Air Tanker Pilots Mourned at California Memorial Service

CHICO, Calif. (AP) -- Firefighters from across the nation sent condolence letters and joined roughly 350 people at a memorial service to remember three pilots who died April 20 when their air tanker crashed on a training flight near Lassen National Forest.

Messages piled on a table and pinned to a wall inside an aircraft hangar made the point that Aero Union chief pilot Tom Lynch, 42, Brian Bruns, 47, and Paul Cockrell, 52, served the nation when they dropped retardant on wildfires each summer.

''I'm inspired by those who give their lives in service to others,'' said Pastor Greg Cootsona of Bidwell Presbyterian Church. ''Their daily work was an act of courage.''

Ron Hunter, Aero Union's director of flight operations, said Cockrell, the father of two children, was a quiet family man with a strong religious faith and a love of the outdoors.

Bruns was a practical joker with a heart of gold, Hunter said. The former Navy commander flew in the Gulf War; his old squadron from Point Magu sent an honor guard and officers presented the pilots' families with folded American flags.

Lynch ''was more comfortable in the cockpit than he ever was flying a desk,'' Hunter said.

Though he was in charge of training and qualifying other crew members for firefighting duties, ''He didn't get to fly as much as he would like since he took the chief pilot's job,'' said Lynch's widow, Lori. ''He just liked getting in there putting out fires.''

A single bell was rung at the end of Wednesday's service _ once a common practice for firefighters to signal the completion of duties at a fire scene.

The crash of the P-3 Orion, the company's first since 1995, is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.