until they are checked in, the tankers have to stay seven miles from the fire, a strictly enforced rule for preventing mid-air collisions.

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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