I.A. means initial attack, thats what I do with a helicopter. The Viet Nam Vets who arehonest will tell you that they miss the adrenaline rush they got from flying helicopters. There is something about being shot at and missed that has a way of focusing your attention. Flying the helicopter well under combat conditions is the very best part of flying…if you can’t do that then there’s I.A.
I’m flying a Long Ranger for the BLM/USFS/ODF on an exclusive contract that runs from June 12th (2001) to Sep18th (2001) in Lake View Oregon. We have a mixed crew from The state of Oregon (ODF) Dept. of Forestry, BLM and US Forest Service. The lead agency is the BLM. Every morning I start my preflight at 0800 hours, the preflight includes not only my helicopter inspection and log book entries but additional paperwork that is called for by the contract.
The crew shows up at 0900 and were are “in service” and ready for dispatch. Loaded on board 12Mike, the abbreviation of the N number N712M, are three helitac personnel, a water bucket (Bambie Bucket) and miscellaneous fire tools like backpacks and chain saws. This load with two hours of fuel puts us at gross weight minus 180 pounds, the 180 pounds is a safety factor mandated by the government. With this weight I’ll be able to hover out of ground effect at 6000 feet at 30 degrees Celsius. This is important as very often I will have to hover down in the forest next to 100 foot trees.
I.A. means what is says, when a smoke is discovered, called in by the look outs or by a citizen, we are dispatched to the fire along with the Fire Engines and the Single engine air tanker, SEAT. As I’ve “cocked” 12Mike, cocked meaning I’ve finished the preflight up to the point of turning on the battery, we can be off the ground in five to eight minutes. With a ground speed of 130 miles an hour most often we’re the first unit arriving at the fire, even considering the 11 million acres we cover.
Arriving over the fire the helitac foreman radios back to central a size up of the fire. Next we try to find a nearby landing area to drop off the “troops” helitac personnel to fight the fire from the ground. At that point the bucket will be off loaded and and attached to 15 foot lead line from the cargo hook of the helicopter. After a quick check to make sure my load will release and I can electrically drop the water, I’m off to find a dip site. Now things start to get interesting.
As with life, often things don’t look so bad from afar, and fire fighting is no different. At 500 feet circling over the lighting started fire it looked like two people and a couple of water drops from the helicopter could handle it…and sometime they can. Last week they couldn’t. Once on the ground the helitac foreman calls me on the radio and has me relay to dispatch for air tankers and a dozer. So on the way to the dip site, which was a small pond about two miles from the fire, I called dispatch and ordered two air tankers and dozer.
The wind started whipping up while I was hovering down into the dip site with my Bambie Bucket dangling below. Wind can be your friend when your pulling 120 gallons of water out of pond but it was kicking the firefighters butt so they pulled back to a safe area and waited for reinforcements. On the way to the fire I could see the little single tree lighting fire was now several acres and growing with dozens of tall Pine trees torching off causing the flames to soar high in the air. Smoke was swirling and cinders were hitting the windshield of 12Mike.
I picked out a spot fire that started behind the ground crew, dropping down between two snags I dropped my water a 35 to 50 feet at 20 miles and hour of airspeed. Steam swirled up from the spot fire when the water hit it. Pulling out at Max power I headed back to the dip site. I was interrupted by the SEAT who had just arrived at the scene. The seat is a Polish made crop duster with Wright 1820 radial engine, they carry 500 gallons of retardant. Slow but cost effective because 500 gallons at the early stages of a fire may hold it until more ground troops can arrive.
I contact the SEAT on victor (aircraft VHF radio) and tell him I’ll show him where to drop. Dispatch is calling me wanting and update, the ground troops are unable to activate the repeater, the FM government freq., from the canyon their in. I give dispatch a quick update and request another dozer, air tanker and two hand crews. I do this while watching the fire double in size from when I dropped my first water load five minutes ago. I line the SEAT up on the left flank of the fire and he makes a beautiful drop. I tell him to load and return while I’m dropping back into my pound to pickup another bucket of water.
The folks on the ground want some more fire fighters on the ground so I drop the next bucket load on another spot fire and fly toward our ground support vehicles who are about 10 miles away parked in a highway turn out. Landing just off the highway I drop my bucket and pick up three more fire fighters. When I arrive back at the fire I can hardly recognize it, its now close to forty acres and growing. Before I can drop off the reinforcements I’m contacted on The FM radio by dispatch wanting another update and advising me I’ll be conducting air tanker drops as there are no air attack or lead planes available because of the outbreak of lighting fires all over the Pacific Northwest.
I contact a C-130 on victor and advise them of the disposition of the ground troops, wind conditions and fire situation. They are very experienced so my suggestion to drop on the SEAT’s line of retardant makes sense to them. They add several thousand gallons to the line on the left flank. Due to heavy smoke they ask me to fly the line they need on final to be lined up for the final drop. I’m out of position to do this but judicious use of the cyclic, collective and pedals I’m able to line up on the correct heading for the C-130. As I pull out to east the air tanker is inbound at 200 feet AGL.
I remember that one of my passengers in the back is the Cookie Monster. The Cookie Monster brings fresh homemade cookie to work every Wed. and she’s not hard to look at. Good cookie maker, great firefighter but…….gets very sick in the back if I exceed a 30 degree bank. My first inclination is to land immediately when I glance back at her now green face but the second air tanker just arrived so I go through the procedure again before I can drop the crew off.
I finally land in a small meadow several hundred yards upwind from the fire, taking off I see the Cookie Monster bending over, as to kiss the ground. I make 15 more water drops and and put in four more tankers before I break for fuel. My fuel truck has set up in a gravel pit about five miles from the fire. I land and am handed a Diet Pepsi by Bill, my fuel truck driver. I’ve flown 1.6 hours and the day is young.
Lake View, OR