It had been ten long days. Ten days of getting up, showing up at briefing, pre-flighting the plane…..and sitting. Ten days of walking the ramp, watching the jack rabbits chase the cottontails. Ten days of counting quail. (I’ll bet you didn’t know California quail would post a “guard”…one quail will alight on a fence, or atop a bush…and sound the alarm if someone comes close). Ten days of
taking naps, watching the gradual edginess sneaking up on everyone. In the “fire business”, we have a strange relationship with fire. We hate it (the phrase “fighting fire” indicates the passion with which we try to put it out), we love it (every fire fighter, from the newest ground guy to the oldest semi-retired experienced chief lights up when dispatched), and we miss it when we don’t see any fire.
A day or two without a dispatch is okay. Three or four days starts to make you a bit cranky. More than that….and the irritability seems to grow. Habits of other men that ordinarily amuse you seem to indicate need for urgent mental evaluation to see if they need to be committed. (It does make me wonder how anyone gets through a winter in Alaska….”cabin fever” must be very real).
Did I mention that it had been ten *long* days?
Yesterday, they teased us. A dispatch…we hustled. The wind had been blowing at what seemed to be outrageous velocities, gusts of dust were reminiscent of West Texas, and it was a battle just taxiing the big loaded tail-dragger from the loading pit to the runway. The act of pulling on the flight suit, climbing up, getting started seemed unnatural.
It was a tease. By the time we were airborne, half way to the fire, Central Nevada Dispatch called and cancelled us. “Go jettison”. Okay, that’s a flight, but….still….it’s not the same as laying the mud in on a fire. (Go ahead….use some innuendo…yep, it’s like….yeah, it’s like that. Not the real thing).
This morning dawned bright. A small storm moved through during the night, with lightning. (yeah…..). Up on the hill above the town, a smoke was sighted. A dispatch was received.
Today, the flight suit went on easily. I love the rhythm. The “mudders” working off hand signals connect the loading hose. As I’m putting on the belts, I give the signal to load. The meter showing “gallons” climbs rapidly. I spin the large PT-6 over, watching the ITT (temperature) and the gallons simultaneously.
Nice smooth start. My baby is running right. Gallons climbing through 350 (headed to 700….I’ve got to climb 4000 feet in 6 miles, so don’t want too much, and I’m full of fuel). Quickly I page the GPS over to the “user waypoint” page, enter the name (“Ridgetop”), the latitude/longitude, “direct/enter”. Gallons now at 585, now focused on the meter. Don’t want too much, don’t want too little.
Arm out the window at 675, ease down starting at 685, nailed it. (The flow meter later revealed it to be 704 gallons…I’ll take it!). The view through the hopper window confirms that the load is close to 700 (there’s the old fashioned “line on the window”…it’s 700 gallons. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most fool-proof gauge we have).
Call into base…”T-8XX is on the roll”. Time is received, written down on the log. (We keep a current “weight and balance” on our knee board…including times…to the minute). The knee board log is crucial. We are to do a W&B calculation on each load. The numbers come quickly…”empty weight 7144, plus my weight, plus fuel 302 gallons at 6.6 lbs/gallon, plus 700 gallons of retardant at 9.3 lbs/gallon”…15,887 pounds. That’s 13 pounds below gross weight. Outside temperature is 85 degrees. No temperature limitation. (At hotter temperatures, the engine performance chart limits us to lower weights).
I make the call on the unicom frequency (Unicom is the “party line” at uncontrolled airports…courtesy calls help the pilots make their traffic separation. “T–8XX taxiing from base to runway 32”. In an odd sort of way, once the window is closed, the radio call made, I’m “in the cocoon”. A feeling of peace comes over me. We’re going.
Pre-takeoff checks done on the roll. “T-8XX departing runway 32 (we say “three-two”, not “thirty two”). Power up to temperature limits, quick engine gauge check done, emergency dump activated. The 1600 horsepower PT6 surges with power, and the heavy air tractor sluggishly moves forward. (Nearer sea level, the turbine engines are limited by torque…which is “power”. At this altitude, they are limited by temperature…the air is “thinner”, less dense, therefore less cooling). Slowly the airspeed climbs, and the controls come alive.
Tail comes up, and I “feel” the control stick aft….a classic move in the 802 is to ease one wheel off, then the other, and hold the plane in ground effect as it accelerates. At it’s weight, simply getting the drag of the tires and wheels “free” allows more acceleration. The end of the runway is approaching at about 100 mph, and I ease the left wheel off, then the right, and feel the 802 leave the ground. The stall warning chirps, and I hold it in ground effect as it accelerates. The flaps are bumped up just a tiny bit, to that magic point at which the extra lift is more than offset by the drag.
The approaching farm house goes by about 50 feet below, and several hundred feet off to the right. A gentle turn puts me on course towards the fire. Slowly accelerating, the 802 becomes more lively, and I gently and intermittently tweak off the flaps.
The fire is high on the nearby mountain. It’s only about 6.9 miles from the end of the runway, but the airport elevation is 4300 feet above sea level. The fire is about 8000 feet above sea level, so it means a steady climb. I head towards the nearest hill. Approaching at a 45 degree angle, I get as close as I can and ride the air upwards. On the windward side of the hill, as the wind hits the hill it rises, just as water climbs to get over a rock. I position the tanker in that rising air, and climb along the edge of the mountain, slowing each time I find rising air. Better to stay longer in the air which is upward bound.
Checking in with Dispatch (we contact them on the way to and from the fire, as they are watching on the Automated Flight Following (AFF), which gives them our number, speed, and direction. “Air Attack, Tanker 8XX 5 miles, climbing”.
“Roger, 8XX, cleared in at 8500 feet, just me and you out here right now”.
Working up and down the ridge, I get to the altitude specified, give Air Attack a call and let him know I’m inbound. “8XX, you see the ridge with the prior retardant drop?”
Yes, I do…it went a bit long, but it’s steep…very steep, and judging by the smoke the wind is moving pretty good up here. I set up for the drop he wants, a split load, indirect, anticipate a good tailwind. I put it right where I want it to go, but it’s not exactly what he had in mind. One of the difficulties of the job is the ever-present need to understand, by verbal description only, what Air Attack wants. He wanted it “more direct”, more on top of the fire. Okay, I can do that.
I come around, set up over the ridge again, and on short final I see the flames. Okay, brother, there you go. I give the second half of my retardant load to the fire, get a firm “attaboy” from Air Attack, and go for another load. Tony is one of the good Air Attacks. Lets you know when it’s not what he wants, but when it is, that is affirmed.
Back to Dispatch on the radio, call base, make the pattern radio calls. This feels good. The drill, the rhythm, all somehow speak to that internal part of me that matches this job. Loaders are ready, rapidly attaching the hose, loading, releasing, and off we go again. The drill is repeated.
This time the fire is boxed in on all sides but one. Air Attack wants the load across the head of the fire, where it has backed across the ridge into a bowl. The best approach to it is to come out of a right turn, make a sharp turn across a spur ridge, drop over the spur ridge and make a turning drop “slinging” the load into the line across the upper edge of the bowl.
“Exactly what I wanted, 8XX”.
Here’s a picture….
You can see the “long” retardant drop, followed by the boxing in of the fire…and you can see another tanker making a drop in the left part of the picture.
And here is the “bowl”…hard to see from the distance in this picture…
Despite being sent to “hold”, seeing the retardant line laid in along the edge of the flame, made the day great.
I love this job.