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Front & Center: A third-generation pilot, Keaton Mitchell chose the hot seat

Keaton Mitchell was among the aerial firefighters who helped ground crews subdue the recent Upriver Beacon Fire that scorched more than 100 acres northeast of Spokane. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Keaton Mitchell was among the aerial firefighters who helped ground crews subdue the recent Upriver Beacon Fire that scorched more than 100 acres northeast of Spokane. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

DEER PARK – When it comes to lifestyle choices, Keaton Mitchell has never shied away from danger.

But he learned a valuable lesson his first season spraying Palouse crops for Fender Air Service, when he clipped two trees and returned to the airstrip with a branch dangling from his wing.

Owner Darrell Fender pulled Mitchell aside and said, “I want you to listen to me very closely. This is a (expletive) dangerous job, and God just fired a warning shot over your bow. Are you going to listen?”

Mitchell tries.

Nowadays, he flies a $3 million turboprop Fire Boss air tanker for Minnesota-based Dauntless Air, which contracts with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. He and fellow Dauntless pilot Eric Johnson were among the aerial firefighters who helped ground crews subdue the recent Upriver Beacon fire that scorched more than 100 acres northeast of Spokane.

Five Dauntless Air Fire Bosses deployed around the state can take off within minutes of a call from the DNR, scoop 800 gallons of water while skimming the surface of a lake at 70 knots (80.5 mph), and drop their payload with pinpoint accuracy.

So far this year, DNR has responded to 900 wildfires, according to department communications manager Janet Pearce. Ninety percent of those were contained to fewer than 10 acres.

“Fire Bosses are essential to preventing wildfires from getting out of control,” she said.

DNR’s fire-suppression budget for the 2017-19 biennium is $55.2 million. Last year, $5 million of that went to Dauntless Air.

During a recent interview at Deer Park Airport, where he and Johnson share a trailer during fire season, Mitchell discussed bartending, beaches and bathroom breaks.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Mitchell: Tucson, Arizona.

S-R: How would you describe your teen years?

Mitchell: (laugh) I was pretty rowdy – not criminal, but definitely a hellion.

S-R: What was your first job?

Mitchell: When I was 15, I earned $5 an hour cleaning coffee cups at the law firm where my girlfriend’s dad was a partner. It was an awesome job. I had the top three floors of the tallest building in downtown Tucson completely to myself. I could come in at 1 o’clock in the morning, run amok and drink all the soda pop I wanted to, as long as I was done before 7 a.m.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Mitchell: Chemistry. I also played soccer, rode skateboard and surfed.

S-R: Did you envision a career?

Mitchell: I wanted to be a pilot. My mom’s dad was a fighter pilot in World War II. My dad flew helicopters in Vietnam and later was an airline pilot.

S-R: When was the first time you rode in an airplane?

Mitchell: When I was 7 or 8 years old. My dad had his own plane.

S-R: Do you recall the first time you flew one yourself?

Mitchell: When I was 11. Or younger.

S-R: When did you get your pilot’s license?

Mitchell: When I was 25 and enrolled in college.

S-R: What did you do between high school and college?

Mitchell: I had what you might call an extended adolescence. The day I turned 18, I left for California and ended up working as a beach lifeguard in San Diego. That was a pretty good gig. Later, I bartended in Hawaii. But I never really applied myself to anything other than having a good time until I turned 25. That’s when I realized what I was doing was never going to afford me the life I wanted. So I enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

S-R: What did you do after graduation?

Mitchell: I got my first job as a flight instructor when I was 29. My plan was to eventually work for an airline. But one day, we were on Lake Pend Oreille when I saw helicopters and airplanes fighting the fire on a hillside, and I thought, “Wow, that’s something I’d really like to do.”

S-R: Tell me about your first fire?

Mitchell: It was in 2009, near Cedar City, Utah – a really windy, stormy day, with lots of lightning and turbulence. My first drop was one of the hardest I’ve ever done. And I remember thinking, “Maybe I’ve gotten myself into the wrong line of work.” (laugh) But later that afternoon I flew another fire, and it was easy. You just never know.

S-R: How has your career evolved from that first fire?

Mitchell: Until 2015, I also did crop-dusting early in the season. But eventually I had to choose between careers, and as much as I liked dusting crops in the Palouse, I ultimately chose firefighting.

S-R: Are the two jobs similar?

Mitchell: Yes. But crop-dusting is more production-oriented – go, go, go. It’s not unusual to fly 12 hours a day if weather conditions permit. Here we’re limited to eight hours.

S-R: What else?

Mitchell: Crop-dusters fly 5 to 10 feet off the ground when spraying. Our minimum drop height is 60 feet, but the terrain is almost never flat. Also, crop-dusters can’t spray if the wind exceeds 12 knots, whereas we drop in every imaginable weather condition.

S-R: When you scoop water for a drop, how long are you in contact with a lake?

Mitchell: A typical run might be a mile.

S-R: How long can you fly before refueling?

Mitchell: About 3½ hours.

S-R: When multiple aircraft share the same airspace, who controls traffic?

Mitchell: An air attack platform circles 1,000 feet above us, coordinating traffic coming in and out of the area – helicopters, Fire Bosses, heavy tankers, whatever.

S-R: Do you also get instructions from firefighters on the ground?

Mitchell: Yes. I have three radios, including one exclusively for air-to-ground communication. So ground crews can tell us where they want a drop. They might say “That last one was perfect,” or “That was effective, but step the next drop over two or three wing lengths.” The feedback we get from the ground is critical.

S-R: Are you and Eric typically dispatched to the same wildfire?

Mitchell: Almost always. These planes are much more effective in a group.

S-R: How long is your fire season?

Mitchell: Our contract with the state starts June 1 and goes through August. But they typically extend it into September. Last year, I was here until mid-October.

S-R: What do you do between fire seasons?

Mitchell: We go to Hawaii, where my mother-in-law has a house. Some pilots find other work, but I’d rather spend more time with my family.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Mitchell: I like the challenge and the people I work with.

S-R: What do you like least?

Mitchell: Time away from my family. Our schedule is 12 days on, two off.

S-R: You fly white-knuckled routes for hours on end. What happens if nature calls?

Mitchell: The last stop before takeoff is the bathroom. In an emergency, some pilots will set down on the water to take a leak.

S-R: What’s a typical question you get when someone discovers what you do?

Mitchell: “Isn’t that dangerous?”

S-R: What do you tell them?

Mitchell: “It can be.”

S-R: Are there common misconceptions about your job?

Mitchell: People think we’re putting out the fires from the air. We’re not. That’s what the firefighters on the ground do. We just help.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?

Mitchell: You need to be able to sit in this chair for days on end and not go stir-crazy, then turn on your A game the instant a dispatch comes.

S-R: What’s a good lesson someone taught you?

Mitchell: My dad wasn’t a strict disciplinarian, and he never pushed me toward one career or another. But I remember him telling me, “Always try your hardest. If you work at a Circle K, be the best Circle K clerk you can be.”

S-R: What’s your secret talent?

Mitchell: I surf pretty good for a 46-year-old.

S-R: Are you still a hellion?

Mitchell: (laugh) You should ask my wife.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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