Like I said, we were wrong.
As usual, up at dawn, exercise (not as much today, after all….it’s my birthday!), breakfast, and headed to airport earlier than usual. We exchanged the usual banter on the way, assuming that we would have another morning of sitting.
Preflight done, trailer checked, and as I always do, I ran a set of sample calculations for loads based on projected temps through the day. That way, if in the heat of the moment of dispatch, I come up with a number that is strangely different, then I have a benchmark to say to myself, “whoa, better redo that!”.
The couch, as always, called out my name, and I pulled out my computer to leisurely peruse the morning email, and to read Beechtalk (my favorite way to waste time on a computer…reading and discussing planes with other similarly infected adults). Just got my shoes off when the SEAT manager gave me his “thumbs up” sign (I’ve always thought it odd…I would use an index finger in a turning motion to signify “we’re gonna go”, but whatever…). I looked questioningly at him, as I hadn’t had my second pot of coffee yet, and it was barely after 0800. He nodded yes, so I had David start mixing a load, and I went through my “dress up drill”. The drill involves shedding tennis shoes, moving stuff from shirt and pants pockets and putting on the “monkey suit”…the federally mandated Nomex flight suit.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of Nomex, it’s a fabric that (ostensibly) is designed to never burn. If it gets hot enough, it simply fades into dust. The idea is that if you are in a fire, it gives you some protection, and importantly, doesn’t add to your burns. Nylon, etc, will melt and stick to your remaining skin. Cotton merely burns faster and adds to the fire. That’s the good part of Nomex. The bad side of Nomex is it takes an “Outside Air Temperature” that’s merely tolerable and transforms it into unbearable. It retains sweat, odor, moisture, and I think is designed to smell like a dirty tennis shoe.
Monkey suit is on, pockets suitably charged (have to have the reading glasses handy, the phone has a calculator for doing the mandated load calculations, keep a knife in a lower leg pocket just in case, and try to make sure that nothing is poking me in an uncomfortable or embarrassing way. Remember, we’re going flying in the mountains, in hot weather, with significant winds and gusts. That translates into a Disney E ticket ride. Put your shoulder harness and seat belt on tightly, boys and girls, as the ride may cause you to shift in your seat. Something that ordinarily is merely slightly uncomfortable in a car seat can give you misery in a bouncing plane, when you are tightly bound to said plane.
I get started, the SEAT manager comes up with the dispatch sheet (contains the latitude/longitude of the fire, the frequencies for the Air Attack, plus other significant information…like “the military is shooting stuff in this area. Make sure you aren’t part of their target”). I quickly program the GPS, do a second check of the load calculations (this is where having done it previously really pays off), and give a thumbs up to David. He starts pumping the mud into the plane.
The cool pleasant morning (if you can call 86 degrees cool…and here in AZ, you can…it promises to be much hotter before the day is out) allows the Air Tractor to pull it’s load airborne. We’re off…to the same location as the day before.
Somehow the Palo Duro canyon isn’t as big today. Maybe it’s having survived the initial drop, now at least “I’ve done this before”, even if I’m not expert at it. I call up Air Attack, who again calls me by name. Hey, it’s “old home week” at the fire. He has me make a “dry run” today, likes it, and we do the drop, with the subsequent hard right turn, out the canyon, and “load and return”. The next SEAT comes in, drops, and Air Attack tells him the same thing he does me…”you had some drift, next time offset more”. Makes me feel somewhat better about my drift….
(Friends tell me my voice is unmistakable on the radio. I can’t imagine that it’s so unique. I will say that last year when I picked up an Air Tractor in Iowa City, Iowa, I heard Harry (an SX friend) say on the radio as I announced my position…”Stan, is that YOU?” I had literally landed another plane, got out of it, visited the friendly corn field urinal, and gotten back in the 802 to depart. Figured no one knew I was there…)
Flew cross country back to the base, and we did the “load and return”. By the end of the second drop of the morning (and the third drop on an actual fire in my whole life), I was starting to have a really good time. It’s my birthday, I’m flying a cool plane, and (best of all) I’m getting paid to do it!
Lunch was provided by the SEAT manager, and I had my afternoon nap. I had written my note to Eric (the pilot I relieved), and 5 o’clock was looming. David and I began the “supper discussion”, about the three options in Willcox. We already decided that the “T&A” was out of the question, that either the Mexican place, or the “Texas BBQ” place was going to be it. I was suitably dehydrated, and in the spirit of “watching that you don’t get dehydrated” (which is preached to aircrews continuously, with good reason), I chugged a couple of bottles of water. Bad choice.
My phone rings. I see the SEAT manager’s name, but by now I know that it usually is a request to do something administratively, but this time it was a dispatch. Different fire, up in the “real hills”, and they want water, not retardant. David heads to the trailer (he loves to work, does a great job, and always keeps things in top shape),and I do the monkey suit drill.
Load the coordinates, but this is into the teeth of rising terrain, and the wind is howling out of the southwest. The Air Tractor and I head off to the lowest part of the terrain, and it faithfully chugs along (I always wondered if Leland Snow, the inventor of the Air Tractor, thought about painting it John Deere green). Luckily, I find some lift (just like the glider pilots use) and surf along in it, slowing down when in lift, speeding up in sink, until I see the “real hills”. I call in to Air Attack (different guy this time). He asks “who is flying 894?” Uh-oh. Clearly my reputation preceeds me.
I tell him my name, and that I’m a “new guy” (I figure, be honest, he’ll figure it out soon enough). He gives me a target description, and this is one that is going to be another “drop down into the canyon, hit a ridge, and follow the canyon down”. The canyon is appropriately named “Rattlesnake canyon”. I have no idea as to the number of snakes in the canyon, but it was “snaky” enough for me. I pushed the drop button just as he said “hold your drop” (ugh), had a momentary panic that someone was in the way (if you get hit with 800 gallons of water, it can hurt you), but it was that he wanted it slightly different. He told me this am, that it went in a good spot, being gracious.
Any photography that I have seen does not do justice to the scenery I flew over. To get to Rattlesnake Canyon, you have to climb to 8300 feet, going over the taller mountains. The next maneuver is to drop down into the top of Rattlesnake Canyon, make a hard left turn, making sure to start it early enough to miss the side of the mountain (that you are now below), and come snaking along (pun intended) the ridge where the fire is burning. The only inhibition to stopping and staring at the absolutely rugged, beautiful terrain was the fire, and the cliff about 50 feet from my right wing. The rock structures were breathtaking, and in a slightly embarrassing way, the fire added to the beauty. The flames were a good 30 feet high at the point of the top of the ridge, above a sheer rock wall. My goal was to put 800 gallons of water right on that fire.
Lunch today with the area chief forester cleared up some confusion for me. I wondered why the fire was being allowed to “run” in some areas, and stopped (for example) at the edge of Rattlesnake Canyon. The chief let me in on it. “If any of that fire had rolled over the edge of Rattlesnake Canyon, and taken hold there, the terrain is so rough that it couldn’t be put out until monsoon season. Or maybe until winter”. Made me feel so much better about flying over that area.
Did you know Arizona had a monsoon season? I didn’t either. It’s defined, not as I would have thought, by rain, but rather by 3 consecutive days where the relative humidity goes over 54%. Rain may or may not come during monsoon season, but the relative humidity goes up. Fires actually increase during the early part of monsoon season, as there is a lot more lightning, which increases the number of fires. After some rain comes, the fuels (timber, grass, etc.) aren’t as dry, and later in monsoon season, the fires diminish.
I did a second load and return, and by the time I got back to the tanker base, I knew that a “potty break” was mandatory. One of the special things about getting older (it is my birthday, after all) is that you need glasses. You also need those potty breaks more often. Glasses are more tolerable.
In your car, you need to take a potty break, you just pull over, find a tree, a restaurant, a rest area…you have options. When you’re fighting fire, you don’t exactly have those options. You can shut down, and get out….and that costs you time and money. Or, you can use the “emergency bag”. As a kid, my mother kept a Folger’s can in the car for those times…now we have an elegant solution..a bag with a powder that absorbs the urine, turns it into a solid, and you can dispose of it discreetly. It’s a mandatory preflight item for me, because going cross country at altitude, it’s no problem. Known as “Travel-John”, it’s quite useful. (see attached picture).
However, in an Air Tractor, tends to wander about like a John Deere Tractor (did you ever see a tractor that wanted to go straight?), and especially when getting bounced around, it’s probably not a really good idea to unbuckle, unzip, and unload (into the bag). And, there’s no autopilot. Nor is there a copilot. So, it’s a routine of pulling into the loading pit, quickly unbuckling, unzipping, unloading, and then loading (the plane).
I considered my options. Another 40 plus minute round trip, with a full bladder, wasn’t really in the cards. A shutdown would put us too close to pumpkin time. Okay, the bag it is. I discreetly did the deed, rebuckled, reloaded, and we’re about to be off….but what to do with the bag????
I figured the best thing was to toss it over near the trailer, and then get it after we finished for the day. Out the window it went, sailing along the asphalt. About that time, the SEAT manager walked over, picked it up, and when he realized what it was (it’s labeled…), he had a great look of disgust all over his face. I made the radio call with my load, and the time, and started to taxi out…and the SEAT manager called me and told me to stop.
Uh-oh. Surely we didn’t get cancelled over the “emergency bag”? Nope, they had called off all the tankers. So now, the manager wants me to dump 800 gallons of water on the ramp. Which I did. And wasted a perfectly good emergency bag.