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Training is critical – in firefighting and flying




John Dean approaches flying the same way he did as a captain in the Phoenix fire department, and head of the nationally recognized urban search and rescue dog team.

“We’ve got to train enough and be professional enough in how we go about this so we don’t have a bad day. If I make a mistake because of ignorance or I don’t take the time to learn, someone else could pay for it,” Dean said.

He likened the two – firefighting and aviation – as parallel universes. They are both demanding, exacting, and exhilarating, when done well. Each has a galaxy of specialties within the universe that allows a motivated person ample opportunity to keep learning.

Suffice to say, he goes all in for whatever he takes on. His demand for quality and precision comes from, not only from 45 years with the Phoenix Fire Department but having the great fortune of mentors in both the fire service and aviation.

The first was his father, an A&P mechanic at an FBO in Phoenix, and then on to several of the early airlines at PHX. He said he was “old school” -- do it right and take pride in your work.

Dean said his earliest memories are of sweeping hangars and polishing airplanes when his dad took him on weekend jobs to refurbish World War II airplanes, usually for agriculture or forestry missions. It was here the seeds of flying were planted.

“I grew up watching Twelve O’Clock High on television and then I’d go and sit alone in the cockpit of a B-17 or a B-24 and it was like a big playground to me,” he said. “I should have used the money I made on my paper route to buy one of those old airplanes but I didn’t have that much foresight.”

Growing up around airplanes introduced him to some local “old timers” who flew Bell 47 helicopters, one of whom also flew Spitfires in World War II.

“He was pretty stoic about his war experience,” Dean said. “But now I’d give anything to be able to sit down with Mr. McCarthey for 30 minutes over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The things he experienced would be unbelievable.”

After high school, his father got him a job as an aircraft fueler at Sky Harbor airport when the airport still hosted a large general aviation contingent. It turned out to be a life-changing position.

He said a lot of the people working the ramp were returning from service in Viet Nam and many were looking at taking the fire service exam. They talked him into joining them even though he had hopes of college and maybe a flying career.

“Well, Emergency was big on TV back then and I thought I’d go take it just to see what it was like even though my focus was elsewhere at the time,” he said.

It piqued his interest enough to start fire science classes, taught by fire fighters, at the local community college. When they asked him about applying for the fire fighting academy, he decided to jump in and officially joined the Phoenix Fire Department at age 19.




As luck would have it, the fire chief in Phoenix at the time was Alan Brunacini, who’s been referred to as America’s fire chief. He revolutionized fire service command structure, a structure adopted now around the world and authored a number of books recognized as must-reads for fire fighters. He introduced at number initiatives and services within the Phoenix department to enhance the lives of the firefighters and raise the level of professionalism.  

He was also a disciple of a softer approach to dealing with the public than was current at the time. Bruno, the name everyone called him, used the term customer and even developed a personality for this customer, calling her Mrs. Smith. He said the key was to do what you could to help Mrs. Smith, who may be having her darkest day.

“He said if it’s not illegal or immoral and it benefits Mrs. Smith, do it,” Dean said. “That gives you a lot of freedom to do what you can to help.”  

Bruno also advocated for being a life-long learner, always honing your skills to provide exemplary customer service at all times.

Dean took all this to heart, first joining the technical rescue team, then gaining his Para-Medic certification and on to training and handling urban search and rescue dogs, all while performing traditional roles in the fire department as head of an engine company. 

“It’s like aviation. Once you get your license, there are so many other avenues you can go down and different ratings to pursue,” he said.

With a love of aviation still deeply held, he was happy to find a connection to his firefighter role, mostly while aloft in helicopters used for rescue.

“You’re long-lining, hanging from long ropes under helicopters (they use hoists these days) and it was kind of neat to be a part of aviation,” Dean said. “We had to know about weight-and-balance, how heat affects operations, things like that, and kept me a part of aviation.”




But piloting, for the time being, remained a dream on hold as life and family and a demanding career took precedence.

A few years before retirement, however, a chance visit to a small airport near Phoenix rekindled his dream.

“It was like, I’m just sitting in these starting blocks until the time is right and you just take off,” Dean said. “Instead of being sad and being at the end of your career, no, it’s doing something I’ve wanted to do since I was nineteen.”

He was asked by the owner of another dog training academy to trailer a derelict airframe from a small airport nearby out to California for use as a training prop. Arriving to pick it up, he visited with Andy Estes, the owner, and got a tour of an old Waco he was refurbishing. Dean, relying on the lessons Bruno taught, was blown away by the care and quality of the project.

“There was a sign there that read Ask me about flight lessons,” Dean said. “After seeing his craftsmanship, I thought his flying can’t be any different than the quality of his airplane, so that’s where I started my lessons.”

So, a few years before retirement, with a family raised and savings in the bank, he learned to fly. He said he wanted to be ‘completely confident’ in his ability with his wife, Becki, on board so, following his training under Chief Bruno, he did a lot of the flight training twice. His drive for high quality, professional customer service again surfaced.

“Now that I am retired and a professional customer, and much older, I don't see the craftsmanship nor value in customer service seen years ago,” Dean said. “I also factor in that my family and friends fly with me, and along with the innocent people on the ground, this flying stuff becomes very important and isn't just heading out on a Saturday morning for breakfast and a lot of fun.”

Estes became a friend and mentor and when Dean said he wanted his own aircraft, Estes suggested an early model B, C or D Cessna 172, telling him there was a payload advantage. Dean focused on the B model for a number of reasons, and because he already had an Air Plains 180hp engine upgrade in mind, the B was the earliest model eligible.

“Finding an airplane is a full-time job,” Dean said. “It starts out as fun but at some point, all the notes and records just overwhelm you.”

After four months of looking, his son, Jason, found a 1961 B model for sale in North Dakota that boasted a new paint job in 2006 and he convinced his father to call about it, assuring him it was not one he had already called on.  

Turned out to be another lucky move. The story goes, Dean said, the original owner had been meticulous in caring for the aircraft through the years, keeping it in a hangar and carrying out regular maintenance. His family had taken over care of the airplane before selling it to the current owner. The current owner had owned the airplane just long enough to get his license and had already bought a Bonanza, so he was keen to sell it. And lots of people were keen to buy it.

So Dean, his current CFI, and a trusted mechanic decided to check it out and flew up to North Dakota to inspect it. After a short time going over the airplane, his mechanic told him to buy it. Today.

He did, and the next day, he and his CFI flew it from North Dakota back to Phoenix. They did an annual inspection when they brought the aircraft home and Dean took the opportunity to really start to immerse himself in the aircraft, working alongside his trusted friend and mechanic.

“Now you really start learning things, cleaning things and making it your own,” Dean said. “Plus, it’s nice to start off with new replaceables, new brakes, new tires, new rotors.”

Ten months later, he said he backtracked much of the route on his way over to Wellington, Kansas, for the Air Plains upgrade. 

“I purchased my plane after researching Air Plains and my plan from day one was to get it to them for their upgrade,” Dean said. “I looked into rebuilding the original O-300 engine and by the time I paid for the rebuild and changed out things like the alternator and prop I felt the best decision was to go with their firewall-forward, everything-new upgrade and have a much more reliable plane.”

Not only did the numbers work for him, but he also said he was impressed with the customer service he got from the first phone call forward.

“When I showed up at Air Plains, I saw and felt a level of respect and comfort I had not experienced since I was 10 years old going to work with my Dad on weekends,” Dean said, “The shop was clean, mechanic's tools were spaced near each plane and it was obvious those tools were used by folks that took pride in their work.”

He said his research pointed to a company built by founders Mike and Carolyn Kelley as a company with a solid reputation for honest, high-quality work. After working with Katie Church and Rafael Soldan, long-time employees who now run the company, he said he was glad he had chosen Air Plains for his upgrade.

“I’m pretty demanding; I wouldn’t work for me, but they pulled it off without any problems,” he said. “I have nothing but absolute trust and respect for what they’ve got going on there.”

He now has more than 100 hours of issue-free flying on the new engine, which he said still looks like new.

“I have more power than I need, yet it’s not so much power that a newer pilot is overwhelmed,” Dean said. “It’s so nice on an Arizona summer morning with high temps and humidity that I can take my wife up and enjoy our flight. I am also able to look out the windscreen for traffic and not have to watch the temp gauge border just left of the red line, no matter how I set the mixture or lower the nose.”




Dean said he prefers the original avionics instrument panel and has no desire for a glass panel. He did install two new uAvionix AV-30 units, one configured as a digital attitude indicator, the other as a gyro directional unit to replace the old attitude indicator. The previous owner had also installed a new Appareo/Stratus ADS-B In/Out transponder, and he also has a Sentry ADS-B IN backup that links to his iPad to always keep track of traffic in the busy airspace around Phoenix.

He’s contracted with Six Pack Aero to fabricate a new powder-coated panel, adding USB ports and a uAvionix AOA indicator in place of the analog clock, as he said it would be useful when his son and, eventually, his granddaughter learn to fly. Keeping with family tradition, son Jason is a firefighter in nearby Tempe. He is keen to learn to fly but has little time now, with two small kids, to devote to lessons, much like his father when he was a first responder.

“People say you don’t need the AOA but anything that gives us another tap on the shoulder is worth it, to me,” Dean said, staying true to his mantra of safety first.

Dean said finding hangar space for his airplane near his home in Chandler would normally have been as hard as finding the right airplane to buy but, once again, good fortune was on his side. He had already decided to build his own but that was going to take some time.

“Back then, at least Chandler had tie-downs but we have monsoon summer storms and they really whip up, but there were no hangars to be had,” Dean said.

While hanging out at a friend’s hangar one day, another friend drove up and told him a guy had just put a For Rent sign on his hangar there at Chandler Municipal Airport (KCHD), a short drive southeast of downtown Phoenix.

“We got in his truck and went over there,” Dean said. “The guy was just hanging a second sign and told us he had twelve people coming over to look at it.

“I said we’ll take, if you don’t mind.”

The hangar owner had bought a Cirrus to put in the hangar, but the aircraft was back ordered for two years. The timing, for Dean, was perfect.

“He’s got a customer he appreciates, and I take as good a care of his hangar as I did the apparatus bay when I drove a fire truck,” he said. “He’s still waiting on his airplane and I have a hanger to rent while I build mine, so as we have all these big storms and the summer sun hitting on my red paint on your cowling, I don’t have to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, Dean and a friend leased land at Casa Grande Municipal Airport (KCGZ) and started construction on three hangars – one each for their own airplanes and one to rent.

“It’s amazing how this has all come together,” he said. “It’s been one dream come true after another.”




Dean said his wife, Becki, has embraced the role of “professional passenger,” and he said her enthusiasm for flying is the envy of the other pilots, who tell him their wives don’t really enjoy it.

Though retired from the fire department, Dean still runs the regional urban search and rescue dog team and spends weekends involved in hangar construction. Right now, he’s flying around 125 hours a year (he has more than 500 total) and plans to fly a lot more when the hangars are complete.

“Right now, trips with Becki are usually short out and back trips but at the top of the bucket list is a longer trip flying through Monument Valley,” Dean said. “As soon as the hangars are done and we get our occupancy permit, we’re going.”



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