The 2015 fire season marked the worst in recorded history for the northern Bay Area, as severe drought, dying trees, and wicked winds conspired to scorch more than 250,000 acres. Weathering this and a life-changing burnover of his helitack crew on the Valley Fire, Thomas and his crew remain undaunted as they prepare for the next big one.
In the fall of 2005, Thomas joined CAL FIRE, operator of the world's largest aerial firefighting fleet. Assigned as the department’s new Aviation Safety Officer, he studied at USC’s graduate level aviation safety school. He merged this with 12 years of military experience to modernize the way the fire industry views safety. He developed and taught classes throughout CA, NV, and AZ. He assisted the NTSB with accident investigations. With his military background, Thomas brokered agreements between fire agencies and military forces called upon when disaster strikes. He trained aircrews from active duty, reserve and guard helicopter squadrons in the art of aerial firefighting.
Once qualified in the Supercobra, Thomas deployed twice onboard navy ships throughout the Pacific region and the Middle East, partaking in predominantly peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. He enjoyed piloting the powerful and agile Cobra, and achieved qualifications as flight leader and night systems instructor. But the lack of true combat action was something that gnawed at him during his time overseas. Unable to foresee the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, he sought and achieved acceptance into HMX-1 in 2000.
Thinking he’d missed out by being in D.C. and not Afghanistan, Thomas was assigned to a job unlike any other. As a White House advance officer, Thomas worked with the Secret Service and other security specialists to ensure the safety of the president during his travels. This was a freewheeling, independent job that mandated secrecy, especially on overseas assignments. In this capacity, Thomas traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and beyond, to Canada, Mexico, France, Senegal, Romania, and Japan. When the time came to decide on his next assignment, family considerations encouraged Thomas to resign his commission and step into the civilian world.
Raised in Plymouth, MA, Thomas attended the College of the Holy Cross in nearby Worcester. A Political Science major, he graduated in 1993 and was commissioned as a Marine Corps second lieutenant through the school’s NROTC program. Along with other new Marine officers, he attended the Basic Officer Course in Quantico, VA, where he earned a slot in flight school. While in Pensacola, FL, Thomas trained in the fixed wing T-34C and the rotary wing TH-57. In 1995 he was pinned with naval aviator wings of gold and assigned to fly the AH-1W in Camp Pendleton, CA.
The White House flight detachment required Thomas to learn three new aircraft. The CH-53E Super Stallion, the U.S. military’s largest helicopter, is used by HMX-1 to transport aircraft parts or passengers for VIP missions. The VH-60 and VH-3D are the “white-tops” designed by Sikorsky exclusively for the presidential mission. The highlights of Thomas’s first two years in the squadron included picking up President G.W. Bush the night he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium following 9/11 and flying him along Normandy Beach on Memorial Day, 2002. The most sobering moment was taking Vice President Cheney to his “undisclosed location” while the Pentagon burned and uncertainty abounded.
After laboring in headquarters for four years and receiving generous training from Vietnam-era pilots, Thomas was rewarded with his current position, fire and rescue pilot at Boggs Mountain Helitack Base, north of San Francisco. As pilot-in-command of the CAL FIRE Huey known as Copter 104, he flies a crew of nine into battle against wildland fires. When not actively engaged in firefighting, Thomas's crew puts their rescue hoist to use saving injured firefighters and civilians in distress.
AUTHOR - PILOT - MARINE