Air Tractor gave away a T-shirt a couple of years ago at the Ag Aviation convention….it has a drawing of what it looks like from inside an Air Tractor, going down a field….and a title “The View from My Office”….
For some strange reason that shirt has appealed to something inside me. It is my “night shirt”, and makes me smile every time I pull it out of the bag and put it on. I want to give you an idea of what it looks like from my office….
A few days ago we were fighting fire north of Reno, NV. I was dispatched from scenic Battle Mountain, NV, with a full load of retardant mid-morning. 700 gallons of retardant, 300 gallons of jet fuel, and off I went. Lat/lon coordinates were given, the fire name was listed, and the routine check in with Central Nevada dispatch occurred.
(Latitude/longitude has been around since the days of iron men and wooden ships, but had fallen out of routine use among aviators until GPS came along….now, it is so simple to put in coordinates…or if you see something you want to mark, to hit the “save” button on the GPS, and later return, or report the location).
As it often happens, the coordinates weren’t quite right, but the large smoke column was a clue. I checked in with Air Attack, and after a short discussion we ascertained that the large column of smoke was actually a secondary destination. The primary fire was closer to “civilization”, and was a higher priority. The initial load went in okay, and we began loading out of Reno Stead and returning to the fire.
The next few days were a constant stream of activity. Up in the morning, preflight, morning briefing, get a dispatch, and work until either near dark or until we “timed out” (we are limited to 8 hours of flight time a day). Routinely in the day we would get a new dispatch, heading to a new fire. Most of the fires were in the same area (although not all), and eventually the individual fire names were combined into a “complex”. So, you would get a dispatch to “X complex”, and once getting closer would find you would go to “A” fire, or “B” fire….
Eventually we ended up back where I started…at the large smoke column. We were working at 7500 feet MSL (mean sea level…”above sea level”). A loaded 802 at that altitude moves with the grace of an overweight woman at a church buffet. You can get her located where you want her, but you have to go there gently. Push her too far, and she’ll give you a buffeting you won’t forget….
I was amazed at one point….there was a ridge top, with fire coming over the top, that we were working hard to “paint” with retardant. The fire was moving west to east, and if we lost it over the ridge top we would see the fire run deeply into the valley, into an area where neither plane, nor men on foot, would be able to stop it. Trees were torching (erupting in flame), flame heights were 12-20 feet, and the smoke was heavy. Looking beyond the ridge top, there was not particularly higher terrain…..
As the tanker in front of me dropped, I noted that the first half of his load fell in nicely, but the second half “evaporated”…just went sideways, and disappeared. That was a product of the wind coming over the ridge, combined with the increasingly angry smoke. I pressed on, and tightened the belts anticipating a bit of rough ride. As I neared, the smoke column began to “lay over”. When a smoke column lays over, the visibility can suddenly decrease markedly….
I could see through the smoke, and felt I could get the load off, and in the right place. Done. Instant IFR (instrument flight rules…). I knew it would pass quickly, which it did, but the smell of wood smoke permeated the cockpit. As soon as it started, it ended. I began the left turn, and was rewarded with a view of the most gorgeous valley I think I’ve ever seen. I pulled the power lever back, and glided down the valley, admiring the pines, the pinons, the junipers, and the lake at the end of the valley. A ranch, with green grass, nice corrals, and healthy barns was at the bottom of the valley, leading into the lake.
You may have your corner office….but the view from my office is spectacular…and ever changing.