(“Thank You” to all my friends who have
pestered encouraged me to write again this summer…you know who you are….)
It’s that time of year again…when I frenetically tie up loose ends, get things settled at the practice, upset my long-suffering secretary/front-desk/office assistant/general manager with my annual leave to go “fly fires”…and finally get out the door, in a plane, and arrive “out west”. The past couple of weeks have been frenzied. I knew the time was closing in, and had repeatedly told all parties concerned….”I’m going to be leaving…don’t know the date for sure, but I’m going to be leaving…” As usual, it seems to come as a surprise.
Two weeks ago I got the phone call I had been anticipating/dreading…the caller ID of the chief pilot (The Great Bald One) showed up on my phone, and I knew it wasn’t a social call. It never is….those of you who have done the rug dance in front of the chief pilot know the feeling. He never calls you up to wish you good morning, or happy birthday, or just to see how your week is going. So, despite our earlier estimate that we would be leaving on the 15th…they wanted me on the 1st. Heads spun…in my office, with my family, with the (wonderful) group I work for at the hospital….and, The Great Bald One worked his magic, and found some other guys to fly “my plane” out west, and get the season started.
Fortunately, it all worked out. Our group had some folks out, and so by staying a couple of weeks longer it kept the group from resorting to cloning in an attempt to get all the jobs covered. My daughter had her (absolutely gorgeous) baby, I kept my secretary/front desk/general manager from either suicide or murder, and got “out west”.
The trip out was uneventful. I hadn’t flown an Air Tractor since March, and the first hour or two felt a bit “different”, but I settled in. I’ve been spoiled. My homebuilt would do 245 knots, my Baron does 185…but the 802 does about 135 on a good day. Of course, I was not loaded…which made it light. West Texas generates tremendous thermals, and the unloaded Air Tractor seems to have a propensity to seek “unusual attitudes”. Naturally, lunch with it’s accompanying iced tea gets processed…and the usual smooth air at altitude was nowhere to be found.
I finally got desperate enough to use the relief sacks…(small water tight bags with powder that turns into gel with liquid). Ordinarily, it’s not too much of a problem. Growing up in a family that would use an old coffee can with lid for a urinal makes you talented in ways you can never brag about. Typically, it’s loosen the belts, undo the zipper, do your business, retighten everything, and quietly dispose of the bag on arrival.
The desert bumps weren’t relenting. With enough motivation, I finally just tried to get it done. Obstinately, the Air Tractor seemed to know when my bladder was about to work, and would either pitch up dramatically, or drop a wing giving a lovely view of the desert below. Not to be outdone, Albuquerque Center would call right in the middle of things…..
Finally got to lovely Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Checked in with the tanker base, on to the first day. We had the expected briefing, and as the day wore on, close to quitting time, I was getting ready to secure the plane for the night. My driver called, said they were sending Air Attack out to look at a smoke sighting.
“Pumpkin time”, as it’s called, is sunset plus 30 minutes. By that time, our planes must be on the ground, or bureaucratic heads will spin. Yes, the plane flies fine after dark. Yes, it has lights. No, they don’t understand if you are delayed. Pumpkin time yesterday was 2003. (8:03 pm, Pacific time….Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time…you have to love a state that goes it’s own way). We hadn’t been dispatched by 6:45, and after seeing where the fire was, I figured it would be about an hour round trip. Typically, they won’t launch us close to pumpkin time.
I could taste dinner already…I was hungry, having walked 3.75 miles around the ramp…I was hot…so….here comes a dispatch. I get my “monkey suit” (flight suit) on, get started, and taxi to the loading pits. I had done my weight calculations earlier, just in case. Between the field elevation (4500 ft) and the temps (got to almost 100 degrees), load calcs are very important. I leave the loading pit at 1850. That’s an hour and 13 minutes until “head-spin” time.
Earlier I had planned a route to the fire. It was a 270 degree heading…right into the setting sun. Around a mountain, and I could see the smoke from 30 miles out. Check in with the Air Attack, and find we have a lead plane. Fortunately, a really good lead plane….
The fire is located down in a “notch valley” thankfully running away from the sunset. I give the Lead Plane my time limits (“I have 7 minutes before I have to leave to get back before pumpkin”), he sets up a beautiful run for me….coming in over a ridge at minimum airspeed, chop the throttle, head downhill, sharp left turn, anticipate the tailwind, drop, hard right turn, left turn, down the canyon, and run towards “home”.
Luck sometimes is more important than skill. The lead plane says the load went right where he wanted it. Good. At least I won’t have to endure the humiliation of being told I completely missed the target.
Oh, the rattlesnakes? They’re everywhere out here. Even though I grew up in Texas, know how to watch for them…they just seem to appear.