Aero-Flite: 60 years of Doing the Right Thing

A history in aerial firefighting isn’t told through timelines of dates, drops, tanker types, and tail numbers. It’s told through its people – the dedicated teams who have invested their lives in protecting communities from wildfire, often at great personal sacrifice. For over 60 years, Aero-Flite’s people stood with each other, cemented together by the same goal and the same values, always prepared to do the right thing.

That right thing began in 1963 in Cody, Wyoming, where two brothers, Ray and John Elgin, operated Elgin Flying Service. The enthusiastic gentlemen both flew as tanker pilots, supporting the US government with fire suppression services starting in 1965, flying a B-17 which they had modified to increase overall power and payload, and innovative conversions achieved to improve wildfire response. Sadly, tragedy struck in 1970 and Ray Elgin, along with his co-pilot John Bastian, perished when the tanker struck some trees in strong winds after a drop on a fire west of Crowheart, Wyoming.  “John took over the company in 1971 and flew just one tanker after that, tanker 160, a DC-4. When I was a young fledgling tanker pilot, John Elgin was like a god. He had such a reputation for honesty” shares Mike Lynn, who served as Safety Officer, Director of Flight Operations, and Technical Director of Training at Aero-Flite from 2013 to 2023. From the start, Aero-Flite was a family-owned business, driven by duty, bound by integrity, and rooted in loyalty and respect.  “In 1986 Matt Ziomeck, who was – and still is – my best friend, and his wife Judy, bought the company, moving its location from Cody to Kingman, Arizona. Together they took the reputation Aero-Flite had established and made it even better.”

Matt and Judy grew the business, purchasing three more DC-4s. By 2001, the company had expanded further, operating and maintaining Minnesota’s two 215s. “My favorite memory at Aero-Flite was my interview with Matt, sitting in the cargo hold of a DC-4, on two 5-gallon buckets” remembers Mark Giovanardi, Director of Materials at Aero-Flite who joined the team in 2001. “When I came to work for Matt, we were friends. Our kids grew up together. He had been a customer of mine in previous lives working in heavy equipment at railroads and automotive. It was a fantastic career move. I am blessed to work with the team at Aero-Flite.” Parts for the 215 at that time went from really cheap to really expensive rather quickly, and Mark’s role was to source and negotiate, making sure Aero-Flite had what was needed to ensure the airtankers were ready to respond. “It was a big learning curve. But at Aero-Flite, with the team that’s here, every day we accomplish something that feels insurmountable.”

Shortly after, Aero-Flite purchased three of their own 215s to add to the fleet, recognizing the value and impact of the super scooper. In 2010 Matt teamed up with Conair Aerial Firefighting in Canada, first as a partnership and later, in 2012 as a full sale. “I was in Fairbanks visiting our DC-6 crew based there and Matt was there at the same time, helping crew a pair of Aero-Flite’s CL215s” shares Rick Pedersen, who at the time was Senior Vice President at Conair and later became President of Aero-Flite in 2014. “Matt had placed the first deposit with Bombardier on the 2nd generation CL215T conversion kit which Conair was anxious to obtain to provide conversions on the Alberta government-owned fleet of CL215s.  We had never met before and I called him up to meet for a coffee and introduce ourselves.  We discovered we had lots of common interests and connections and decided that a follow-up meeting in Kingman was in order.”

The bond took hold and the two companies began by forming a Joint Venture Partnership to undertake the CL215T kit conversions figuring it would be a great way to collaborate and test the relationship.  “As it turned out, the conversion program had real serious challenges which took an unparalleled amount of energy, time, and resources to get through over a multi-year period” Rick continued.  “It was during this period that we knew Aero-Flite and Conair could work well together. Despite the unprecedented hurdles we found ways to positively move forward as a team.”

This relationship evolved into an expanded partnership and eventual acquisition, bringing the two organizations together corporately while providing for the operational independence that Aero-Flite possesses today.

In 2014, Aero-Flite sold their 215s to purchase four 415 scoopers, the largest fleet of privately owned super scoopers in the world at the time, earning that title for nearly a decade. “We took delivery of the first CL415 in November of 2013.  The aircraft stopped in Abbotsford at Conair’s hangars to receive needed avionic upgrades including sat phone and loads monitoring, before going to Spokane” shares Rick.

Around the same time period, Conair had been developing its RJ85 large airtanker, with its first test flight taking place in 2013. The RJ85 is a derivative of the original Bae-146 but with improved engines, converted by Conair into an air tanker with a 3,000-gallon tank. Conair built the first three RJ85 air tankers for Aero-Flite, with Aero-Flite deploying the first RJ85, Tail 160, for its inaugural fire season in 2014, now entering its tenth year of operation.

In 2014 Aero-Flite was growing and needed more space. The company moved from Kingman to Spokane, Washington, into a hangar originally constructed in the mid-1940s, leased to the Air National Guard for 50 years. Spokane in the Pacific Northwest was selected because of the additional hangar space and the availability of highly trained and qualified mechanics and technicians, who maintain the fleet each winter, making sure all aircraft are wheels-up ready by early spring.

By 2017 Aero-Flite was operating seven RJ85s in the US, in addition to the four CL415s. Together with the one RJ85 in British Columbia, the RJ85 fleet flew over 206,000 miles in 2017, making 2200 drops of retardant totaling over 5,177,772 gallons of suppressant. “There’s not too many people in the world that do what we do. When you can help save a home, save a life, help save natural resources, timber, and so forth, that makes doing this job so worth it” shares Mike Lynn. “I’ve thought about this quite often. You don’t often get a chance to hear from people whose lives you have touched. People don’t know where we are, or where our bases are. But I can remember an older lady found us, came to the base, and wanted to know what airplane had saved her house. She had baked probably two dozen chocolate chip cookies and she came up to me and gave me the cookies and started crying. I get choked up thinking about it. She thanked me profusely about how I had saved her house. And just that one moment, that one time, has made my whole career so worth it.”

Today Aero-Flite is looking to expand again, adding to their fleet the new Dash 8-400AT airtanker. Two of these tankers are currently on contract with Washington State and more are expected to join the company in 2024. “There is lots of growth coming at a steady rate to keep providing the level of service Aero-Flite is known for and our customers expect” shares Mark. “Back in Minnesota 215 days I would take pictures of the maintenance we were doing because I thought it was interesting. Matt asked what I was doing and he said we should share them with the state of Minnesota showing them the airplanes don’t just come here and get washed and waxed and go back to work. A lot of people didn’t know what the in-between was, and how much work goes into not only the maintenance but also the parts, to keep the birds going. I like to emphasize the importance of the role my team plays. Without parts, mechanics don’t have parts to fix airplanes and pilots don’t have an airplane to fly. My favorite analogy is you wouldn’t have a fireworks show without the guy on the ground building the fireworks first. Everybody’s role here, whether it be from finance to the pilots, are all very important to keep this place rolling. We couldn’t do our jobs without each other.”

“Aero-Flite is an American company…flourishing, one of the top companies out there” shares Mike. “When I retired, after a career as a tanker pilot and USFS lead plane pilot, I joined Aero-Flite. There were 32 people. Now the company is over 175. It’s been a joy. The integrity of the people who work here is outstanding. The culture of integrity is manifested in who owns the company and the leadership who creates the atmosphere. Our honesty and integrity are as strong as it could be. And that is reflected in our contracts with the USFS and our states. They know what they are getting. They are getting a company that does the right thing. And does it good.”

“It’s a big, big family,” says Mike. “We take care of one another.”

Chris Niemann is the current General Manager of Aero-Flite. “I’m relatively new to the organization, starting in 2021. But I’ve had a lot of great memories even though it’s been a short period.  I remember walking through the hangar for the first time, even before I got the job, and immediately it felt like home” shares Chris. “I especially enjoy the times I’ve been able to work with folks one-on-one where you get a real opportunity to know people on a different level. Hands down it’s the people who make Aero-Flite what it is today. We work very hard to make sure everyone is taken care of. It’s a tough job and there is a real sense of shared vision in working towards our goals.”

“Every person in this organization believes in our core values,” shares Chris. “They believe in the industry and believe in our mission. We do what’s right when it’s not easy. For me, Aero-Flite is unique because I can take care of people, whether through our mission or individual team members. I’m thankful for the small part I play in our success. I hope we will continue to be leaders in the industry. We’re going to continue to innovate in training, tactics, and equipment. I think we will set the standards for how the industry operates for years to come.”

When asked one word that would sum it up, Mike answers steadfastly “Honor.”

AerialFire Staff
AerialFire Staff
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