Tina Wagner swung by Modesto Airport on Tuesday to say goodbye to her husband as he headed off on a business trip on a 72-foot-long firefighting helicopter. She'd seen him the day before, but he'll be gone for 12 days and, truth be told, she'll take any chance she gets to check out his cool ride, too.
"I'm like a little kid with those big S-64 air cranes," she said of the helicopters, which have six blades, each more than 30 feet long, and can carry up to 2,600 gallons of water.
Luke Wagner, 28, has been with Portland, Ore.-based Erickson Air-Crane for about a year. He's a co-pilot on Sikorsky S-64 Sky Cranes, and the craft he's in now with pilot Rob Chambers had just been dropping water on the Mill fire in Mendocino National Forest. Wagner didn't work that fire but recently was in Colorado and Wyoming, fighting four fires over his 12-day shift, his wife said.
Wagner boarded the S-64 Tuesday morning at the aircraft's home base in Fresno, and the stop in Modesto was for fueling. The Wagners weren't sure where the copter would be dispatched to.
"Erickson Air-Crane has 19 of these aircraft, and they're considered a national asset," Tina Wagner said. "They're under contract with the U.S. Forest Service.
They like to keep some (helicopters) in California because we're a high-risk state (for wildfires)."
Crew shifts are staggered, she said, so over his 12-day co-pilot turn, Luke will work with two pilots. Right now, his job is seasonal, focused on firefighting. "He just got hired on a year ago," Tina Wagner said. "Eventually, the job (with Erickson) hopefully will become full-time, but he's young and did not have a lot of experience going into it. He's paying his dues."
The Wagners were born and raised in Modesto. Tina also is 28, and she's a graduate of Beyer High School. Her husband graduated from Wood Colony Brethren School and got into electrical work, then went to civilian flight school in Los Banos.
The couple were married five years ago and have lived in Louisiana and Arizona before returning to Modesto. Luke Wagner has worked as a pilot when he could flying to and from oil rigs when they were in Louisiana, for example but also relied on electrical work to pay the bills.
"When we were dating, he said this (Erickson) is one of the companies he'd love to work with. It's got a good reputation in maintenance and pilots."
And despite the nature of his work firefighting, she said she rests easy.
"It's always been his dream, so I don't worry about him," she said. "I think he's a better pilot than he is a driver. He's really cool and calm. ... And he's got good pilots and mechanics that he's working with. The pilot-mechanic relationship is very equal. Everybody's a team. It takes everybody."
Bee local news editor Deke Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327.