arguing with a fire pilot is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud: after a while you begin to think the pig likes it.
The following is what I presented at Don Ornbaum's Memorial at Columbia Tanker Base. I thought I would share for your website. I worked at the Fresno Tanker Base from 1966 to 1984 prior to becoming one of "THOSE DISPATCHERS," but my heart is still with the airtanker pilots and the program.
Have a good one!
HIPPY MIKE WALSH
Sierra National Forest
I met Don Ornbaum in June 1968, when he was first based at the Fresno Airtanker Base, but I had heard of his reputation prior to our meeting. Something about him cold-cocking some old lady while riding a cable car in San Francisco, or beating up a gas boy at the Columbia Airtanker Base, and even him beating up loaders at different bases. Needless to say, I was a little nervous about our first meeting. In 1968, I was just a loader at the Fresno Tanker Base and sure enough, that first week, we did have our first of many differences of opinion. But for some reason, there was never any blood spilled -- and I was very happy about that. And in June of 1970, I became the USFS's Air Base Manager, which meant that now Don had to answer (in a way) to me for his actions -- which really made me nervous!
In June of 1968, Don flew a B-17 (Tanker 78) for TBM Inc. on the USFS contract, and he continued to fly that airplane through the 1976 fire season. In 1975, they renumbered his B-17 to Tanker 68. At the beginning of the 1977 season, TBM Inc. lost the USFS contract at the Fresno Tanker Base.
On May 23, 1979, Don returned to the Fresno Tanker Base, now flying a DC-7 (Tanker 60), and in June 1980 he received Tanker 61 (another DC-7) and flew that ship into the 1985 fire season. In November 1984, I left the Fresno Tanker Base and went on to become one of THOSE DISPATCHERS that Don LOVED so much!
During the 13 years that Don flew out of Fresno, he went thru 11 co-pilots: Guy Zindel (1968), Bob Forbes (1969-1971), Potter (1972), Frank Blaha (1973), Dave Bleasdell (1974), Davis (1975-1976), Joe Andreas (1979), Bonde (1980-1 month), Mannix (1980-2 months), McDonald (1980-3 month), Chuck Sheridan (1981-1985 or maybe longer). Some would say that Don was very hard on his co-pilots, but some of them went on to become damn good tanker pilots (Bob Forbes, Joe Andreas, Chuck Sheridan).
In November 1974, both Don and I were assigned to the Paso Robles Tanker Base; this only lasted a couple of weeks. On the last day of the contract, I was going to drive over, and Don and Dave Bleasdell (co-pilot) were going to be flown over by Kenny Stubbs. Don and Kenny talked me into flying over with them instead of driving, so we all got into the airplane at Fresno and headed toward Paso. While we were over downtown Fresno, Kenny said to me, "You got it!" to which I quickly responded, "No I don't!" At this point in our flight, Don, Kenny, and Dave realized that the only non-pilot was sitting in the right seat. The back seat drivers were very glad when we landed at Paso. On our return trip, Don flew next to Kenny and me, which gave me a chance to take one of my favorite photos of Tanker 78 over the coast range.
In November 1978, just before Thanksgiving, I sent Don to Fox Field Tanker Base to help out on multiple fires that were going at the time. While checking into the motel, I ran into Carl Kennedy. I invited Carl to the bar for a cold one, and then asked about Don. He was already in his room, so I called him and persuaded him to join Carl and me for a cold one. For the next couple of hours, Don, Carl, and I -- with a few more tanker pilots -- sat there and got blitzed. After I left, the story goes that Don and Carl had a discussion on "Respecting Your Elders." Don and Carl decided to go outside and finish their discussion. Once outside, they each took shots at each other, then went back inside until the bar closed. The next day, one of them had a nose twice its normal size and the other had a cut over his eye.
In my opinion, Don Ornbaum was the roughest and toughest of all tanker pilots. Someone tagged him as the John Wayne of the Tanker Pilots, and I can attest that the name fits Don Ornbaum; he was the very finest Professional Aerial Firefighter to ever fly an airtanker. But as rough and tough as he was, Don had another side to him -- he had a big heart for his family and friends. If you were to ask for the shirt off his back, he would gladly give it to you.
I would like to leave you with one last thought ... when you see someone wearing the Fresno Tanker Base t·shirt or belt buckle, that B-17 (Tanker 68) was Don Ornbaum's B-17 and that was one of the main reasons I chose that airplane for the original design.
~ HIPPY MIKE WALSH