TBT: National Geographic, Fire Bombers 1998

For Throw Back Thursday, let’s take another look at a classic film produced by National Geographic, Fire Bombers 1998. It includes some excellent footage of air tankers in that era, and also has interviews with a number of pilots. Bill Waldman probably gets the most screen time — he’s a good storyteller and seems comfortable in front of the camera.

We did our own interview, sort of, with Mr. Waldman, in 2013 in which we asked him 12 questions.

Below is the National Geographic film.

12 Questions for Bill Waldman

This is the seventh 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 Bill Waldman who retired as a P-3 air tanker pilot.


Who is one of the more memorable aerial firefighters you have known? And why?
In 4 decades, there were many people that I worked with. I can’t list them all, might forget somebody. The great tanker pilots I knew or still know all believed they were firefighters and the aircraft and pilot skills were their tools. The great lead plane pilots knew how to fight fire, knew how I flew and I trusted them. The best air attack officers knew how to fight fire, didn’t try to con you into unsafe drops, and knew when to call off air ops.

Bill Waldman
Bill Waldman

One piece of advice you would give to someone before their first assignment working on a fire?
If you don’t know what you are doing, find somebody who does know.

Besides the obvious (funding), what is the number one thing government Fire and Aviation should focus on?
Getting people in the upper Fire & Aviation Management who recognize trees, smoke and aircraft. Few, now at the top, seem to meet these minimum qualifications.

One suggestion you have for ground-based firefighters about fire suppression tactics, or working with aircraft?
When working on a fire with tankers, be alert. Due to bad communications or misunderstood directions, you could get a drop when you least expect it.

One thing that you know now that you wish you had known early in your career?
During 40 years flying tankers I was always learning. Since I got my first initial attack card with only around 900 hours total time I had a lot to learn.

Which two aircraft manufactured within the last 20 years would make the best air tankers?
Nothing built in the last 20 years can equal the P-3. I would like to be proved wrong.

Bill Waldman, P3 dropList the aircraft you have flown, or flown in, on fires. Which is your favorite, and why?
B-17, B-26, C-119, DC-4, P2V, P-3. The P-3 is the best all-around tanker platform.

The funniest thing you have seen in aerial firefighting?
This incident happened on standby in Silver City 20 years ago. No names will be mentioned to protect the guilty. Alongside the tool repair shop was a platform of plywood over pallets. There was a shade cover over the area. People sat on the platform finishing tool handles and painting the steel. You could also hear new lies, oops stories you hadn’t heard before, and you could get a free haircut. The problem that arose was caused by the local skunks that set up housekeeping in the pallets. The skunks were prolific and there were at least 2 dozen in residence. It was decided that it was time for eviction. So started “The Great Silver city Skunk Hunt.” The plan was to lift the north edge of the pallets with a fork lift and then unleash a 1-1/2” fire hose to flush out the striped enemy. Waiting on the south side was a group of variously armed hunters. This motley crew consisted of a proficient bow hunter with a quiver full of deadly arrows and a tall skinny guy who looked something like the rake with which he was armed. The others, fearing a scented charge, were armed from 22 cal to 357 mag. Things went as planned until the enemy returned fire. The man with the rake was holding his own in close combat and the target skunk was being fatally raked. The bow hunter took a direct hit from his opponent and dropped his bow while barfing in the bushes. The gun toters decided that long-range was prudent and their skunks got a good head start. The gunfire faded down the road and over the plains to the south. The hunt was an unqualified success. Few skunks were buried. However, the terrified remnant has taken up residence in northern Mexico and have not been seen again at the tanker base.

How many hours have you spent in firefighting aircraft?
Approximately 8,800

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

The first job you had in aerial firefighting?
Co-pilot, B-17, Tanker-19, Redding, CA, 1969

What gadgets, electronic or other type, can’t you live without?
When I started in the tankers there were no ATM’s. You carried a lot of cash and on long trips you tried to cash checks at local banks. The advent of bank cards and ATM’s ended the problem. The bank card – never leave home without it.