Life around a tanker base, early in the season, is fairly predictable. Morning briefing, a walk for some exercise, a cup of coffee. The view of scenery is one that would make tourist bureaus from the midwest jealous. However, the most urgent matter of the morning is planning lunch. The debate starts at breakfast…..
“You want steak? Burgers?” Grilled steak, done by my (most talented) driver is one of our standbys. Today, however, we had grilled salmon. Considering the dilapidated grill, which likely was donated by someone who had tired of it’s rickety stance, and it’s unplanned ventilation holes (courtesy of rust), the salmon came out “pretty good”.
Grilled poblano peppers, grilled zucchini, and the view….and we were prepped for the afternoon nap. It was not to be….
The tanker base manager came to the door, handed us a dispatch sheet (the folded paper with the fire, the location, the GPS coordinates) and told us to go. Bathroom stop, ride to the plane, change to “flying boots”, flight suit, quickly repeat the morning preflight, and buckle in.
In the two weeks since arrival out west, we had only flown once…to reposition to Utah. In past years, it’s taken me a day to feel “at home” back in my airplane. This year my muscle memory made the start feel like it was yesterday. “Clear”. Boost pump on, boost pump off.
Starter engaged….rpm starting to come up, past 12%, ignition on. Rpm stabilizes, move the condition lever forward just enough to trickle fuel into the burner cans. The familiar “whoosh” of igniting jet fuel tickles my ears, as the exhaust smell tickles my nose. Keep a close eye on the ITT (interstage turbine temperature), but it hovers just under 800 degrees, then drops as rpm accelerates. Close the window, and turn on the A/C. Thank you, Lord, for A/C.
(In the 802, you climb into the cockpit via the window. There’s really no “door” per se, and as soon as the engine comes alive, and all is well, the window is closed, before the prop is moved from “feather” (blade angles aligned with the fuselage…slow rpm). The objective is to move the prop lever from “feather” to “full rpm” and with a single motion move on the the window, and lift it up and secure it. Too slow, and the airflow will make it impossible to close.)
“Pit One” the ramp boss instructed. I dutifully pulled in, and having never loaded from this base before, was keeping a close eye on the “mud monkeys”. Prop feathered, window open, signal given to approach and connect the loading hose. While the signals have been carefully briefed, there’s still caution. Sadly, more than one experienced ground person has accidentally walked into a prop….with mortal outcome.
My load calculations are done quickly as the “mud” rushes into the hopper. I program the GPS, check the “bearing and distance” to the fire. (A single missed digit into the GPS can have you heading not only the wrong bearing, but to the wrong hemisphere…) The pump runs at approximately 400 gallons per minute, and I’m shooting for just under 700 gallons. I’m wary of “roll-on”. Some bases have more than others, and I don’t know these guys yet. One notorious base has a full 50 gallon of “roll-on”, which can have significant repercussions. The hopper only holds 800 gallons…and it’s considered bad form to blow the top out of the hopper. It’s worse to have so much on board that flying becomes a questionable activity.
Signals were given, and the roll-on was a bit more than I wanted, but well within the amount that I had previously deemed as acceptable.
I departed the pit, made the short taxi to the runway, and applied take-off power. Field elevation here is 5600 feet above sea level. The 802s performance was commensurately diminished. (Density altitude robs performance…and it rises dramatically not only with terrain altitude, but with temperature as well. It’s summer now….) Fortunately, the generations of pilots flying here had convinced all the appropriate authorities to put in a suitably long runway. The wind was gusting, and we were airborne soon.
My mentor/friend/fellow West Texan was flying the second plane today. Of all the people I’ve flown with over the decades, he remains one of my favorites. Reliable, calm, skilled…an excellent person with whom to be paired. Once we were airborne, the call to dispatch was done…”Tankers 8XX and 8YY off, enroute to the ABC fire, 55 minutes enroute, one soul each plane, 3 plus 20 on fuel”.
“Roger, Tanker 8XX, positive AFF”.
AFF, or “automated flight following”, is a system contracted by the government that allows tracking of each individual plane. Once Dispatch confirms that they are tracking us, we no longer have to give reports of position. The upside is huge, as long as someone is watching. You have a problem, go down in a remote area, they should know within minutes. Assuming someone is watching, of course…..
A 55 minute ferry to the fire gives you time to think. To look, to observe. The colors of the scenery are magnificent. The rise of the terrain is majestic. The effect of the wind, however, leaves me feeling like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer. The winds aloft were significant, and just as water flowing against a rock rises, wind against mountains rises. Flat valleys adjacent to hills make for some interesting rides. Just as I’m grateful for air conditioning, I’m grateful for snug, secure shoulder harnesses…..
A few minor bits of chat occur over the company radio. My friend occasionally has a comment, but doesn’t do non-stop chatter like some pilots. Just enough I know he’s back there, a reminder of an important detail, or a quick note of a significant geological feature.
We arrive on the fire. It’s a decent size column, resulting from a “prescribed fire” that escaped it’s planned boundaries. A deep valley, a long spur ridge, and a high tension power line all contribute to the “fun” that we’re going to have. I’m first up.
“See that line of retardant from the heavy? North side of the fire?” Yep. “Start there, tag and extend down the valley”. Okay, will need a right hand turn, which is approved. “Line is clear, cleared to drop”. Yep, got my gate armed, my exit plan, my approach speed…all set.
About the time I line up on final, the wind shifts. Dramatically. The column of smoke lays over. The line of retardant disappears under the smoke. I don’t drop, add power, and slowly turn and climb away. The terrain here is about 10,000 feet above sea level, the air is “thin” and I edge my way up to a maneuvering altitude.
“Well, looks like we will move to the other side of the fire”. Good call. My X-ray vision is inoperative today. “See that spur ridge on the north side of the fire, with the two-track, and where the trucks are parked?” Yep. “I’ll get those trucks moved”.
Air Attack today is one of the good ones. He’s not flustered by the wind/weather changes, and is on the FM radio talking to the ground crews. Slowly the trucks move away. I set up my run. As I get lined up, I notice a ground crew….cameras out. Evidently the chance to get a close-up of a tanker isn’t one to be missed. The effects of almost 6000 pounds of retardant being dropped on you from low altitude isn’t prominent in their mind. If the pilot(me) miscalculates the drop height, it can be significant. If a boulder is dislodged, or a tree branch broken, the secondary effects can be dramatic.
I go around. Air Attack is apologetic. No problem, we get paid by the minute. Finally the line is clear, the retardant is airborne, and lays in against the ridge where I had intended.
“Load and return”. The words we like to hear. The distance to this fire was approximately 160 miles. Almost exactly a two hour round trip. That translates to a “fuel cycle” each time….not enough fuel to make two round trips, with a reasonable reserve. My bladder was glad, as water and coffee had flowed freely all morning.
The wind was blowing harder by the time we finished the second load. My first landing was okay, but not great. The second was a rodeo. I was grateful to have learned to fly in West Texas, as gusty winds, and the recovery from bounces was part of the daily curriculum. I was embarrassed, knowing my mentor and friend was behind me. Fortunately, he was gracious enough to demonstrate a pretty lousy landing for my benefit. I did say “thank you” over the radio.
We made a total of 4 cycles. Just under 8 hours of flying. Each cycle required loading fuel as well as retardant. If calculations were correct, the last cycle would give us 8 minutes to spare before “pumpkin” time.
At some bases, just getting fuel is a half hour or more proposition. These folks had two trucks for us, each time. Our cycles were taking about 15 minutes from stop to start (which is pretty quick). The last cycle was 9 minutes.
The turbulent air calmed on the last run. The flight back to base was smooth, uneventful, and the sunset was beautiful.
It was a great lunch.