Several people have asked me lately if flying on fires is “pretty tame” after flying a helicopter in combat operations in Viet Nam. I’ve thought about it a bit, and I have to say “It’s incredibly similar!” Ever present in both is the excitement, the danger, and the adrenaline rushþ everything, I suppose, except the shooting. And if you REALLY miss the shooting, you can always amend that by flying “low and slow” over someone’s marijuana garden, and someone is bound to fire a few rounds at you just to make sure you don’t miss Viet Nam TOO much. The similarities abound, and as I’ve done both with a helicopter, I thought I’d point out a few of them.
Dropping water versus shooting rockets doesn’t sound like they have much in common, but I beg to differ. I flew Charley model (HUEY) gun ships in Viet Nam. We shot the 2.75 Folding Fin Aerial Rocket or FFAR. I probably shot about 2,500 of them in 1969 and 70. When loading up 39 of the FFAR’s, the Charley model is overloaded, and under certain circumstances the pilot might have to drop the rocket pods to make a safe take off or landing. When you pick up a bucket of water, in my case 120 gallons my Bell Long Ranger, the payload including the bucket will weigh over a thousand pounds. If you get a wind shift or go too low and slow while flying up a steep canyon with a loaded Bambi Bucket, you may have to jettison the water and possibly the whole bucket may have to be dropped.
The Bambi bucket costs about $7,000.00 so you try not to drop it. Of course, it’s not MY $7,000.00, but the owner of Roger’s Helicopters (Mrs. Rogers don’t let the name fool ya) is NOT going to be very happy, and the Chief Pilot is going to be all over you like a cheap suit. Conversely when you dropped your rocket pods you just might get them shot right back at you one dark night while tucked into your cot with your teddy bear at the base camp.
Accuracy with rockets helped the ground troops accomplish their objective, ditto with water drops. The ground troops loved meþ unless I shot the rockets to close, ditto with fire fighters. It was fun shooting rockets and after shooting a lot you get very good at it, ditto the water drops. Sometimes you might have to fly a long distance to load rockets. Often the Army would set up a portable rearming site near the battle, ditto the water tanks. The portable dip sites are dusty and so were rearming sites. Sometimes you would fly inadvertent IFR in the dust at both places. Once in a while I’d get so “involved” with rocket shooting, mud and debris from the explosions would blow out my windshields on the Charley model. Happily this never happens to my Long Ranger, but I have had a tree limb break out the chin bubble when dropping water too low (sorry Mrs. Rogers!)
In Viet Nam we had a Command and Control Helicopter (C&C) which flew in circles over the battle at three to five thousand feet. The Air Attack Supervisor serves this same function while fighting fire. The Air Attack circles over the fire giving out orders to the helicopter crews and Air Tanker pilots, he’s probably the same guy who was flying the C&C bird 30 years ago in ŒNam. The Air Attack even fly in a Viet Nam era airplane, the OV-10 Bronco.
The Air Attack folks don’t like to leave the helicopter pilots without “adult supervision” on the fire, ditto the C&C chopper… I guess they’re afraid we’re going to run around with scissors or forget to “share.” During an operation in ŒNam as we would start attracting attention, more and more helicopters carrying Army Brass would flock in and circle the action, somehow counting coup by being present. In a fire the same thing happens. In both cases we call it “expanding circles of stupidity.”
While watching firefighters it occurred to me they are in much of the same predicament as the Infantry troops, or Grunts, in Viet Nam. The enemy can kill you just as dead with a with a AK-47 or RPG as a raging wildfire can. Sometimes being on the ground near the enemy/fire gives you a certain perspective that is not available to someone circling above in the C&C/Air Attack. Helicopter pilots are very popular because they’re not going to let troops/fire fighters down and have a better appreciation for the situation than does a commander many miles away.
I admire “my” firefighters as much as I admired “my” grunts in Viet Nam. They’re doing a hell of a job, in incredibly difficult terrain and circumstances, and we owe a lot to each and every one of them. It shouldn’t take a “9-11” to make us admire firefighters, just ask the thousands of people every year who’s homes and the dreams they hold “miraculously” survive a raging inferno. The miracle is that men and women will shed blood, sweat and tears to protect someone ELSE’S home. These firefighters have the same spirit as the fighters had years ago. Don’t watch “Platoon” and think it’s a documentary, don’t watch “Back Draft” and think you’ve got a handle on firefighters, they’re a special breed.
So there you have it, the comparisons are endless. However, when you see the sooty, sweaty, and tired fire fighters and helicopter pilots on your local news, rest assured that there’s no other place we’d rather be.
Lake View, OR