Associated Aerial Firefighters – Support and Funding Dwindles

    By Dave Wardall
    The day before I lost my friend Ted Bell, we both ended up at Redding Air Attack Base that night after a full day of fighting the fire. Ted was a relatively new S-2 Airtanker Pilot and I was a DC-6 Co-Pilot. During the winter months, we worked in the hanger together at Sis-Q Flying Service and since his wife had recently left him, we had dinner together at least a couple of times a week at his house with his wonderful daughter, Liz, cooking for us. That night we had dinner at the famous Jacks Steak House in Redding that all the pilots went to. We had a few drinks too. Not enough to get drunk but I have always wondered later if I had kept him up too late causing him to be too fatigued for duty the next morning.
    I wondered this because when I came into the base the next morning Ted was racked out on a couch in the ready room. He didn’t look too chipper and he joked about how I had kept him up too late the night before. It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that he got a dispatch back to his base in Ukiah. I remember the date well because it was July, Friday the 13th. I saw him off that morning and we joked about the old seat pack parachute that I had given him after he expressed his desire to have one. We didn’t even know if it would open because it was a military surplus and hadn’t been repacked for many years. Ted took off and I didn’t think much more about it. Red Barner, my Captain, and I took off a short time later and fought the fire for the rest of the morning.
    When we landed back at Redding, I was busy fueling and oiling the DC-6B, Tanker 46, when one of the other pilots came out to the ramp and hollered at me. I stopped what I was doing and hollered back at him; “what’s wrong”? “Ted Bell was just killed in a tanker crash in the Mill Creek drainage, four miles east of Ukiah”. I had briefly known other tanker pilots who were killed in the line of duty like the Navy instructor pilot Bill Sears but this was the first time I had lost such a close friend. That was the first time that I felt it. That hollow, nauseous feeling like just before you’re going to throw up only worse. I wondered again if too much partying the night before could have played a role but then I thought, we were back at the motel before midnight and we only had a couple of beers, maybe 3 or 4, but I guess I will always wonder.
    After I had finished servicing the DC-6, I went into the line shack to find out what had happened. Doug Baker and Ted had been dispatched out of Ukiah to a fast-moving fire, east of Clear Lake. What happened next was a series of bizarre events. One of the crews had a hose line break and were losing their flank of the fire. That caused a sense of urgency that was relayed back to the tanker base and in turn to the pilots. A crew bus, in-route to the fire had a rollover accident causing injuries to some of the inmates and resulted in the loss of a whole hand crew at the fire. A Firefighter was burned to death as the fire overran him. And the fire, now called “the Friday the 13th fire” was known to be set by an arsonist because he had drawn a happy face in the dust on the road at the fire’s origin.
    I can only surmise that the sense of urgency that Ted must have felt because of all the dire reports from the fire prompted him to try a short cut. The Mill Creek drainage is a steep, deep gorge that offers an inviting pass to get to the other side of the Cow Mountain range. Doug Baker who had flown out of Ukiah all of his life knew exactly when you could fly up Mill Creek and when you couldn’t. Because of Ted’s limited experience, he had counseled Ted about the dangers and recommended that he not take it at all. After hearing about the accident and how it transpired, I felt that Ted tried his hardest to get back to the fire as fast as he could to help the Firefighters who were in a bad situation. Observers stated that he entered the canyon at too low an altitude and that a strong wind was blowing down the canyon. He struggled up the canyon and probably, not wanting to admit failure, did not drop his load to improve performance. He impacted only about 150 feet below the canyon rim. Had he dropped the load he might have made it. I couldn’t have felt more terrible. For the first time, I had lost a dear friend in a tanker crash.
    Tanker Pilot Ed Reel, a former Air Force Fighter Pilot and one of our very best tanker pilots, made a comment shortly after Ted’s crash that still resonates with me to this day;
    “We have yet to lose our last friend fighting a fire in air tankers”. How right he was. By the end of that fire season, we had also lost Ed on a fire down by Paso Robles marking a fire season where we had lost one of our most junior tanker pilots at the beginning of fire season and our most seasoned veteran at the end.
    To complicate matters further Ted’s new wife was pregnant and due to deliver one week after Ted’s death. She was left high and dry with no income and no insurance policy to help her. This was the same situation Sherry Sears, the mother of three children, found herself in when her husband Bill, our first S-2 casualty, was lost on a firefighting mission. After suffering many severe hardships Sherry got her nursing degree and raised her wonderful kids. Her son Joe became a Marine Fighter Pilot who did an airshow performance in an F-18 at the air show at Sonoma County Airport where his father had worked as one of the first S-2 tanker pilots many years before. His brother Andy was a Marine C-130 pilot and daughter Karin was one of the team members that traveled to Washington DC to fight for the Public Safety Officer Death Benefits Act to include Aerial Firefighters. Sherry, an incredibly strong lady deserved a lot more help from the aerial firefighting community than what she got, which was nothing.
    The day Ted died was the day that the Airtanker Pilot’s Memorial Fund was started although it wasn’t called that. CDF Fire Captain Ron Thomas, a good friend of Ted’s had always participated in different charities to get donations for the children’s burn foundation and kids who needed dialysis. The list goes on and on. He immediately started a trust fund for the new baby, Ted Junior. Ron and Captain Jim Kernohan at the Sonoma Base collected donations and sold T-shirts, hats, pens, and anything else humanly possible to generate money. After the immediate needs were met Ron dedicated the proceeds of his sales to a college fund for little Ted. In a few short years, Ron had a significant amount of money in the trust. It was during this time some of us began grumbling about the fact that contract pilots still had no benefits and no life insurance.
    Doug Baker, Chief Wardall, and a host of others began to explore what options might be available to us. “The Public Safety Officer’s Death Benefits Act” provided a safety net for the Families of Firefighters lost in the line of duty. Aerial Firefighters were not government employees so it didn’t apply to us. One day we had Kentfield Fire Engineer Bill, Tiki, Morris up to the Sonoma Air Attack base for lunch. Ron and Bill had heard us talking about the terrible situation that we were in. Ron and Tiki decided that day that they would enjoin their efforts to build a Memorial Fund for the families of contract pilots killed in the line of duty.
    Tiki had already had a golf tournament to benefit a burn center for children. He made a proposal; “There is no reason we can’t enlarge the golf tournament to include the families of pilots lost in the line of duty.” Tiki also had a couple of secret weapons. He had the Firefighters at the Marin County Fire Department who were volunteers who set up and ran the golf tournament. Tiki was also a master at soliciting donations from local merchants and he worked on it tirelessly all year long as did our Firefighters. I never knew how much work it took to put on a golf tournament. The golf tournament committee made herculean efforts, working all year long to put on this annual event. The only work done by the tanker pilots, including me, was getting the beer the French bread, and the oysters for a barbeque. We either cooked oysters or played golf. We even had a Retired Division Chief cooking oysters for several years in a row. At our last tournament, we cooked and served over 1200 oysters.
    At first, our Memorial Fund only contained a couple of thousand dollars. Then a pilot would get killed and we would donate the entire amount to the family. It seemed that we could never get more than a couple of thousand dollars in the fund until the next accident brought it down to zero. Then, a couple of very significant events occurred that changed the Airtanker Pilot’s Memorial Fund from that time on. First, a retired San Anselmo Police Officer and famous tavern owner, frequented by every Firefighter and Police Officer in Marin County, Mr. Hal Mattucci, took over the Memorial Fund. He worked hard at getting donations and began trying to invest some of the money in the fund into CDs to try to grow the account. It was a good idea but we very quickly realized that the money in the account had to be very fluid when my old Chief Pilot, Gary Nagel was killed on a fast-moving, wind-driven fire just east of Hemet.
    That brought the account back to zero once again so we gave up on the idea of CDs soon thereafter. The second and critically important event occurred when tanker pilot Bob Valette enlisted the aid of Mrs. Gabby Newhart as our bookkeeper. This wonderful lady went above and beyond the call of duty managing the account. She got us a legal nonprofit status for the Memorial Fund and when a pilot was killed in the line of duty regardless of the type of aircraft flown or their membership status with the AAP, she assembled the board of the ATPMF to make a determination on the amount of the donation to the victim’s family. She got the money out as soon as possible with a handwritten letter expressing her sadness for the loss of a loved one and conveyed the love of all brother and sister Firefighters for their family. Gabby never charged the AAP for any of these services saying;
    “I only charge you guys when my pencil is on the paper doing the bookkeeping”.
    The biggest change came when we experienced the catastrophic midair collision at the Bus Mcgall fire where we lost two airplanes and two air tanker pilots. Then the donations came pouring in and amounted to many thousands of dollars. It didn’t stay in the account very long because all of the money donated was earmarked for the families that suffered the loss of these two wonderful men. It was also then that we realized that some of our most important members were not pilots but concerned citizens. Mr. Bob Fish, computer genius, entrepreneur, and curator of the Hornet aircraft carrier museum had recently experienced a wildfire in his neighborhood. He saw a headlight coming through the smoke. He then witnessed a well-placed retardant drop as an S-2 air tanker came through the thick smoke near his home.
    He became interested in our air program and after doing some research he discovered the very dire situation we were in regarding death benefits to protect our families. Bob is a very generous and very private person. He made significant donations to our memorial fund but did not want any recognition for this monogamous act. If he reads this blurb, he will probably still be pissed at me for mentioning it. But it is because of people like Bob and the Firefighters of the Marin County Fire Department who worked so hard to make our annual Air Tanker Pilot’s Memorial Fund such a success that we were finally able to make more significant donations to help the stricken families.
    Captain Ron Thomas, the widows and family members of pilots lost in the line of duty and Chief Dave Wardall began traveling to Washington DC to lobby for contract aerial firefighters to be covered by the Public Safety Officer’s Death Benefits Act. They soon had Representative Barbra Cuban helping to represent our cause. After several trips to DC, their efforts were recognized by a Federal Judge and we were hopeful that this problem would be solved. But then another Federal Judge made a counter-argument that if contract firefighters were to qualify for PSOB benefits that every contract worker, working in war zones would be qualified for PSOB as well. The end result was that it never got off the ground.
    What it did accomplish was to illuminate the problem for everyone to see. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, always at the cutting edge of progress for the agency and for aerial firefighting, made it a requirement in their contract as a request for proposal that an insurance policy carried by the company for the pilots would be equal or better than the benefits paid by the PSOB. That provided great relief for State pilots but it didn’t address the issues for all the pilots working on contracts for other agencies.
    I am not up to date on what death benefits are available for contract pilots working for other companies. Our modest donations were never meant to replace real death benefits but to deliver a formulated amount as fast as humanly possible to help cover the immediate needs whenever a wage earner suddenly dies. The end result arising from the many tragedies that occurred this year have drawn down our Memorial Fund account substantially. Donations are now badly needed in order to replenish it.
    Over the last twenty years, significant events have greatly reduced the interest of pilots in the Associated Aerial Firefighters formally known as the Associated Airtanker Pilots. First, there was the near demise of the entire air tanker industry brought on by new policies in the US Forest Service resulting from several tanker crashes. That all but dismantled the commercial air tanker industry. Many pilots and crew members suddenly found themselves out of work. That in turn caused a dramatic loss of members for the AAF. The second big event was the unionization of the State pilots and the formation of another association; the California Fire Pilots. Those efforts were necessary and improved CALFIRE’s air program greatly but many pilots couldn’t justify or participate in the AAF requiring yet another meeting and more dues after a busy fire season.
    The great Tanker Pilot/Airline Pilot Walt Darrin and I were still on the AAF board and discussed the possibility that we might shut down the Associated Aerial Firefighters because of a lack of interest. I immediately remembered the reason that we could not do it at that time; “What about all the money we still have in the Memorial Fund.” “Can’t we donate the money to the California Fire Pilots”? “I don’t think so. I’ll have to get the answer from Gabby, she set up the nonprofit status for the memorial fund”.
    Gabby tried her best to explain what the situation was.“The Memorial Fund is a 501 C3 nonprofit. The Associated Aerial Fire Fighters is a 501 C4. and it is the granter organization for the Memorial Fund. If we close the doors of the AAF the money in the memorial fund must go to another 501 C3 so all the remaining money in the account will be lost”.
    That was the situation we found ourselves in. Then I had an idea. I told Walt; “We have to keep the organization open to preserve the memorial fund monies. If it is only you and I that show up at the Reno meeting and we are still having fun we have to keep it going”. Without a pause Walt responded; “I’ll drink to that”.“I thought that you would”. And that was the basis for keeping the AAF afloat at that time.
    Dave Wardall and Dean Talley were our aces in the hole. Dave always a great member and as time went on, he became our Board Chairman relieving Dean Talley of the job. He took on more and more of the responsibilities for the conduct of the annual meeting. He began to get us the greatest presenters and guest speakers for the annual meeting that we have ever seen. He worked on it tirelessly all year long but that produced meetings with participation from many of the new industry companies who all provided a representative to give updates on their equipment and their training. His guest speakers included an NTSB investigator discussing issues like wide-area fatigue damage, aging aircraft, and the conduct of accident investigations. We had a Marine Colonel who was a Command Pilot on the space shuttle.
    He gave a magnificent presentation entitled; “Cockpit Leadership Management” which was a new concept for all of us. We had high ranking officers from the Air Force C-130 community and the jet engine designer who designed the engines on the BAC 146 and the Chinook Helicopter discussing the best operating procedures for air tanker operations. We had a yearly presentation and updates from the representative, Ron Railey, of ICL, Phoscheck to talk about new developments and discuss the status of some litigation efforts to outlaw fire retardant as a violation of the endangered species act. Somehow Dave outdid himself every year. He took a great initiative to contact industry companies and recruit many of them as members of the AAF.
    Dean one of our most important board members took on the job of investigating government programs and edicts and gave the organization a credible voice with his outstanding ability to write letters to the powers that were interrogating officials and expressing our concerns. His last great effort was to investigate and expose the weaknesses in the program that the US Forest Service came up with to operate their own C-130s as tankers.
    After Walt Darin died, I got together with our board members including Dean Talley and Dave Wardall and I made the same speech that I had delivered to Walt. Let’s keep the AAF afloat as long as we are still having fun and we are making positive contributions to the air programs and the industry and so we continued on. A few years later Dean Talley suddenly died leaving Dave, the remaining board members, and I to contemplate the future of the AAF.
    Dave has continued his efforts above and beyond the call to reinvigorate the AAF and he has achieved great success in generating interest among industry and agency people. What we have failed to do is to inflame the passions of the young pilots in our industry and I believe that I understand why. They don’t remember the terrible conditions and the toxic culture of the bad old days and they don’t envision them ever returning. We have lost our institutional memory. Having a credible voice and a platform represented by all stakeholders is still essential. Being able to address whatever issues arise concerning the aerial firefighting industry is one of the best ways we can ensure that aerial firefighting industry companies remain healthy and vital.
    Today, of the list of one hundred members in the AAF only about fifty have paid dues in the last two years. We do have some great board members who represent our companies that supply air attack ships and we have good representation from our large and very large air tanker companies. We are still lacking representation from our SEAT, single-engine tanker companies, and from our firefighting helicopter community. Better efforts to recruit members of these communities would be a vital contribution to our membership.
    So, for now, we will carry on. We had to cancel our annual meeting in Reno because of COVID 19 in addition to dwindling funds in the AAF. We will continue to make donations from our Memorial Fund in accordance with our formula until the money runs out or we manage to get some more. I will continue to help as long as I am able and I know that our Chairman Dave, our board, and our membership will do everything possible to make the AAF a continued success. May God Bless and Protect our wonderful and courageous Firefighters.
    To donate to the AAF, please visit
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