The flying, that is….
Waiting at the base is the hardest part for a new fire pilot. My first year required significant effort to adjust. This year, we have 3 new pilots with our company. One of our new guys will call occasionally, frustrated with the “hurry up and wait” of our job.
My daily plan is to get up, do my paperwork (ironic, since it is all on computer, that we still call it “paperwork”), stop at the grocery store to get food for the day, and arrive at the base. After briefing, walk some miles, then I have a plan for either “flying day” or “not flying day”. Of course,there is no choice..it’s just whether or not there is flying to be done.
This week we were moved from Fort Huachuca to Wickenburg, AZ. Our SEAT base manager wanted me to do a “practice drop”. (The government, in it’s penchant for keeping records, keeps a record of when you do a drop. If you go more than a set number of days, you must go do a drop to retain proficiency. They track your days, your hours, probably even your shoe size…). Actually, it made sense…I was going to have to start the engine, fly right over the “jettison area” and go to the new base….so water was loaded.
I know I’ve written about the plane before…but like a favorite meal, or a visit with a loved one, it’s never tiring to get into the 802 and get started. Preflight complete, the climb to the cockpit, securing the harness…it’s a familiar and loved ritual. Master switch on, voltage check (if there isn’t sufficient voltage to motor the engine over, a very expensive “hot start” can occur).
By this time, sweat is pouring from my head, and seemingly all over my body. It’s hot, humid, but all the steps have to be done. Fuel pump on, switches set (everything off but the “start switch”). Make sure the throttle, condition lever, prop control are in the correct positions. Starter on, speed of the gas generator (the “compressor” part of the engine) is good, ignition, temps are good, gently introduce fuel…and the “whoosh” that is so familiar is heard.
Keeping a keen eye on the ITT (interstage turbine temperature) to make sure that the rise in temperature as the jet fuel begins to burn is critical. One hand remains on the fuel control, so that if there is any doubt fuel can be removed, and the ignition process stopped. The turboprop is essentially a jet engine that is married to a propellor. As the jet increases in speed, the air flow turns another turbine wheel that is connected to the prop. No direct shaft connects them.
As the ITT drops to the normal range, and the turbine speed comes up, the starter switch goes off, ignition switch goes off, generator switch goes on, and the blessed air conditioner is switched to “max”. God Bless Air Tractor for such a great installation. (One of my friends tells a story of a crop duster coming into their maintenance facility with the tail wheel spinning wildly, bouncing around as he comes to a stop….he walks out to the plane and says “we can fix that tail wheel for you easily”…the old duster says “to H*** with the tail wheel, my air conditioner broke ….fix it now!)
I remain amazed at the miracle of a turbine engine. Conventional piston engines (such as in your car) require timed ignition, pistons that reverse direction hundreds of times per minute, valves to open and close rapidly…and are their own marvel. Their efficiency is great…to the point that there has been no development of power that can “carry itself” that is any more efficient. The gas combustion turbine, though, is a marvel of metallurgy and engineering. It’s reliability is far greater than the piston engine, probably due to the continuous unidirectional turning that occurs. While there are complex variants, essentially it is a series of turbine wheels (akin to the toy wheels on a stick that rotate in the wind) connected on a shaft. One compresses, fuel is introduced in a “burner can”, and the resultant hot expanding air is directed onto another wheel that in turn spins the compressor and the power shaft. (For the cognoscenti, yes, I realize it’s more complex than that, but that’s the idea).
Air conditioner on, radios on, the single gyro that the 802 contains is switched on. Signal given to the loaders,and the pump goes on. The silent sign language of “do you want a drink?” and “nearing the end, prepare to stop…now stop” is exchanged. Doors closed, prop coming out of feather…(when stopped, in order to reduce noise and danger, the prop is put into “feather”. The blades are turned so that they are parallel to the longitudinal axis of the plane, and they are moving much slower. When ready to taxi/fly, the prop control is moved out of feather into the full forward (noisy) position).
The ATIS (automated terminal information system) recites it’s monotonous liturgy. Note is taken of the crucial numbers. Ground control acknowledges the receipt of my call, gives a taxi clearance, and clears me into the restricted airspace surrounding Fort Huachuca. (Theres a fair amount of secret-squirrel stuff that happens around there…) At the end of the runway, condition lever, prop, instruments all set. The “gate” is armed, in the event that performance isn’t up to par, some of the water can be dropped at the touch of a button to ensure that the plane continues to climb.
Line up with the centerline, clearance for takeoff received, and the power goes forward. I never tire of the feeling of 1600 of Pratt and Whitney’s finest horses pulling me forward. Even though the plane is loaded, and certainly doesn’t move swiftly, it still is a feeling of power. The tanker rewards my touch by staying straight, the tail slowly comes up and as the stripes of the runway increase in their speed as they pass, I ease the plane into the air.
Flaps are required for takeoff in the 802. They modify the airfoil of the wing in such a way that lift is increased, but with an accompanying increase in drag. Once airborne, they must be “milked up” slowly. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from the man who checked me out in an 802…”never be in a rush to get the flaps up”. I slowly trickle them up, and as the wing cleans up speed increases and as the speed increases the climb rate increases as well.
“T-8XX contact departure”. I call Huachuca radar and let them know where I’m headed to the jettison area. Upon arrival I go through the ritual of “prop forward, flaps 10, gate armed, line clear, clear to drop”. I make sure I follow the ASHE….”approach, speed, height, exit”.
600 gallons of water is dropped on Apache Peak. I circle around and watch the water as it drifts (dang, I didn’t get the wind drift just right), and how it seems suspended in the air as it falls. “Radar, T-8XX is off the drop, headed northwest”.
“Roger, radar service terminated, squawk appropriate code”. We don’t squawk the usual 1200 for VFR…there is a dedicated fire code that we use any time we are flying on contract. I call Tucson dispatch on the FM radio, confirm that they see me on the AFF (automated flight following), and settle in for the hour plus flight to Wickenburg.
As I talk to Tucson approach, then Phoenix approach, and the hand off from Tucson dispatch to Phoenix dispatch, I feel comfortable…and happy. The landing is acceptable, and the waves of heat greet me in Wickenburg.
I never get tired of it.