Quiet Colorado Springs pilot leaves towering Air Force legacy

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 5, 2017

Apart from the mustache, Lt. Col. Luke Thompson doesn't look or sound much like a pilot.

Pilots get cool cockpit nicknames; Thompson has no call sign.

Pilots have cool stories. Despite 9,600 hours at the controls of a C-130, including scores of flights into combat and aerial battles against the nation's worst wildfires, Thompson would rather sit back and listen.

He doesn't even have a particularly flashy watch strapped to his wrist -- the fraternity pin of the pilot world.

But as Thompson wraps up a 32-year Air Force career, colleagues say he has skills in the air normally associated with ancient gods.

"He is definitely a special man," said Col. James DeVere, Thompson's boss at the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Thompson sees things differently.

"I'm lucky, I guess," he said while standing on a Peterson taxiway next to one of the 37-ton, four-engine transports he has come to love.

Thompson fell in love with flying and firefighting in his boyhood home, Covelo, Calif. -- a place in the Cascade foothills with 1,200 people and no stoplights.

He doesn't remember when he took his first flight, but he wore a uniform back then, too.

"I was in Cub Scouts," he said.

He learned about fire in Covelo, too. After his freshman year at San Jose State, he went to the fire station off Highway 162 between Keith's Market and the Hidden Oaks Gift Shop and signed on for a summer battling wildland blazes across Northern California.

"It can definitely be the hardest work in the world," he said.

"I don't know anything more grueling."

After one sweaty summer on a fire engine crew and cutting fire lines by hand with a hoelike tool called a Pulaski, Thompson knew there had to be a better way. It's a realization that he still finds striking as one of the military's most experienced aerial firefighters.

"I know how much work it is to carve 100 yards of fire line, which we pass over in a fraction of a second," Thompson said.

Thompson attended ROTC classes in college and headed to pilot training after he graduated.

He still remembers getting to know the C-130, a hulking plane that some consider ugly. Not Thompson.

"I was like a kid in a candy store," he said.

After serving his active-duty commitment, Thompson came to Colorado and joined the Air Force Reserve. He served the rest of his time with the 302nd.

He only made lieutenant colonel, not much rank for more than three decades of service. But that silver oak leaf is the last rank that comes with what Thompson loves most -- flying.

He stayed at the controls of the C-130 through six deployments overseas.

He's flown in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He remembers landing at one remote base.

"It was like a scene from the Bible," he said.

He remembers ground fire but doesn't talk about it much.

"I don't think I ever got hit," he said.

He's more animated when he talks about the 302nd's most challenging mission: using the C-130 to drop as much as 28,000 pounds of retardant to check the progress of wildfires.

It's something Thompson has done more than 100 times.

"That's not that many," he says.

It is something he loves.

"It's rewarding," he said. "It is in the public eye."

He's fought fire in every Western state. It's a mission that takes the C-130 right to the edge of its capabilities: flying a plane with a heavy load at low speed and low altitude through air roiled by rising heat from wind-whipped flames.

Thompson said it's not that scary.

"You focus on the job," he said.

He's flown against fires high in the wildlands and in Colorado Springs.

He's legendary for keeping his cool while flying, but he's not completely unemotional when fires rage.

"The hardest for me is when they are ripping through houses," Thompson said.

Flying against fire is work that requires a gentle touch at the controls and a keen eye.

"You can see when you are coming up on a fire how aggressive it is," he said. "It can be very daunting."

The whole C-130 crew acts as one machine during the drops.

The pilot must fly a perfect course, the crew chief must keep the four turbines in harmony.

The crew in back must release the load of orange fire-stopping stuff right on time.

Fighting blazes on slopes is the toughest.

"Our challenge is keeping it slow enough," he said.

Thompson says a firefighting flight is something that draws on everything he's learned.

He remembers when the wing was called to battle close to home in 2012 and 2013 as the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires sent clouds of sooty smoke across the Pikes Peak region.

"When its in view of the base, there's motivation," he said.

The work has taken lives. In 2012, four aerial firefighters from North Carolina Air National Guard's 145th Airlift Wing died when their C-130 was slammed to the ground by turbulent air blasted from a nearby thunderstorm.

"That really knocked the wind out of everybody," Thompson said.

But aerial firefighters, like their ground-based counterparts, don't get much time to think about the danger.

"We had one down day and we went back to work," he said.

Thompson said he doesn't dwell on the risks of flying low and slow above fires.

"You figure out how to get it done without it being dangerous," he said.

Thompson said he'll keep flying in retirement. He's trading his Air Force flights for a job with a civilian aerial firefighting firm.

His commander, DeVere, said Thompson may be leaving the 302nd, but the quiet man's legend will stick around for years.

"You just can't find a finer aviator," he said.

His last day in uniform was Saturday. The wing held a ceremony to wish its most senior pilot well.

And while someone will take Thompson's place in the cockpit, they won't be called a replacement.

"You can't really replace that experience level," DeVere said. "It is something you grow through the years."

(c) 2017 The Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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