12 Questions for Gordon Harris

Gordon Harris

This is the sixth in a series of articles on FireAviation.com featuring aerial firefighters answering 12 questions about their profession. We hope to get participation from senior pilots, as well as Air Operations Branch Directors, Air Tactical Group Supervisors, and others that have worked closely with fire aviation. Our objective is to not only provide our readers with interesting articles, but these very experienced aerial firefighters may also reveal a few gems of information that could prove to be valuable to those considering or just beginning a career in fire aviation. If you have a suggestion of someone who would be a good candidate for these questions, drop us a line through our Contact Us page. And their contact information would be appreciated.

Today we hear from Gordon Harris. After being a smokejumper, his first job as an aerial firefighting pilot was flying Volpars on a Bureau of Land Management smokejumper aircraft contract in Alaska. After that he began flying the U.S. Forest Service Infrared aircraft and serving as a Relief Smokejumper Pilot. Later he became the Chief Pilot for Infrared Flight Operations and after that the National Aviation Officer for the USFS. He was also a member of the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board. When Gordon retired in 2007 from the U.S. Forest Service he was the National Smokejumper Program Manager and the Air Tactical Supervisors Coordinator.

In a later article Gordon will describe for us a harrowing incident in a smokejumper aircraft, a Shorts Sherpa, when it was descending flat at about 5,000 fpm with virtually no indicated airspeed.


Gordon Harris
Gordon Harris, with the Sabreliner Infrared aircraft.

Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
Nels Jensen – One of the most totally “involved” leaders and enthusiastic people I’ve known with the advantage of being a highly skilled pilot and firefighter.

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
Do not let any perceived sense of “urgency or emergency” over-ride the facts of Safety, protocol, procedure and most of all – Common Sense. “Use your Checklist”.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Tough one! Safety is the standard answer probably, but I think effective use of resources is really foremost – on the ground side, when night ground firefighting was curtailed or greatly reduced, it seems to me that fires started getting bigger, more destructive and more dangerous. On the aerial side, the big safety push for grounding airtankers for airworthiness issues eliminated a lot of resources for the aerial aspect and as a result put immensely more pressure on the remaining resources. I’m not convinced these moves improved safety at all.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
Don’t call for aerial resources if you don’t really need them – use them effectively if you do.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
Just because a job pays better or looks like a great career move, does not necessarily mean it is the right job at the right time for you. Make sure you develop your career in a logical manner! Take things slow when moving up the career ladder.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
I do not have a well formed opinion on this, although I always thought the BAE-146 looked like a likely candidate and have not heard anything on how that project went. I also always thought the P3 was one of the best ones out there.

List the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?

  1. Beech Volpar Turboliner
  2. King Air B200
  3. Merlin II
  4. Baron 58P
  5. Cessna Citation
  6. Sabreliner 80
  7. Shorts Sherpa
  8. Dehavilands Twin Otter
  9. Caribou
  10. DC-3
  11. DC-3TP
  12. Pilatus Turbo-Porter

Of the aircraft listed, I was pilot in command on the first 8 listed and was a smokejumper in the others (except DC3-TP which I flew as co-pilot and gave smokejumper captain check rides in)

My favorite to fly and “best tool for the job” are two different things. I loved flying the Volpar, Shorts Sherpa, Sabreliner and Merlin the most. Best tools are different – and there again, variations.

If I had to single out one airplane as “most suitable” for multi-missions, probably the Beechcraft King Air 200 for being “user friendly” and good performance.

Each airplane had its “best aspects” and “not so good” for different mission profiles, not really a one-size fits all. I could write more on each airplane and which specific mission profile I thought each was best at or why I like it/dislike it but I think that is probably outside the scope of this survey.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
Flying from Missoula to McCall one day in a Cessna 206, Nels Jensen and I could see an airtanker ahead of us flying very slow and doing S turns. We caught up with it, followed awhile, Nels recognized the plane and knew who was flying (not to mention names, he was the son of an Airtanker company owner). Finally Nels keyed the mic and said (calling the pilot by name), and so what do you think you’re doing, aren’t you suppose to “reload and return”, like today sometime? Maybe you should push the throttles up a little and fly a straight line! All the other pilot said was “oh damn, you are everywhere Nels”, and then bumped it up about 30 knots and managed to fly straight. He was “milking the Hobbs meter”.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
Rough estimate is 3,500-4,000 hours.

Your favorite book about fire, firefighting, or aerial firefighting?
Young Men and Fire

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
From 1969-1972, then first pilot job flying as aerial firefighter was flying a Volpar Turboliner on a smokejumper contract for BLM Alaska. That year (1980) I got to bring the first contingent of BLM Smokejumpers to Grand Junction, CO when they started developing the Great Basin Smokejumper Program. Became full-time USFS Infrared Pilot (Merlin II and King Air 200) and relief Smokejumper pilot (Twin Otter) in 1987 at Boise.

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
GPS is sure nice.