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GA pilots, airports key in firefighting effortsGA pilots, airports key in firefighting efforts

GA pilots, airports key in firefighting efforts

By AOPA ePublishing staff

Private airpark serves public need

When the California Department of Forestry (CDF) needed a place to base firefighting helicopters, it turned to a small private airpark where community-minded pilots were more than happy to accommodate.

"The CDF literally knocked on my door; they were scouting for a place to base their helicopters," said AOPA member Brian Cahill, a homeowner and airport association president at Blackinton Airport in fire-ravaged northern San Diego County. The airpark is home to seven AOPA members, according to Cahill.

Cahill readily agreed, and firefighting teams soon arrived with eight heavy-lift helicopters and another four reconnaissance aircraft. To ensure that the firefighting operations aren't hindered, the residents agreed to ground their own aircraft for as long as the base is needed.

The airport's paved 2,200-foot runway normally sees only four or five takeoffs a day, but no one is complaining about the increased activity.

"With fires burning only a few miles away, the neighbors around the airport see the firefighting helicopters, and it gives them a level of comfort," Cahill said. "It's certainly does for me."

This is not the first time Blackinton residents have opened their airport to serve the larger community. In the past, their field has been used for search and rescue, and life flight operations.

With tens of thousands of acres burning and some 500,000 California residents evacuated from their homes, general aviation airports and pilots are banding together to support firefighting and community relief efforts.

“If the county airports need our help with anything, our pilots will be right there,” said Phyllis Trombi, AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) volunteer at Gillespie Field in San Diego County.

Numerous GA airports, including Gillespie Field, were being used as bases and staging areas for both ground- and air-based firefighting operations.

Four Grumman S-2 airtankers, each carrying 1,200 gallons of fire retardant, were operating out of Ramona Airport on Oct. 23. All operations at Ramona had been grounded earlier in the week as a result of high winds, turbulence, and smoke, according to ASN volunteer Ian Hollingsworth, who was forced to evacuate his home on Oct. 21.

“We don’t know when we’ll get to go back home, but I think the airport is going to be just fine,” Hollingsworth said, adding that recent brush clearance efforts provided an extra margin of safety for the field.

“Visibility is severely reduced, but we’re open,” said Bob Machale, tower chief at Ramona. “The smoke goes up to about 4,500 feet and the tankers are coming in and out, so I would urge people to stay out of the area until the fires are over and things are back to normal.”

Meanwhile, 13 military and California Department of Forestry firefighting helicopters were operating out of Gillespie Field and some undeveloped airport property was being used as a staging area for ground-based firefighters and equipment, according to airport employees. One piece of airport property was even being used as a “camp” for horses, cows, and other large animals evacuated from surrounding communities.

“Our pilots have opened their hangars for the firefighters who are using the airport as a staging area, and we are volunteering at the animal camp to make sure the animals, and the people who bring them in, are taken care of,” said Trombi. “We are happy to host the firefighters at our airport. We love them. And this is a community event, and whoever needs help will get it.”

Some pilots went even further, opening their homes to fellow pilots who were forced to evacuate during the fires.

Like many other Southern California airports, McClellan-Palomar and Oceanside Municipal airports were fully operational by Oct. 23, but traffic was light as pilots avoided the smoke and ash blanketing the sky.

“We only had one flight land this morning, and that was an Angel Flight,” said Harold Davis with airport operations at Oceanside. Davis added that the U.S. Navy had contacted him about possibly bringing firefighting aircraft to the field later in the day but no plans had been confirmed.

In addition to the 23 Grumman S-2T airtankers, 11 UH-1H Super Huey helicopters, and 14 OV-10A air tactical aircraft operated or used by the California Department of Forestry, numerous other aircraft, including a variety of military helicopters, a DC-10 Super Tanker, and six C-130s modified to carry 3,000 gallons of fire retardant each, had been called in to assist California’s firefighting efforts. The aircraft were operating out of a combination of GA, air carrier, and military airports.

October 23, 2007

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