The phone rang. A familiar voice crackled in my ear. “We need you here on Sunday.” I knew it wouldn’t be long before I heard from him. It was that time of year.
I was finishing a week of work as a peds anesthesiologist. Off Friday afternoon, a flight home to wash clothes, change my suitcase packing from “scrubs/doctor” to “shirts/pilot”. The inevitable list of things that had to be accomplished prior to departure had to be executed. Obligations extended had to be fulfilled. Friends/family had things I needed to do. Fortunately, the weather cooperated, and I landed about 10 pm, drove from the airport home. I was tired.
Amazingly, almost all of it got done. Even more amazingly, I don’t think I forgot anything. The inevitable “list of stuff” was lined out one-by-one. Airplane was packed. The trusty little Bonanza needed an oil change, and new spark plugs; and my highly busy but agreeable local mechanic was willing to bring an extra guy in on a Saturday to get it done.
The boss had a better idea. “Bring a filter. I have oil. Bring your plugs. We’ll do it at my place”. Off I went to Aircraft Spruce, bought the parts, loaded the plane, and after a busy Sunday morning departed to the west.
He was true to his word. The hangar was open. Tools were placed on a cart. Both the boss and “the Kid” were standing there waiting. The plane went into the hangar, cowling pieces came off, oil came out, filter came off. Within an hour and a half the job was done.
The Kid fascinates me. I met him whilst I was sitting in a hangar visiting with a friend. The Kid came in. He sat down beside me, and as pilots do, we began talking about planes. He had some questions about flying fires. That never surprises me. Pilots of all ages and experience levels seem fascinated with the task. He indicated an interest in getting a job flying fires. That too, never surprises me. Like many jobs, the “outside view” seems to be great…but the reality is sometimes a bit harsher.
Not knowing when you start the season, not knowing when it will end, living in a hotel all summer, relocating at a moment’s notice…all diminish the “shiny” of the job for many people. The requirements to be eligible for the card are stringent enough , that many applicants simply cannot meet them. Instrument rating, heavy tail-wheel time, mountain experience, low-level experience…any one of them singularly encompasses a group of significant size. Taken together, however….the pool is small.
In addition, the successful fire pilot has to be have good “stick and rudder” skills. Better than average. Way better than is typically found in pilots trained in, oh, say the last 30 years. All of that together…..had me skeptical.
The Kid was likeable. If his experience was what he indicated, he had that rare combination of qualifications that we desire. After he left, the older guys in the room spoke highly of him. Pilots, even moreso than average, tend to be cynical about “the younger generation”.
I took a deep breath. The last guy I referred to our company impressed no one…at least not in a positive way. He had a great resume, but had difficulty making the transition to the 802. He ruined both main tires on his checkride. Not a career-enhancing moment. Something in my gut told me the kid would be ok.
Turns out the Kid has hands of gold. My friend, and DO (director of operations) for our company has flown with him several times…in everything from a Baron to a 185 to an 802. The Kid flew them all flawlessly. Moreover, he has a great attitude, is cooperative, and seems to get along with everyone.
Monday early am we loaded up the 802s and headed northwest. A stop along the way to pick up a couple more planes, and continued westward. Through some magic, the DO and Chief Pilot were in some GA airplanes, equipped with autopilots. I ended up being flight lead.
“My” 802 greeted me…..at least as much as a hunk of aluminum can greet. For several years she has been “mine”. Not in terms of legal ownership, but I’ve spent the majority of the hours in it that she’s been flown. Over the winter the engine had a “hot section” (deep inspection of the combustion area of the engine). Hot Sections make us nervous. The potential for large expense looms. (If an engine overhaul is needed, it runs in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars.) A “normal” hot section can easily be $60,000 or more. When I got the phone call that “my” hot section was done, I held my breath. The owner was quite happy…there was nothing wrong, and the cost of the hot section inspection (HSI) was about a tenth of what he had budgeted. His comment was “I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but keep doing it”.
Climbing aboard, “making my nest”, all felt as if I’d just climbed out yesterday. It’s the first season that I’ve instantly felt at home. Years past have required a few days, a few flights, for everything to feel right. Today, it was perfect. Our company does an outstanding job of caring for it’s equipment. Over the winter, it appeared that my plane had been not only thoroughly inspected, but anything that was less than perfect was repaired or replaced.
For the first few hours, the flight was uneventful. We had a rare easterly tailwind, so our enroute time was good. At our first fuel stop, we picked up a couple more planes for the flight. The Kid was my number 2. His formation skills were outstanding.
A fuel stop in New Mexico, and I had planned lunch at the airport cafe (a man’s gotta pick his fuel stops with a plan….). Mother nature had other plans. A significant storm was building to the southwest, and a brief discussion with the guys led to the conclusion that “get on going” was the best plan. I was starved. Thankfully one of my friends had the foresight to buy a couple of sandwiches the night before. Ordinarily, I would have declined a day old sandwich..but at this point it hit the spot.
Read any aviation magazine in the spring/summer months, and they will have an article about mountain flying. “Do not fly any time other than early in the morning, or late in the evening. Do not fly when there are building cumulus clouds.” So, here we are about 1 pm, flying along, jinking and dodging like a high school running back. No autopilot (although most of the autopilots I’ve used don’t handle this kind of rough very well), and I’m trying to eat my sandwich.
I’m grateful for the heavy duty harnesses Air Tractor puts into their planes. Cinch them down, and your head won’t hit the ceiling. Mostly.
The DO and Chief Pilot were talking to us on our discrete frequency…they made it in to our destination airport..but the weather definitely wasn’t as forecast. I had carefully planned so as to arrive with an hour reserve of fuel. Dodging weather wasn’t going to improve that. I made a decision to stop and fuel.
Just as we arrived at our fuel stop, the sky opened up. Rain was pouring down. Courtesy car? Nope. Rental car? Not here. Thank God they had fuel. The rain stopped, fueling completed, bill paid, and off we go. An additional company plane had stopped here as well, and so now we were even a bigger flight. And yours truly still stuck in the lead.
Formation flying is an interesting art. It can be fun, dangerous, scary, rewarding and exhilarating…all on the same flight. We sometimes joke that we put the worst pilot in the lead, as he really can’t get out of position. I’d like to think that they put me in the lead because they thought I could find our way there and keep us out of trouble with the weather. (On the other hand, it might be the former reason….)
One hour to go, and it’s been a long day. As if she knew how tired we were, Mother Nature wound up and let fly. Up one valley, across a ridge, around the next, always looking at the weather by our destination. As we came over the final ridge, the airport was in sight, and another rain shower formed quickly.
One by one, the tankers landed, taxied in to their tie-downs…and the trucks with our drivers were lined up. Each plane was tied down, and the wet, bedraggled pilots climbed aboard.
And the summer begins…..