Air Tanker Pilot

By Marie Ramos

It’s not just cross wind landings anymore,” Lynn Mc Grew, first female air tanker pilot for the California Department of Forestry (CDF), tells us. “It’s getting in over the fire and maneuvering the airplane to drop the retardant exactly where they need it. Then extending the drop out as far as you can to block the fire. It takes a lot of practice to do it safely. Going down into canyons to 150 ft. AGL, all the while reading the winds, is pretty exciting.”

Flying since 1972, Lynn has over 23,000  hours and ratings from CFII, MELII, to ATP.

airtanker1.gifAs a mother with two young children, she  started flying at age 26 in Madison Wisconsin. The first time she was in an airplane was a DC 10 out of Chicago. On the return flight from California Lynn told her husband she wanted an introductory flight. Years later, he said. “I took you out to the airport and introduced you to flying and you never quit.”

A fast learner, Lynn started training the end of September 1972, got her license in December and went right into aerobatics. “I went through aerobatics because I wanted to know just what I could do with the aircraft,” Lynn relates. After that she decided she might as well get her commercial rating. She went on to get additional ratings and became Assistant Chief Flight Instructor for Arizona Frontier Aviation in Tucson, Arizona, teaching aerobatics.

Lynn enjoyed sharing her love of flight with students. In 1978 she was named Arizona Instructor of the Year. In career guidance classes she would bring a parachute and a movie about aerobatics that a student put together and talk about aerobatics. The kids loved it. The little girls didn’t know that all these strange professions were available to them. “They have no idea that anything they want to try and do they should go for.” Lynn believes that girls need to be made conscious of what they have to do to achieve and excel. Then they would be able to say, “Hey I’m good, give me a chance.”  

Lynn soon got her chance when she was asked to work for Cochise Airlines. At the time they didn’t have any women pilots, and a friend told them it would be a good PR move if they hired a woman. Lynn says, “When they offered me the job it was as First Officer with $400 a month salary.” Lynn enjoyed her current teaching and together with pulling charter work made fairly decent money at Arizona Frontier. So, she really had to consider this decision. They also didn’t say how much she would be flying, and if she wasn’t flying she could end up as dispatch at the hanger. Making her choice, Lynn hired on and quickly moved up to Captain in 1974 making $600 a month. She worked steadily with different commuter airlines in Arizona and California for the next 20 years. “I got into the Air Attack because there was no more future in commuters for me. I miss the passengers and the comradery with the gate agents and the flight attendants, but this is a totally different ball game with a different goal,” Lynn tells us, “It’s a very worthwhile thing that I’m doing. I felt that I really wanted to try and see if I could do as good a job or better job than some people.”

When Lynn started with CDF she initially put one year in the Skymaster, the O2. Then she quickly shifted to the OV10, the Bronco, flying as a spotter or Air Attack Pilot with the Air Tactical Group Supervisor. This supervisor coordinates with the Fire Captain on the ground. “Often,” Lynn states, “these guys don’t like flying but they have to be there to coordinate the air and ground operations. They take a course so they can take off and land, sort of like the pinch hitter course, but basically, that’s it. So, you can’t scare the daylights out of them.”

As pilots fly the air attack portion of the operation they get a good idea of what the fire fighters and tanker pilots are trying to accomplish between the air and ground resources. “You feel like you are a part of the group, all working together fighting the fire.”

Even with all those flying hours, Lynn still had to prove herself. “One of the guys thought I would take risks that I needn’t be taking, thinking that I would try to do something that the guys know better not to try. But the thing is, you have to have a healthy respect for you and the equipment and where you are going and what you are doing.”

She flew for two seasons with a pilot who inspired her. He said, “You fly such a good airplane.” “That’s really, really neat to hear from someone who values what you do,” Lynn says. “It boosts your confidence. I think it makes it a lot easier for you to gain the confidence of other pilots if you’re a confident pilot yourself. You do everything to the best of your ability and people who see you will generally be able to tell what you’re about. If they have confidence in your flying ability the other tanker pilots recommend that you get into the tanker. Then it’s a matter of going ahead and getting a shot at it”… and she did.

As an Air Tanker Pilot based in Grass Valley, CA at the Nevada County Airport, Lynn flies a Grumman S2T. In the 1960s, the S2T was part of the Navy’s carrier based aircraft. Out of service since the 1970s, it has been refurbished with longer wing tips, new turbo prop engines to replace the old radials and now holds 1200 gallons of fire retardant. This S2T is a single pilot operation with an average speed of 250K. The tanker pilots can reach a fire within about 20 minutes of takeoff. The pilots control the number of gallons dropped exactly where they want it. Aerial firefighting is a precise business. When you are dropping the retardant you stay outside the fire line and drop around the perimeter. When you do the drop you slow the airspeed to 110-120K, otherwise it can cause damage to the flaps. You set it up like an approach to landing. The pilots must keep cool and controlled in ‘hot’ conditions.

When the pilot is helping to fight the fire, in addition to flying the airplane, there is much to think about. For example, firefighters know that on typical free-burning fires the spread is uneven, with the main spread moving with the wind or upslope. The most rapidly moving portion is designated the head of the fire, the adjoining portions of the perimeter at right angles to the head are known as the flanks, and the slowest moving portions known as the base. Going down ravines they may end up with-nothing. It’s a void. Suddenly there’s no wind. The tanker pilots must be constantly on the alert for these shifting wind conditions. “Sometimes you do a dry run to see how the wind is affecting you,” says Lynn. The pilots have cutoffs as to how much cross wind and gusty conditions to tolerate because not only do they have a wind problem because of the terrain, but they also get a lot of strange drafting because of the fire. “It’s exciting when you can get in. The guys I’ve been training with have been absolutely fantastic and even if we haven’t had a specific scenario getting in and getting out of a ravine you always leave yourself a way out just like you would in life or if you were driving down a street.” They rarely fly after sunset and they don’t drop retardant after dark because of safety and wind restrictions.

If, while flying to a known fire, an Air Tanker Pilot spots another fire they call it in to the coordinator and ask, “Are you doing a burn off.” If the coordinator says “no,” the pilot reports it and if agreed, the pilot checks the area. This is called an “Initial Attack.” Pilots like to do this because they can get in and get the fire under control quickly. The pilot circles the fire to see if there are any trucks or personnel getting into that area. If it’s clear, they go ahead and drop the red retardant on it initially or box it in.

“The airplane is so versatile we can draw lines and block the fire and put a perimeter around it so it slows it down until somebody can get there.”

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In February every year, if the CDF is happy with the performance the previous year, they invite the pilot to partake of ground school and training. These pilots are civilians and work on contract each year. Predicated on the training and the check ride is how the pilots are hired and used for the current fire season. You need an ATP rating and at least 1500 hours to initially qualify for the position. Then it’s a matter of flying the airplane, taking the ground course and proving that you can do the job. There is an extensive review each year prior to the fire season to keep the pilot’s skills current. “We do all kinds of maneuver to get in over the fire,” Lynn says. Her extensive aerobatic training helps her with the unusual flying conditions of her current job. 

How does Lynn occupy herself in between fire seasons? She keeps her flying skills current by taking a job cloud seeding in a Piper Aztec with Atmospheric, Inc. That too can be tricky flying. There are times when Lynn does enjoy being on the ground. In her off time she and a friend plant and harvest for their Christmas Tree Farm. Working with nature this way keeps her steady. She also enjoys the occasional quiet time and visits from her kids.

What advice does she have for other women who want to do the type of job Lynn does? “I don’t think anybody should ask for things to be given to them. I think you have to earn them as far as respect and your ability. I’ve seen a lot of people get jobs simply by manipulation and I think that’s wrong. Down the line that makes it harder on the women who can do the job.” She would rather have another pilot say,”I want to fly with her because she knows what she’s doing.” Lynn’s philosophy of flying is “You never have to do anything.” She believes that whether it’s in icing conditions, weather, an aircraft you don’t like because you just don’t trust it or something isn’t right when you do the runup, you don’t have to fly that plane that day. “I just don’t like to compromise myself. I guess maybe that’s the bottom line for me.”

About the Author

Chicago, Illinois

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