Families Mourn 2 Chinook Pilots Killed Fighting Idaho’s Moose Fire
While battling the Moose Fire, Thomas “Tommy” Hayes and his co-pilot, Jared Bird, were scooping water out of Idaho’s Salmon River on July 21 in their CH-47D Chinook helicopter when something seemed to go very wrong.
The helicopter seemed to lose control, and then it crashed to the ground. Investigators believe Hayes likely steered the Chinook away from the Hotshot firefighters gathered below them, but multiple probes into the mishap continue.
“There’s no training for what happened, from what I can tell,” Conor Whitehead — an experienced Chinook pilot and a close friend of Hayes — told Coffee or Die Magazine. “And he did the best he could. He kept the aircraft flat and put it in the most survivable situation.”
Hotshots splashed into the river to pull the pilots from the wreckage. Both men were rushed to Salmon’s Steele Memorial Medical Center a dozen miles away.
They were pronounced dead there.
Hayes was 41 and a resident of Post Falls, Idaho. Bird, 36, was from Anchorage, the Alaskan city where their employer, ROTAK Helicopter Services, is based.
“Tommy and Jared represented the absolute best our country has to offer,” Ely Woods, ROTAK’s general manager, said in a prepared statement. “Both were decorated veterans, hard workers, and outstanding pilots. Our hearts go out to their families, friends and loved ones. We are devastated by this incredible loss.”
Officials haven’t announced details for Bird’s funeral, but services for Hayes are slated for Friday, Aug. 5, at the Best Western Lodge at River’s Edge in Orofino, Idaho. The burial will follow at Orofino Cemetery on the banks of the Clearwater River.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little ordered flags lowered to half-staff on public property throughout the Gem State until Saturday.
More than 900 personnel continue to battle the Moose Fire, which erupted on July 17 and has charred more than than 62,000 acres of the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Only 20% of the blaze has been contained, but officials hope a looming cold front will slow the wildfire’s progress.
A highly decorated veteran of the US Army, Hayes will be buried with full military honors. Before he retired in late 2018 at the rank of chief warrant officer four, Hayes had been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, five Air Medals, three Army Commendation Medals, three Joint Service Achievement Medals, and the Combat Action Badge.
There were two stars on his Afghanistan Campaign Medal and three stars on his Iraq Campaign Medal.
He began his military career as an enlisted UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter mechanic in 1998 and became a Chinook pilot four years later.
“He was a very, very wild, motivated guy, always trying to better himself and better his foxhole,” said Whitehead, who was Hayes’ “stick buddy” during their Chinook course.
A licensed commercial airline pilot, flight instructor, remote pilot, and mechanic, Hayes had worked for the past several years for a string of companies contracted by the US Forest Service to fight wildfires.
“He could walk right in with a group of big, gruff mechanics that are being defensive, and within seconds they would all love him and be like, ‘Yeah, we want to hire that guy, bring him on,’” Whitehead said.
Hayes initially wanted to fly commercial fixed-wing aircraft, but he found the job too boring, according to his mother, Rebecca Hovey. She said her “go-getter” son called to complain it was just a lot of pushing buttons.
“He didn’t like it because all you do is sit there,” Hovey told Coffee or Die. “He was really intelligent, so you gotta keep somebody like that busy.”
Hovey spoke of her son’s bravery and his strong love for his children, Patrick, Sam, and Sophia.
His obituary added that he’d recently moved in with his partner, Kristin Erickson, and her children, Linnea, Sonja, and Mira, and “planned to share the rest of his life” with them.
Whitehead told Coffee or Die that Hayes wanted to fly until the end of fire season and then become a maintenance manager, training and mentoring the next generation of aviators and mechanics.
“It’s just — it’s never good timing, but it’s just kind of ridiculous. It just feels unfair,” Whitehead said.
Hayes was born to Tim Hayes and Rebecca Hovey in Orofino on Aug. 27, 1980. He’s survived by his children; parents; sister; and stepfather, Steve Hovey.