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Brinkley Leads Farewell To DC-3 At Ceremony

by (Editor's note - The following was given by McCall Base Manager Joe Brinkley (MYC-98) at the Oct. 24, 2012, retirement ceremony for the R-4 DC-3.) |

First and foremost, I would like to recognize Stan McGrew for his vision of a turbine-powered DC-3. His persistence extended the operational effectiveness of the aircraft for at least 20 more years.

Secondly, I would like to share a personal experience with you in honor of N142Z.

It has only been 15 minutes since I’ve arrived. Two hundred others stand with me, but no one speaks. The hot sun beats down, and what movement of air there is does nothing to cool us. Sweat begins to move down my back as I place my hands behind me and stand at attention. Others begin to join me without a word spoken.

Looking to the east, through heavy smoke, I see sagebrush and juniper-covered hills from wildfires that continue to remain a burden for those that are on the front lines trying to protect others. I don’t want to be here. I wish I was there. I wish I were anywhere but here. I wish …

Thirty minutes pass and I am now sweat-soaked from this unbearable sun – this waiting, this oppressive heat, the reason I am here. Two lines have formed and we are 100 strong, 50 on each side, 50 looking to the east and 50 looking to the west. Others have arrived – 500 in all, all looking into the sky, at each other, at the ground, back to the sky, but no one speaks.

Time stands still. The wait is deafening, but no one speaks.

Did I hear it? I look around at others to see if they heard it too. As I do, 500 people begin to look skyward. From the west it comes. You can hear it long before you see it. It is the sound of turbine engines coming from a Douglas DC-3TP. It circles overhead. As it does, it looks to me like it’s showing off. Its graceful lines, its snub nose, and its windows that look too small for pilots to view the outside world. Once, twice it circles, then starts its downwind leg for final. A lump begins to grow in my throat. I fight the urge. I stand at attention. God, it’s hot. Still, no one speaks.

As the DC-3 moves from the runway to the ramp, its presence becomes overwhelming. Is it the heat and noise of the turbine engines? Is it the sheer bulk and size of the aircraft? Is it the iconic stature? Is it the fact that the Forest Service has come to show support for the people assembled on the tarmac? Or is it the knowledge of what’s on board? People begin to cry.

As the sound of the engines become silent, time stands still. Soft cries are heard, the heat is stifling, no one speaks, and I wish I wasn’t here. As the lump grows again in my throat, I look to the heavens and I see a red-tailed hawk circling overhead. Why am I here?

Minutes seem like days as I move closer to the shadow of the aircraft. Inside the DC-3 I can hear people walking up and down the hollow interior. The voices become louder as they move toward the rear door. I watch as the handle moves down and the door opens. I peer in the cavernous belly and, on the empty floor of the DC-3, coffins line the sides draped in American flags. Please, God – tell me why I’m here.

Official-looking men and women in Forest Service uniforms off board the DC-3. Only two smokejumper spotters remain. These two gentlemen are stoic as my father moves toward them. Inside, the two spotters stand guard as my dad spends time with each of the fallen. He takes the time to touch each flag and say a prayer to honor their name and the sacrifice they’ve made.

After finishing my dad moves close to the spotters and stands as stoic as they do.

It is then that the spotters move toward the casket. With care they grab each corner of the American flag, fold it in a perfect triangle, and offer it to my dad. My father accepts and they begin removing the straps holding the precious cargo.

I wait outside as the lump continues to grow in my throat, and I fight the impulse to cry. I wait. After removing the cargo straps, the two spotters carefully move the coffin to the middle of the floor. There, they get on each side and, in one motion, lift it waist-high where outside I await the arrival of my brother.

As the front of the casket leaves the aircraft, I place a hand along the outside and run it down the cool exterior. I continue to move toward the end while friends and family members maintain a grip near the front. My brother, Levi,has exited the aircraft and returned home.

I pause, not wanting to leave the comforting shadows of the DC-3. It is the only thing that makes sense – the only thing that offers security and protection from the day, from the heat, from the oppressive sun.

My legs are leaden as I feel the weight of my brother on my right side, and I stumble forward as I follow friends and family to the waiting vehicle. Forest Service officials talk, but I don’t hear them. Instead, I look over my shoulder at the aircraft that brought my brother home. It sits patient, enduring, tolerant. I wish it could fly me away from here. I wish it could take me away from the pain I feel inside. I wish I were anywhere but here. I wish …

In honor of N142Z and the firefighters that it has brought home.

Joe Brinkley’s brother, Levi, was a member of the Prineville Hotshots and died in the South Canyon Fire in August 1994.