Air Tanker Pilots Meet in Reno - KTVN Channel 2 - Reno Tahoe News Weather, Video -

Air Tanker Pilots Meet in Reno

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They do some of the most dangerous work to save our land and property. They are brave pilots who year after year take to the skies against imposing odds. Marshall Graves was one of them. As he told us, being an air tanker pilot "Is very similar to what I did in the Navy. You know, that kind of mission-driven work. With us, it's like a war in the summer. It's very much like how the Marine Corps does business."

And like a war, it's dangerous work. Crashes happen almost every year. Like most everyone at the Associated Aerial Firefighters organization meeting at the Eldorado, Chris Holm has had his share of close calls. But he has people to save…Chris was once a firefighter on the ground. Now he fights fires from the cockpit, doing what he could to protect the firemen on the ground: "I've got empathy for those guys who are carrying 150-pound packs on a 110 degree day and hiking into a fire."

They stay on the ground in winter, planning for the next fire season. And why does this national organization come to Reno every year? It's because the enjoy the city, and Reno is also considered the geographical center of Western wildfire fighting. Former pilot Walt Darran told us pilots are here from all the western fire-fighting hubs: "Boise, Missoula Montana...some are from southern California...San Diego..."

Walt retired once but couldn't keep away. He just retired for good, but misses the work. "You get a tremendous amount of satisfaction...you know what your target is, you go down, you hit it. You've got instant feedback in most cases."

Current air tanker pilot Mike Venable, based in California, seconds that: "You know, there's weeks that go by where you have sheer boredom. And then there's the days that come where you save a life, or you save some houses and you make a difference in somebody's life. So that's the reward."

But there is serious business…worries over the now-skimpy air tanker fleet after the U.S. Forest Service grounded some very old planes. Their fleet used to number over 40…now it's down to 9. Piloting aging warplanes over wildfires is just as hazardous as it sounds. Pilots are killed, raising questions about whether they should be using newer planes.

Chris Holm pilots a BA-146, one of the new generation air tankers…a jet aircraft with 4 engines. He told us the new jet planes are more effective in fighting wildfires. The TRE fire from last May at Topaz Ranch is a good example. Chris was able to fly from Boise to fight that fire…dispatched from a distance to respond.

They the pilots we spoke with have high hopes, that the numbers of air tankers will return to their former strength…and that this wet winter won't set us up for a fire fuel-rich summer later.

-written by John Potter

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