“Happy Birthday to me, happy birthday to me….”
Well, it’s been an interesting couple of days….I write this early am on the 28th, but I figure that we might as well make it a birthday week…celebration started before I left Mississippi, when my kids threw a “party” for me at the hangar…sort of a combination Father’s Day and birthday all rolled up into one. I finished up at Vicksburg, and on Wednesday the 25th left out of Vicksburg in the company Baron, and landed at Cochise County airport in Willcox, AZ.
I was the “relief” for our chief pilot, for the 26th and 27th. (Under our contract, after 12 days on duty, there is a mandatory 2 days off…our company sends the relief pilot (me) to take that spot for a couple of days). The 26th was very much like most of the other days I’ve done pilot relief.
What are those typical days? Up early, exercise, breakfast, go the the airport (good day so far, right?), preflight the plane, check all the loading equipment, go to briefing, pull up a chair, and take a nap. Eat lunch, take another nap. Get up, walk around, pull shoes off, drink a bottle of water, prepare for the third nap.
Now, on a typical day, after the third nap, you get the airplane tied down, put all the covers back on it, and prepare for dinner. Like all other “working people” (deliberate tongue in cheek…), we are watching the clock. Normal duty day is from 0900 until 1800 hours. If the fire risk is high, they occasionally “extend” us, and can extend us as late as 2100 hrs. One of the most significant moments of the day is “pumpkin time”. (Remember Cinderella, and her midnight transformation…). Pumpkin time is sunset plus 30 minutes. All flights have to be on the ground by pumpkin time, or bureaucratic heads will roll, or at least spin around in circles.
So, on the 26th, as the clock rolled around to 1750, my loader/driver (David) and I are having the usual discussion of “where are we going to eat dinner?”, working our way through the choices (3) of eating establishments in Willcox, AZ, and the SEAT(Single Engine Air Tanker) base manager comes in at 1754 and says “guys, we’re not going to ‘extend’ tonight, see you tomorrow”. We head to the plane and start tying down, getting ready to eat.
Literally at 1759, the SEAT manager comes running out with a dispatch. So, off come the covers, the tie-downs, and David rapidly and efficiently mixes a load of retardant. He quickly gets my “order” for 650 gallons of retardant, calculates the LC (liquid concentrate) and water mixture, pumps into the mixing tank and “shoots” a refractometer reading to check the specific gravity (which tells him if the mix is correct) and gets the load trailer hooked to the tanker.
Meanwhile, I pull the covers, quickly preflight, get in the cockpit, start the engine, program the GPS with the fire coordinates (naturally, it’s 62 nautical miles to the fire, down near Mexico, in an area I’ve not flown before), check the FM radio (no Virginia, this isn’t for listening, it’s the radio with which we communicate with the government people on the ground, as opposed to the VHF radio which is normal for aviation use), watch the loading gauge (have to not overload, as it’s still 100 degrees outside, and we are at 4200 ft above sea level), and do the load calculation. We roll for takeoff at 1817.
In the 100 degree heat, with 650 gallons retardant, the 1600 Pratt and Whitney horses pull hard, and the big Air Tractor finally leaves Mother Earth. (the thought occurs to me, that I’ve spent most of the last 30 years behind Mr. Pratt and Mr. Whitney’s engines…and they’ve never let me down yet…yet…). I’m headed out over desert, and with the predictable heating, it has generated some really nice thermals. Those make the big Air Tractor bounce…fortunately, I have my harness strapped down tight, so it’s just a giant Disney ride. I finally get enough altitude to make it over the next range, and see the smoke rising from a canyon up ahead. (You know why they call it an Air Tractor? Because when it’s loaded, it flies just like a tractor).
“Air Attack, Tanker 894 12 miles out, 650 gallons, 8000 feet”. Air Attack recognizes my voice (how did he know it was me??) says “hi , see the fire on the rock wall? I want the load across the rock wall. Watch your escape route”.
I fly over the fire, see the flames going up what appears to be part of the Grand Canyon wall. Well, maybe not the Grand Canyon, but at least Palo Duro canyon. He wants me to come in, hit that, make the turn, and exit out the canyon? Is he kidding? Now I wonder what was I thinking when I agreed…no, I asked….no, actually I begged for the opportunity to fly like this.
I circle around the fire, figure out the best I can how to drop where he wants. I come in, line up, get my drop height (60-80 feet above the terrain), and let the load go. About the time I get to my drop, the heat and rising air smack me hard, the load lets go (if you let 6045 pounds out of your airplane in 1.2 seconds, it significantly alters the center of gravity), and I bounce around the corner of the canyon. Headed down and out the canyon, and….you know what, I survived my first fire drop.
Now, headed back west bound to Willcox, the sun is directly in my eyes…and when the load empties, you get a little splatter out the hopper door, on the windshield. I’m looking at the mountain range in front of me, planning my route through it on the way back. Oh, yeah, the Air Tractor has a windshield wiper…cool! I turn it on, it smears the retardant nicely. Hmmm….let me see if I can find the switch for the washer…turn it on…and a fountain of water hits the windshield, about the time I come up on the mountains. Nicely done, there, Bwana. But in a second or two (which felt like, oh, 30 minutes) I could see again, much more clearly now. I get back to Willcox, land, taxi in, and we shut down and tie down.
The SEAT manager says “be here ready to go at 0800”. David and I look at each other, shrug, say okay, and head to the hotel, and dinner. Now two of the three options for dinner have already closed. There is always the TA truck stop. (known to the aviation crew as the “T&A”. Sadly, there is no quality T&A there). Over dinner, we discuss the (obvious to us) fact that since we never fly before noon, it’s kind of silly to be there ready to fly at 0800. But, we work for them, so we make plans to be out at the airport at 0715, getting ready for the day.
We were wrong.