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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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Bombing the blazes 
out of the blazes

Tanker pilots put it where it counts

"The wings (of the C119) kept falling off." Literally "departing the plane." óGordon Koenig, tanker pilot

Express Staff Writer

Gordon Koenig may or may not have been playing his guitar while he was on standby for Neptune Aviation in Missoula on Wednesday.

But there is no doubt he had a purple guitar pick with him ó his good luck piece.

At 11:30 that morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker and ordered the crew to load his Lockheed P2V with 11 tons of retardant and for Koenig, 51, and his copilot Paul Yedinak, 49, to take off within 15 minutes.

Pilot Gordon Koenig dive bombs the Warm Springs Canyon ridge with a load of fire retardant during last weekís wild fire. Express photo by Willy Cook

At the same time, someone was rushing a "resource order" to Koenig that would tell him where he was going and who he would need to call on the radio once in range of the fire.

As stirring as that sounds, Koenig downplayed the call to action. "Itís not that dramatic," he said.

He also downplayed the danger in his work with a matter-of-fact manner to his answers during an interview on Friday while he was on standby in Missoula.

He said that during the 1990s, the seasonal average of fatal crashes of air tankers was one in 40.

"There were 40 air tankers in service during the 1990s, and we were losing one air crew a year."

Gordon Koenig 

In the 12 years heís been flying tankers to battle wildfires, Koenig has lost 14 friends to tanker crashes.

But then again, he had his lucky guitar pick with him, which he also downplayed as something heís had for years.

"Itís something you latch onto. I just feel uncomfortable without it."

He had high praise for his airplane, a P2V-5 built in 1952, modified by adding tanks for retardant that empty through six bomb bay doors, which can be opened one at a time. His P2V can therefore make several drops, rationing the 2,350 gallons of retardant.

The plane is powered by two radial engines and two jet engines, but the jets are only used in takeoff and climbing.

The radial engines are the "most powerful made," he said, but since the plane, originally built to patrol shorelines for submarines, is "extremely heavy," the jets were put onto the P2V-5s as an afterthought.

Despite the age and weight of the plane, Koenig said, it is "built like a bridge, is extremely tough and has enormous power."

Given the choice of any plane to fly, he said the P2V-5 was his No. 1.

"I am very happy with it, knowing it wonít fall apart on me," he said. "And it climbs like a homesick angel."

Airplanes falling apart in flight is a real concern for tanker pilots.

"This kind of work is hard on airplanes," he said. "They take a beating each time they go out."

Koenig described the turbulence around a fire as if it were water that slammed the aircraft around instead of just air. But the air buffets tankers with sufficient force to blow an engine or the hydraulics, or to tear a plane apart.

One aircraft, the Fairchild C119 (the Flying Boxcar), is no longer used as a tanker, he said. "The wings kept falling off." Literally "departing the plane," as he put it.

He said the P2V-5 was built with an alloy no longer used. Newer planes that are used as tankers, like the Lockheed P3 Orion and the Lockheed Martin C130 Hercules, are more prone to metal corrosion and cracking in the wing spars because the alloy isnít as strong.

Koenig paid homage to the firefighters on the ground, saying, "We donít put fires out on our own. Weíre there for just a brief time - weíre there to support the ground troops on the line."

For everyoneís safety, an "aerial lead plane" flies low to a fire zone to see where the fire and the firefighters are. The pilot of that plane shows tanker pilots the way in and out of their target, alerting them to ground hazards, such as power lines, and controlling traffic with other planes and helicopters.

Knowing the entry and exit route over a target is especially important for flying through smoke, which, Koenig said, is like a thick fog. You canít see anything, he said, and you donít want to be surprised by a mountainside once youíre through.

Not at the 120 knots Koenig was flying on Wednesday. That speed is equivalent to 180 mph on the ground.

Dropping the retardant, a mixture of disodium phosphate (a fertilizer), water and iron oxide (for coloring), is the critical moment for a tanker.

"We want to put it where the guys need it," Koenig said. "We donít risk our necks to get it there to miss the target, so we fly low. The optimal altitude is 150 feet. Any higher, and itís difficult to predict where the retardant will go."

If he drops his entire load at once, his P2V-5 becomes 11 tons lighter in seconds giving the plane "tremendous lift."

"You levitate, almost, when you drop so many tons," he said.

The retardant, described as a sludge or mud, slams into the ground with enough force to kill or gravely injure firefighters if they should accidentally be underneath.

If a tanker is empty after a drop, the pilot is directed to an airport for refilling, and he goes through the routine of finding a safe way in and out of his drop zone again.

Or he may be directed to another fire.

Koenig said he has fought as many as 12 fires in one day, which, because of Federal Aviation Administration rules, cannot exceed 8 hours of flying time.

He said he couldnít estimate the average number of dispatches he gets in a season "since it varies so widely," but he remembers last year as his busiest.

He said he dropped 985,000 gallons of retardant. This translates into 402 times he bombed a fire. Without his log book in front of him he couldnít exactly say how many dispatches this equalled, but he guessed 150.

Basically, the number of dispatches equal the number of different fires a tanker is called to fight.

"I plead insanity," he joked. "But it is very interesting and challenging. We get to use a lot of skills most pilots donít."

He and Yedinak put in 6Ĺ hours on the Sage Fire, so when a dispatch came in for them to help battle a fire near Elko, they almost had to go test their chances one more time on Wednesday.

But night was falling, Koenig said, and FAA rules donít allow tankers to fight fires at night. So he and Yedinak went home, and by Friday he was once again on standby.

He and his purple guitar pick.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.