Dangerous Flying Jobs

Taking flying to its limits, all in a day’s work.

Air Force Test Center Flight Safety deputy chief Bill Koukourikos and Public Affairs specialist Laura Mowry approach their T-38.|

There is always an edge, a place where what we know, the very best of our machine and our skill do not match what might happen, a place where “a wing and a prayer” holds operational truth. Most of us avoid this edge with every bit of planning we have. But then there are those other guys, those guys who fly the crazy flights. They test the edge so the rest of us know where it is.

Air Force Test Pilot

Air Force Test Pilot and Retired Lt. Col. Bill Gray says the popular image of a test pilot and the reality are pretty far apart. “There was a time when test pilots really did have to take insane risks,” he says. “They had to jump in an airplane and just try stuff — be a daredevil. But that’s a very expensive way to do things. You tend to lose airplanes and you tend to lose pilots. Nowadays, here at Edwards [Air Force Base], we do a lot of apparently hazardous stuff but in a careful and thoughtful manner. We’re really about making what looks dangerous safe.”

All Air Force test pilots have an engineering or science background. “All our conversations are at an engineering level,” Gray continues. “We have to report back on our observations. Why does something not feel right? In the school, the pilots learn how to observe themselves as they fly so they can describe what they like or don’t like — and why.”

Very little of modern flight testing is wondering if the bird will fly. Computers design systems to meet new ideas. The testing happens to see how well the ideas meet the sky.

“It’s fair to say that every airplane — every private or commercial or military airplane — has gone through an extensive flight-test program,” Gray says. “The vast majority of that testing is not the sexy stuff. Sometimes we get to do the sexy stuff by doing the mundane stuff first.”

While the popular idea of a test pilot may be someone who gets into a machine straight out of science fiction, so fast and sharp and invisible that it’s still 20 years away from being announced to the public, the truth is that even the hot new rides are made up of new systems, and new systems get tested, part by part, one at a time.

The F-35A during early weapons testing.|

“Sometimes things just surprise the heck out of you,” Gray says. “For example, there was a new brake system on the F-117. I got to be the pilot testing the anti-skid system for the first time, at just 35 knots. So far, the program had been going good. I was going down the taxiway, with a chase car filming the whole thing, and when I stepped on the brakes it suddenly felt like the airplane was coming apart. I encountered a phenomenon called strut walking, when the gear struts swing back and forth at a very high rate. Sometimes things just go completely nuts and you need to keep your head on your shoulders. You need to deal.”

“It’s funny, but I don’t feel like I’ve had as many close calls here as I did operationally,” he says. “We take the care to avoid really bad surprises. In order to go to the edge of the envelope, you need to make sure you’re safe to get there. By the time you get there, it almost feels normal. We don’t like surprises in this business because surprises kill people.”


Few airplanes are as versatile, or recognizable, as the C-130 Hercules. It carries troops and supplies to every spot on the globe; it lands at the South Pole, and it supports the Blue Angels. In 1974, however, a wildfire at Vandenberg Air Force Base in San Luis Obispo, California, gave the Herc an unexpected new role. The fire was primarily on Department of Defense land and highlighted the need for the DOD to have its own fire-suppression capability. Very quickly thereafter, the U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Firefighting System was born. It takes between three and four hours to install or remove a MAFFS unit in a C-130. And once it’s installed, it does its job very well. Flying a tanker, however, is a tricky dance.

A C-310 makes a water drop over New Mexico during a training run.|

A MAFFS unit carries 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, discharged through a pneumatic pressure system. If all goes well, the airplane is 200 feet agl and doing about 140 knots after a drop. But the Hercules is descending and the pressure system creates thrust. The airplane wants to accelerate.

Only the most experienced airmen fly fire suppression. A typical crewmember has more than 3,500 hours. Major Richard Pantusa is a full-time Air Force reservist, based at the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the Air Force since 1999, he started flying C-130s in July 2001 and MAFFS in 2006.

“I remember my first drop,” Pantusa says. “It was the summer of 2008 and there was a fire on Mount Shasta, outside Sacramento. I remember helicopters, P2Vs, P3s, multiple MAFFSs, multiple air attacks, lead planes. It was all extremely well-­orchestrated but extremely congested. This was a big fire — 100,000 acres plus — and it was a real challenge to keep situational awareness. All I wanted was to make sure we got the retardant where it needed to be. But always the hair on the back of the neck was up. I kept wondering where the other airplanes were. It was the most crowded piece of airspace I’d ever been in.”

Mountain flying is not the most challenging environment for firefighting airplanes. If trouble happens, a pilot can turn away from a ridge and gain altitude simply by flying level as the ground falls away. Flatland flying is a completely different story. If you’re 150 feet above a range fire, there’s no way to gain energy if things get screwy. And there are lots of radio towers.

The flying is difficult, but the rewards are many. “Last summer,” Pantusa continues, “we were dispatched to a fire near Roswell, New Mexico, that was primarily in flat terrain. It was late afternoon, and the fire was very active. The lead plane described our objective as ‘structure protection.’ The wind was strong enough that the smoke was blowing over the fire’s head. The air below the smoke column was very hazy and hot. The lead plane flew the run and communicated our route and hazards precisely. When we got on the live run, the smoke column was thick and just outside our right wing. We got on line, assured of the terrain, and commenced the drop. As we were dropping, it became clear that we were dropping along the back fence of a house. The owner was outside spraying his home with a garden hose.

“Later that day, I had the chance to debrief with the lead plane pilot. It turns out that he had been looking for an opportunity to do that drop all afternoon, and the smoke was just too thick. Ours was the last possible opportunity before the home was to be consumed. The air cleared just right to allow us to get in, accomplish the drop and get out. Ten minutes later, that hole was gone. The home was saved, primarily due to our drop, as ground forces were unable to safely get to that part of the fire line. Those kinds of missions make me love this flying.”

Hurricane Hunters

There are always those people who do exactly what the rest of us are taught never to do. Somewhere near lesson one in early flight training we are told to stay away from thunderstorms, 20 miles or more. When weather gets bad, turn around or land. Never get caught.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Ragusa hasn’t avoided a storm for years. He is an instructor pilot for the Hurricane Hunters at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, with more than 8,000 hours of flight time. It’s a type of flying the rest of us would love to try — just once.

“For most guys,” Ragusa says, “this is a lifelong dream. We’ve hired helicopter pilots, B-52 pilots and F-15 pilots. For me, this is the closest unit to my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hurricanes are a part of our lives here.”

Ragusa says there are no special piloting skills for flying through a hurricane — just a cast-iron spleen and a mind that believes turbulence is normal. “Seriously,” he says, “the biggest thing is crew coordination. The pilots are flying the airplane, but the weather officer is directing the course and the nav officer is making sure we don’t fly through something like an embedded tornado. It really does take three people to fly the mission.”

And you need to be quick. When a weather officer says turn 20 degrees left, you’re already too late. Forget anything like a standard turn. The airplane needs to go slow enough to gather the weather data — 180 knots indicated is the desired storm penetration speed — and ride fast-changing and contradictory winds as well as up- and downdrafts. Forget the autopilots. Hurricane flying is hand-flying a large airplane.

A WC-130J collects atmospheric data for the National Hurricane Center in tropical storm weather.|

About 50 percent of Hurricane Hunter crews are made up of part-time Air Force reservists, and many of them fly for commercial airlines when they are not on duty. “We get a lot of applications from people leaving active duty,” Ragusa says.

Ragusa’s first hurricane flight was a night flight into a storm with a perfectly formed “stadium effect” eye wall and a very high, bright full moon. But it was not a particularly violent ride. In fact, there is no correlation between a hurricane’s category strength and the internal turbulence. “Category has absolutely nothing to do with the ride,” Ragusa says. “Katrina was not a bumpy storm. Once it’s fully developed and the thunderstorms are not building or dissipating, it’s just a high-wind event. Airliners fly through the jet stream all the time.”

“Hurricane Wilma was another strong storm and the fastest-growing,” he says. “The downdraft as they punched through the eye wall pushed them down to 1,500 feet radar altitude. They wanted 5,000 pressure altitude, which would have been 3,000 agl. That got the crew’s attention. One crewmember who flies both combat and weather has not flown a weather mission since.”

“You certainly gain a respect for the weather,” Ragusa says. “I tell people there are only 12 planes in the world that are allowed to fly through hurricanes. If you know your machine, and you know what the hazards are, then you can mitigate them. You can do something crazy like fly through a hurricane. None of this comes by chance. It comes by learning the machine and learning the mission and learning what the hazards are. You define your mission and your threats and you mitigate them.”

“Punching through a storm,” he says, “if there’s a big downdraft, is something you need to experience.”


We've all seen the helicopter go by. The name and bright artwork of some hospital is on the side, and, somewhere, someone is in trouble. They need an emergency room, fast. It’s a noble mission. Wherever that helicopter is going, the landing will likely be a first. The landing site is unprepared. The flying itself is urgent but fairly normal. The landing can get dangerous.

Tim Vreeman flies helicopters for the Sanford Health hospital in Fargo, North Dakota. He’s flown nine different types of helicopters — everything from a Hughes 269 to the CH47 Chinook, everywhere from Vietnam to Korea to Europe to the Gulf of Mexico and now the northern prairie. Most recently, he transitioned from the Bell 222 to the Eurocopter EC 145.

A typical call for Life Flight in his region is a farm injury or, in winter, a snowmobile accident. There are lots of cardiac calls as well. Sometimes the helicopter is called because the site is inaccessible to ground ambulances; sometimes the point is just to get the patient to the hospital really fast.

In Vietnam, Vreeman counted bullet holes after each flight. In Korea, and then again on Mount Rainier in Washington, he held the back end of a Chinook open on a steep cliff face while the front end hovered in the air. Once, over the Gulf, what first looked like a swarming school of fish turned out to be a waterspout forming under his helicopter. But little of that compares to flights on the northern prairie.

“Once,” he says, “we were on a scene flight at night, flying with night-vision goggles. We arrived at the scene, a cardiac patient, and the deputy sheriff, who acts as a landing zone commander, came over the radio and told us where the landing zone was in relation to the ground ambulance and other vehicles. He gave us information on obstacles and he mentioned that there were wires on the south side of the road. So we came in just as he directed. But he apparently never looked straight up. As we shot the approach, we suddenly saw there were wires right over his vehicle. Let’s just say we shot the approach a little shorter than planned.”

Vreeman has had dogs appear just before he touches down and small children crowd just after landing. He’s had patients (attended by flight paramedics and flight nurses) terrified to fly. But weather is the big issue. There are limited weather-­reporting facilities in his range, so the bird carries Nexrad and live radar, Stormscope and terrain avoidance. Landing in winter, he often has to hover to blow snow away from the landing zone.

Sanford Health flies approximately 3,500 flights each year, with roughly half flown by helicopters such as this EC 145.|

“Oh, the winds,” he says, laughing. “On the prairie, it’s winds and wind shear and frontal boundaries. Just yesterday, coming back from Wheaton, we had a roller coaster ride. On the way down, we flew through a frontal boundary. Coming back, we really didn’t know where that boundary was or when to expect it. When we hit it, the nose pitched up 20 degrees and then the autopilot dumped the nose over again. We’re cruising just 10 knots under VNE, so this is quite a ride.”

“The best training I had for this type of flying happened one day in Italy,” says Vreeman. “I was flying a Chinook and had to drop some equipment at a radio relay site. I touched down all four landing gear at the same time and discovered there just happened to be 12 inches of snow on solid ice. We literally slid up to the top of the hill and then started down the other side. I think I’m the only person to toboggan a Chinook full of troops and equipment down a mountain. Of course, I just yanked power and took off. But that was something special.”

Weather Modification

The Hurricane Hunters are not the only pilots who intentionally fly into heavy weather. All over the world, farmers want protection from the crop-shredding force of a storm. Hans Ahlness is vice president of operations at Weather Modification Inc., one of the world’s largest cloud-seeding endeavors. With clients in the United States, Saudi Arabia, west Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico and elsewhere, the company owns a fleet that includes 25 airplanes worldwide: Senecas and King Airs, Cessna 340s, one Piper Cheyenne II and a Lear 35.

“You fly so many thunderstorms,” Ahlness explains. “Every one is different, but they all have the same type of challenges — flying in severe weather, moderate to worse icing — and what’s the weather going to be when you get out of it. In thunderstorms, you have up- and downdrafts, changing visibility, stuff flying out of the clouds like hailstones that you don’t want. Your whole world is the rapidly changing weather around you. You always have to be thinking ahead of what your options are when something goes wrong. You can’t think if something goes wrong. You have to think when. You could be hit by lightning and your radios go off. You can have storms form in front of you, just where you planned your outlet. Because you don’t have a preset speed or power setting, you are constantly evaluating how much gas you have left.”

“Ice is a bigger problem than turbulence,” he continues. “That’s because ice is exactly what you’re looking for. The ice forms from the supercooled water, and that’s what you’re trying to get out of the cloud. When you get icing, that’s the time to light the flares.”

I ask if there is any difference between top seeding and base seeding.

“At base, you’re still trying to get the chemical to the same place, but you put the chemical into an updraft,” he says. “You’re hunting for updrafts, looking for 500 to 800 a minute, and you’re underneath the growing part of the storm. I’ve seen up to 3,000 feet a minute, but that air is going straight up to the anvil, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.”

The pilots for Weather Modification Inc. conduct missions all over the world and frequently fly in severe weather, like the golf-ball-size hail that damaged this Cessna 340.|

“Our airplanes have taken some fairly spectacular hail dents,” he says. “I’ve been through golf-ball-size hail. Dents go all around the airplane because you’re banking and turning so hard. I’ve ducked behind the panel because I thought the windshield was going to break, and I’ve had big chunks of ice break off the nose and hit a prop. But nothing is more exciting than launching, getting going. All the storms are different. I have butterflies, even after all these years, because you’re never really sure what’s going to happen on this flight, how the storm is structured or where it’s going. Sometimes the bases are at 5,000 feet and it’s 2 a.m. There’s no weather reporting where you are and, 200 feet in the air, you’re IFR. That’s the challenge. That’s what makes it exciting.”