It’s been a busy few days….I got to Arizona Thursday evening, flew one flight right before sunset on Friday, then Saturday was busy. Hot, and as is always the case in the first of the season, there’s a bit of disorganization that seems to stick like a tar ball on a beach…can’t quite shake it, can’t get rid of it, doesn’t really stop you from running, but manages to make things more difficult.
Bureaucracy, she is everywhere the same…
If you are a SEAT pilot, your fate is directly controlled by a SEMG (SEAT Manager). This individual isn’t a pilot, usually has no experience fighting fires, but has attended the official SEAT Manager training course, which teaches key items like “when did you last fly?” and “do you have your OAS (Office of Aviation Services) card?” They also transmit, through chain of command (woe be to you if you try to talk directly to the Tanker Base Manager) the “end times” and the “show times” (start and end of work day) for you. Friday night the outgoing SEMG told us “show time at 0700”. Okay, got it, early bed. Shortly thereafter a text saying, “no make it 0800”…okay, no problem.
Then a phone call…”come at 0900”. Sigh. The SEMG changed during the night, so the next morning we arrived at the base about 0845, started pre-flighting the plane, and our “new” SEMG came running out with a dispatch paper. “You’re late! They have a dispatch for you! Gotta go now!”. Well, good that we have a dispatch. I’d been up since 0430, would have happily been here sooner (but it is frowned upon to show up early), so off we go.
The SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) base managers, oft inflated with their own self-importance insist on a typical bureaucratic solution to a non-problem. Sometimes it reminds me of British engineering…”why use 300 parts when 3000 will do?”….Nonetheless, the loads get loaded, the tankers get dispatched, and when we arrive on the fire it really feels good to place 700 plus gallons of retardant in the right spot. Saturday saw 6 plus hours of flying (we are limited to 8 in a day), and although part of me wanted to keep going, part of me welcomed the break. Sunday was about the same, a bit less fumbling on the ramp, another bureaucratic snafu that was solved by simply referring to “the contract”. Another 6 hours, and although I thought we were going to keep going, doing “hot-fueling” and “hot-loading” (refers to fueling the plane while running, and loading while running…both done through high pressure hoses through valves on the aft end of the plane).
Observing the oft-stated dictum of “keep hydrated”, which is repeated at every morning briefing, I had dutifully been chugging bottles of water. The hydration had taken effect, since I have normal renal function, and since we were running continuously I had more than once through the day required the use of the “resealable bag for storage of waste liquids”. My driver was hot-loading, and I was experiencing the happy relief of moving water from my bladder to the resealable bag, when the ramp boss climbed on the wing and beat on my window.
Don’t they have some kind of “busy, come back later” sign I can hang out the window??? The ensuing fumble was humorous, I’m sure, but it wasn’t all that funny when he gave the instruction to shut down. Dangit, I could have used a real bathroom, with air conditioning and all…or at least been able to stand up in a “porta potty”. Ah, the life of a fire pilot, so romantic.
The Fort Huachuca area had inhabitants prior to air conditioning….but I’m not sure how they survived. It’s hot here. Yesterday got up to 110 degrees, and it felt much hotter than that on the ramp. Naturally, on a hot day my air conditioner blower in the plane decided to take a break. As soon as I could I was texting our mechanic to try to get another blower motor shipped to me (the compressor would run, but no fan…). Of course, on a weekend, there is no blower motor, no shipping…and it was getting hot. I opened the fresh air vent, which allowed some air to go past the evaporator coil, blowing some degree of cooler air into the cockpit….and, thanks be to God, the blower motor decided to work again…and has worked since. (Perhaps a divine intervention to remind me to count my blessings?)
Sunday night, after 13 plus hours of flying in 2 days, I didn’t even go to supper. I ate a protein bar, had a protein shake, two bottles of water, and went to bed. Monday morning, I awoke after better sleep than I’d had in a while, and we again had a 0700 “show time” at the base. Either I’m starting to accommodate to the heat, or it was a bit cooler (only 84 degrees at 0700), and the brief (which is usually anything but brief….really, do we need to know what’s going on in Alaska when we’re on the Mexican border????) went quickly enough.
The expected dispatch came through, we loaded up, and headed back to the fire. Libby tower was operational (interesting to me, that Libby AAF seems to close down over the weekend…the tower and approach control do, for sure. On takeoff tower gives me a clearance to a particular area that I do not recognize. Not on any chart I have, I start asking questions….when Tower realizes I don’t know, they give me a vector, warn me about some military stuff, and away I go. The airspace here is interesting…there is a balloon (which looks like a small blimp) on a tether a few miles from the airport. Don’t go there…a cable that’s enough to tether that thing could do some serious damage. The airport is inside a large restricted blotch of airspace. There are airfields that aren’t on the maps. Airplanes fly that you usually only see in pictures…but I digress.
Airplanes are metal, pieces of machinery, an assembly of parts. I’ve taken pieces off, put them back together, seen no blood, no nerves, no soul. Yet, any pilot that has spent some time around them knows that some are “good”, some are “evil”, and some are just plain obstinate. The last two years I flew “relief”. I went from plane to plane, and about the time I would adapt to one, it was on to the next. This year, I have “my own” plane. I was given a choice of two….each had certain things I liked…and some I didn’t. I had flown each of them the past two years, and finally settled on T-892.
One of the truisms of flying is that it just takes time “in the saddle” to get things to come together. The company for which I work has made all the planes have the switches, the radios, all the things in the cockpit the same. It makes it a lot easier when transitioning from plane to plane. Even with that, there is always that first period of time when you have to “make friends” with it. Despite the similarities, they each have a slight difference in how they start, how they handle,how they feel.
The first day or so, it was okay, but not truly comfortable. As the past couple of days have gone on, it’s gotten better and better. This morning we had an 0700 show time. The air felt a tiny bit cooler, and we got a dispatch early on.
The air was smooth, the visibility was great, and after getting “cut loose” by Libby Radar, I was cruising on to the fire. Made my drop, went just the way I wanted, and was heading back to the base for a “load and return”. Suddenly, it hit me…I was flying, making all the tiny adjustments, without thinking. Kind of like driving home from work, one of those times when your realize you are more or less doing what you need to do with your subconscious. it felt good, like dancing when the movement comes naturally, or the feeling of “in the zone” that athletes (allegedly…I’m not an athlete) feel when everything goes right, and your inner self sees, feels, and you don’t have to consciously process.
It’s happened before…and it happened again today.