About a dozen Cal Fire employees stood on the runway at Columbia Air Attack Base last week to witness the final flight of an air tanker pilot they sometimes refer to as “the most interesting man in the world.”
Cal Fire air attack spotter Bob Alvarez (at left) talks to Cornell before his final flight. Alex MacLean / Union Democrat, copyright 2012
They jokingly call Duane “Sharky” Cornell that because of his striking resemblance to the character from the Dos Equis beer commercials who goes by the same moniker.
However, the 64-year-old has enough to talk about after a 30-plus-year career in aviation to give that fictional mascot a run for his money.
“If you can think of it, he’s done it,” said air attack spotter Bob Alvarez.
Born and raised in Sonora, Cornell said his interest in aviation was sparked as a child.
“I remember as a kid seeing tankers flying overhead all the time and I think deep down that’s what got me into flying,” he said.
Cornell grew up with his halfsister and mother living what he called a typical “country life.” He attended Algerine School, where he was one of three in his eighth-grade class, and graduated from Sonora High School.
He got his nickname “Sharky” at the age of 15 when he took a job wrangling horses for late Tuolumne County rancher Reno Sardella. He was constantly getting hazed by older ranch hands and one night got his vengeance in a game of poker.
“They started calling me ‘Shark’ which eventually became ‘Sharky,’” Cornell explained. “I guess the name just stuck.”
Like many who grow up in rural areas, Cornell said he wanted to branch out after graduating from high school. He pursued a geology degree while attending college in the Bay Area, where he took his first solo flight in a mid-1950s Piper Cub and acquired his private pilot’s license.
Upon graduating, Cornell promptly moved to the mountains and became a ski instructor.
“So I put my geology degree to good use,” he joked.
But around 1980, Cornell became interested in pursuing a flying career, which is something he hadn’t pondered despite his passion for aviation.
“I thought you had to be a big city guy to be a pilot, but I went after it because I thought it would be an adventure,” he said.
Cornell moved to Alaska, where he flew equipment for construction companies and later worked in Europe flying commercially over the English Channel.
He worked for a time as a pilot with SkyWest Airlines, but eventually became bored and longed for a more exciting job.
“It was a little too structured for me,” he said.
In the late-80s, Cornell began flying air tankers for federal organizations until getting his first job with Cal Fire in Hollister around 1989.
As an air tanker pilot based out of Columbia, Cornell flew a Grumman S-2 Tracker, a plane originally built by the U.S. Navy for anti-submarine warfare following World War II.
He said tanker pilots take off multiple times every day during fire season and are usually called back to base when ground crews assess the fire. For large wildfires, air tankers fly over and drop gallons of flame retardant along the fire’s flanks, giving ground units time to construct containment lines around it.
Cornell estimated that Cal Fire pilots probably fly 300 to 400 missions every summer. During this year’s Ramsey Fire that burned 1,137 acres of National Forest land near Murphys, Cornell said he flew 32 flame-retardant drops in just two days.
In the past, pilots used to take more risks, Cornell admitted, but the deaths of two Cal Fire pilots about 10 years ago in an accident changed the way many operated.
“We’re just paying a lot more attention,” he said. “The hardest part of the job is worrying about my friends.”
One of the more exciting firefighting operations for Cornell was in a valley near Porterville that required him to fly over the top of the Sierra Nevada each time he went to make a drop.
“I almost felt like an astronaut,” he said. “It felt like I went well over 100,000 feet... Every time I go out, I can’t believe this is a real job.”
Cornell has two grown children, Clayton and Roxana, and plans to travel with his partner, Bev Britts, after his retirement. He also enjoys hiking and would like to traverse the Pacific Crest Trail.
“I’m looking forward to having a summer in the Sierra,” Cornell said, after many summers spent fighting wildfires by air.
Cornell also plans to fly with some volunteer air forces during his retirement. As a volunteer, he has flown for the surveying organization LightHawk.
On Oct. 25, Cornell fired up the engines to air tanker No. 86 and rolled onto the runway. Many gathered with cameras in hand to wish him well on his flight to Sacramento, where the plane is stored when fire season winds down.
“He’s a character for sure,” said air attack pilot Bryan Combs. “We’re going to miss him.”
A fire truck sat off the side of the runway and shot a jet stream of water in the air as Cornell’s plane taxied near it. He then zoomed by and took off into the sky above.
“I was more emotional than I thought I would be,” Cornell said of his final flight. “It was nostalgic.”