Into the Valley of Fire

Pilots tackle one hot job

July 1, 2004

The national news says it all. Wildfires are consuming homes in California, and there will be no end in sight until the weather changes. The fire base is a constant sea of activity as air tankers return from the largest fires and reload with retardant. The air smells heavily of smoke, and visibility has dropped to almost IFR conditions. The air officer notes that I'm "due" for an annual mission checkride and the check airman, Ben, will fly in the right seat on my next mission. As Ben and I get our morning briefing on the fire activity, new temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), and fire weather reports, the shrill siren at the base sends everyone leaping to their feet with a surge of adrenaline. The public-address system cracks alive, followed by, "Sherpa load to the Shasta-Trinity." For us that means to load up the retired U.S. Air Force C-23 Sherpas. The boxy twin-engine turboprops, Short Brothers SD-330s in civilian life, make idea platforms for unloading smokejumpers into a hot spot such as Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Smokejumpers are sprinting to the ready room while we quickly throw on our Nomex flight suits and hustle out to the aircraft. Ben and I take the tethers off the propellers, remove the chocks from underneath the wheels, and jump into our respective seats. The sweat is beginning to collect on our foreheads as we fasten our seat belts in the stifling summer heat. The AWOS (automated weather observation system) reports 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but the heat on the ramp is certainly higher, and the sweltering cockpit is even worse than that. Ben looks over his right shoulder to make certain that the right engine area is clear. He calls, "Clear right," and I move the start switch while calling, "Starting two." As the engine spools up to speed, it creates a loud roar on the noisy and bustling ramp.

We begin following the after-start checklist as the "spotter" walks forward and shouts over the roar of the turboprops. (Spotters are highly experienced smokejumpers who are hand-picked for their decision making and communication skills. They are the real bosses.)

"OK, we've got multiple fire incidents in the Shasta-Trinity. Here are the frequencies we will use with dispatch and for air-to-air. CDF [California Department of Forestry] is launching their fleet to cover adjacent incidents. By the way, dispatch said they're experiencing massive congestion on every frequency." We scribble the numbers and call signs onto our kneeboards and punch in the coordinates of the fire into the INS (inertial navigation system). By this time, the ground marshal signals that all of the smokejumpers are on board and that the left side of the aircraft is clear. We start the left engine, run the rest of the after-start checklist, get the "all ready" signal from the ground marshal, then push the power levers up to taxi toward the active runway. With the heavy load in the back and the hot temperatures on the ramp, the aircraft requires more power than usual to get moving.

Five minutes have passed since the fire siren went off, and the clock is ticking against us. Every precious minute counts in the firefighting business, especially during the early growth of a fire. Rapid initial attack of newly emerging wildfires is critical to keep the fire incidents small before they grow into conflagrations. There are four Grumman S-2 air tankers belonging to the CDF taxiing out to the runway ahead of us, all destined for the same general direction. Tower clears us to take off behind the air tankers. As we roll onto the runway and push the power levers forward, the airspeed barely increases during the long takeoff roll in the heavily loaded and underpowered Sherpa. When Ben calls out V 1, I take my right hand off the power levers as we are now committed to taking off if an engine fails. We hold our breaths slightly, knowing that an engine failure now would require split-second timing and reactions, leaving very little safety margin. Thankfully, the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 engines keep purring and Ben calls out, "Rotate." I gently pull the nose of the Sherpa up and feel us gradually break ground, barely clearing the lights at the end of the runway. We continue northbound away from the airport, climbing at only a couple hundred feet per minute. The visibility is horrible because of the smoke, and the firefighting radio frequencies are nonstop with voices of aircrews, ground crews, and dispatchers stepping over each other. There just aren't enough radio frequencies for all of the various fire incidents. Ben shakes his head at the frequency congestion, and often we have to communicate via hand signals because the radio clutter is so bad.

As we fly toward the steep mountains of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, we spot multiple columns of smoke coming up from the destination canyon. The spotter standing over my shoulder exchanges looks with us. We all know that the canyon walls are extraordinarily steep in that area, presenting a significant hazard for the jumpers. A small error can mean that they land on a rock pile or cliff face, and fall a thousand feet farther down the steep hillside. This is not child's play.

I set up the aircraft into a left-turning pattern so that everyone in the back can have a chance to look at the terrain and fire. Their experienced eyes are already sizing up the terrain, looking for suitable jump spots, estimating the safety margin if they miss the jump spot, looking for snags (tall dead trees that you would otherwise call widow-makers), calculating the winds, and watching the fire behavior. Ben and I are doing the same up front, trying to figure out how we are going to descend safely into the gorge. Our task is complicated by the chaotic, strong downdrafts in the confines of the tight canyon on this hot summer day. The glare from the smoky haze makes it difficult to see. As if that isn't enough adversity, the Sherpa's ergonomics are horrible for this mission. I have to pull myself over toward the left window to see better, with part of my rear end just barely on the seat. It's a very uncomfortable position. Ben is arching up and straining to likewise get a good look at the incident area while he does the very important task of monitoring my aircraft control, monitoring four radio frequencies, and keeping a sharp eye for other air traffic.

The spotter in the back sticks his head out into the propeller's noisy prop wash and watches our movement over the ground. I'm trying to maneuver the aircraft so we fly right over the proposed jump zone. It's very difficult seeing the tiny hole in between the tall pine trees, and it's especially difficult trying to look over the long, ungainly nose of the Sherpa. The spotter still has his head out in the prop wash and is prepared to give me a "right" or "left" yell into the intercom if I need to correct my flight path by a few degrees. As we fly over the jump zone, the spotter throws out the weighted "streamers" and calls into the interphone, "Streamers away!"

The streamers are weighted to simulate the average weight of a smokejumper with equipment. We watch the streamers descend and get a rough idea of how the air currents will affect the descent of the jumpers in their round parachutes. It is tough holding the Sherpa steady in the gentle turn because of the turbulence, and I feel sorry for the jumpers in the back. As if their nerves aren't heightened enough by the upcoming jump into forbidding terrain, they have to deal with nauseating turbulence. One of the jumpers leans over and grabs a white sack. He buries his head into the sick sack. I'm just hoping that the others don't get sick. We open up a side window to keep fresh air moving over our faces. At times the smell comes up front and it just isn't very pleasant.

I glance around to the back to see how the spotter and the jumper in charge are doing. I'm trying to read their body language closely so I can predict what they will need next. They are nodding at each other. The assistant spotter is double-checking the hookup of the static line of the first jumper. That means everyone in the back has agreed on the exit point and drop zone. I begin my turn in anticipation that the next circuit will involve dropping the first two jumpers.

The spotter yells over the blast of wind into the intercom, "OK, give me the same line, just bump it one wingspan to the right. We'll be ready to go live on the next pass." That means he is ready to put the jumpers out the door. The timing works out well because I am just about ready to turn the aircraft onto final. The spotter pokes his head back out the door and watches my flight path. I'm trying my hardest to fly the exact flight path that he wants. That isn't as easy as it might sound. I don't have a good flat horizon to guide me, the haze created by the smoke doesn't help, and the sloping terrain is full of visual illusions. For all practical purposes, all of those green trees on the ground look pretty similar from this altitude, and there just isn't a good sighting reference to help me fly such an exact line. I need to fly with the precision of a Category I ILS right down to minimums, but without the guidance of localizer and glideslope needles. The afternoon thermals don't help. My hands are sweaty and beads of salty perspiration trickle down my temples because I want to do my very best for my friends in the back. Unknowingly I hold my breath and my heartbeat races, while I'm trying my hardest to fly as smoothly as I humanly can. The sweat drips down onto my sunglasses.

I hear the spotter yell, "GEETT REEAADDYY..." to the jumpers in the door and then the air pressure changes in the cockpit. I feel a disturbance of air go over the aircraft's elevator. Another pulse hits the elevator immediately after the first one. Through the headset I hear that sweet phrase, "Jumpers away!" I turn left into a 30-degree bank and watch my friends descend through the air as we get hit by more turbulence.

By now my armpits are soaked in sweat and the fans in the cockpit are only marginally helpful. The first jumper is maneuvering his parachute into the wind, being careful to avoid getting blown too far downwind. In this case, being blown too far away from the jump spot risks crashing into a cliff and probably tumbling a thousand or more feet down the steep hillside. The jump spot looks barely bigger than two or three parachute widths buried deep amongst huge California pine trees. At treetop level, the jumper executes a turn into the terrain and then he hits the ground. His parachute falls over and he's down. It looks like he hit hard on the slope. Now I'm holding my breath, waiting to see him stand up and then to hear from him on the radio. The second jumper hits the ground seconds later, just yards from the other's parachute. We see them stand up and begin unbuckling their gear. Over the radio I hear, "Jumper Seven-Nine, this is James, we're OK." Ben and I breathe a big sigh of relief and exchange a look that says, "Good, two down, eight more jumpers to go."

It takes 20 long, pressure-filled, turbulent, noisy, sweaty minutes to deliver all of the jumpers over the exit point. Each pass requires the same precision as the first. Once we've delivered all of the jumpers safely to the ground it would be nice to relax for a moment, but now the pressure is really on me to deliver the cargo to their location.

The plan is to fly about 200 feet over the sloping terrain and kick out the para-cargo at the appropriate moment so that it lands near the smokejumpers. In flat terrain, on a windless day, that wouldn't be very hard. However, the terrain is anything but flat, the air is turbulent, the winds are chaotic, the canyon walls are right off the wing tip, the smoke is getting thicker, the trees are huge, and the opening in between the trees seems very small. Ben and I lift our headsets and discuss the options for the para-cargo drops. Under better circumstances, I'd prefer to drop the cargo with a left-hand pass, with the sun slightly behind me so that I don't get the glare of the sun through the smoke, but in this situation that risks flying up canyon. My escape route in the event of an engine failure is to fly down river, down canyon, all the way to the Pacific Ocean if I have to. Since the escape route is such an important factor, we've decided to fly a right-hand pattern with the final segment headed down canyon.

Now we have to fly even farther below the ridgeline, deep down in the canyon. The drop zone is difficult to see because of the tall trees and the terrain. The curved walls of the canyon and the steep terrain prevent us from seeing the jump site until we are right over the spot. I'm holding my breath now and trying to make a million calculations in my head — the winds, the flight path, how I want the para-cargo to get over those pines.

Just then a snag pops into view. It's an extra-large pine tree, one that sticks up about 20 feet higher than the others. I have to add a bit of power and lift the wing to avoid getting any closer to it. We didn't see it while we were evaluating the route from up higher, but this is all too common for us. Green trees don't stand out amongst each other when viewed from higher angles. Once we've passed safely over the snag I quickly concentrate back on the cargo run. The terrain looks a lot different zipping by just 200 feet under the nose than it did several thousand feet higher.

My heartbeat quickens and I hold my breath for just the right microsecond. Just then I see the small clearing in the trees pop out under our nose and reflexively I loudly say, "KICK!" into the intercom. I hear the para-cargo slide on the rollers out the door as we push up the power levers and begin a climb away from the canyon wall and over the river. As we climb away, I think to myself, "Sheez, that is really a small hole in those trees, and those trees are huge." It's going to be tough getting all of the cargo down into that small clearing.

About that time the radio cracks with a call from one of the jumpers on the ground. "Looks OK, Jumper Seven-Nine...made it to the ground...you might want to carry those just a hair more...they barely cleared those big pines."

Maybe this sounds like fun, and I admit that it's an adrenaline rush, but it's highly risky. Almost all aerial-firefighting aircraft accidents during this phase are fatal. Trying to maneuver heavily loaded and underpowered aircraft so close to steep terrain, with unpredictable winds, occasional strong downdrafts, and high density altitudes, is terribly unforgiving. The haze and the turbulence don't help.

Most of the cargo hits the spot on this mission, which is good. One of the boxes did get stuck in a tree, but the weight of the cargo broke several branches and helped the box to slide down to the ground. Whew, I lucked out again. I really didn't want to see any of my friends have to climb those dangerously tall ponderosa pines to retrieve a box of cargo.

When the last of the cargo hits the spot, I turn and look at Ben. "How would you like to fly now? I need a break."

Ben grins and says, "Good, my turn." He takes the controls and climbs up higher above the thermals, swinging back to the jump base. I run the "cruise" checklist, handle the radios, pull out the water bottle, and pour some down the back of my neck. The water feels good.

As we fly back to the jump base we listen to some of the firefighting activity on the FM radios. The haze is bad but we can still make a VFR pattern back at Redding. With the parking brakes set, the chocks under the wheels, the engines shut down, and the final checklists accomplished, we can relax. It's been 150 minutes since the siren sounded, a long time to be riding on adrenaline and concentrating so hard. The loadmasters are already reloading cargo onto the aircraft while Ben and I unlock the fuel door so the refueling truck can service the aircraft. There's no guessing when the siren might go off again. That's when Ben pulls out his check-airman grade sheet and grins, "Well, let's see, where shall I begin?" Oh yeah, it was a checkride too, wasn't it?


Patrick R. Veillette of Park City, Utah, is a commercial airline pilot. He flew the DC-3TP, DHC-6, and C-23 for smokejumper, transport, and reconnaissance missions in the Rocky Mountains for five years.


Busy Skies Over Wildfires

Aircraft have been used for aerial fire suppression since the post-World War I era when biplanes were dispatched for fire-detection missions in Montana and Idaho. From 1925 to 1935, aircraft were used in the northern Rocky Mountain region for aerial photography and cargo dropping. In 1935, experiments dropping water and chemical bombs from aircraft started the development of the air-tanker concept. In 1940, the U.S. Forest Service's first smokejumpers were deployed to fires in Montana, Idaho, and Washington using Beechcraft Travelairs and Ford Tri-motors.

The present aerial-fire management system includes 63 air-tanker bases positioned predominantly throughout the West and California. Smokejumpers have eight permanent bases. However, temporary bases are frequently established at several perennial locations such as Grand Junction, Colorado, and Silver City, New Mexico, to move these elite initial attack forces even closer to high-threat localities when fire conditions warrant.

A wide range of fixed-wing aircraft are used for aerial fire suppression, from light single-engine aircraft to a fleet of World War II-vintage aircraft (DC-4s, DC-6s, DC-7s, and P2V Neptunes) used for dropping retardant, and finally to slightly more modern turboprop aircraft (P-3s, C-12 King Airs, and UV-18B/DHC-6 Twin Otters). These fixed-wing aircraft are used by government agencies or contractors for missions such as retardant delivery, reconnaissance, smokejumper delivery, lead plane/air attack, aerial spraying, and personnel transport. In addition, a large fleet of helicopters operated by public-use agencies perform primary and extended attack operations on wildfire incidents.

The vast majority of wildfires are not protected by an overlying TFR. Obviously aerial firefighting crews have immense workloads in this fast-paced, high-risk environment. The airspace over a wildfire can get very busy in a hurry, and deadly midair collisions between firefighting aircraft, as well as hundreds of near-midair collisions between firefighting aircraft and general aviation and military aircraft, have occurred in the past. Whether the airspace is protected by a TFR or not, all pilots should avoid the vicinity of any wildfire for their own safety and for the safety of the firefighters. Members can access AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner on the Web site ( www.aopa.org/flight_planner/) for graphical depictions of TFRs over firefighting areas. — PRV