Fire Fighting in Alaska

I’m flying a fire-fighting helicopter in Alaska, a Bell 212, this is the third time I’ve flown in the far North.  The first time I flew in Alaska was 1970-71.  Then, as an Army Pilot just back from Viet Nam, I flew the Bell 47, the Huey, the H-21, (flying Banana) and Co-Pilot on the Beaver fixed wing.  The second time was in 2008 when it rained most of the summer. This year is different with many fires and a lot of flying for my Bell 212 and me.

Watching and participating in the fire fighting effort has been a real education and wonderful experience.  The Alaska Department of Forestry (DOF) and Alaskan Fire Service (AFS) fight fire much different from what you see on TV in the “lower 48” or what you may know about fire fighting from the USFS or Cal-Fire in California.

Aircraft utilization is different; more emphasis on fixed wing assets, less on helicopters.  This emphasis is for a very good reason.  Alaska is such a large place and so unsettled, helicopters just don’t have the fuel range to complete the missions.  My first big fire was the Toklot fire just north of Denali National Park.  The fire is about 35 miles west of Clear Alaska and 90 miles southwest of Fairbanks.  Normally there is no fuel at Clear; the closest fuel is back in Fairbanks.  The use of fixed wing of course involves Smoke Jumpers.  Right now most every Jumper in Alaska is committed to the many fires in the interior of the state.

The initial attack is done by Smoke Jumpers then followed up with helicopters when fuel can be brought in.  In support of the jumpers I’ll bring in supplies with a long line and back haul parachutes and other jumper equipment.  The following is story of a Smoke Jumper supply mission.

If you’d told me a month ago I’d be long lining supplies at 1130 at night, I just wouldn’t have believed you.  But, here I am, long line swinging underneath my Bell 212, late at night, midnight sun shinning on me.  My last long line mission had been my check ride for the US Forest Service in California on the May first.  There would be no easing into the long line mode here in Alaska, when you show up they expect you to hit the ground running and that what I knew was expected of me.  Our mission was simple…wrong…our mission was made difficult by restricted visibility due to heavy smoke, late in the day/pushing our duty limitations.

I picked up the twin engine Huey to a 150 foot hover and took up the tension on the cargo net containing water cubes and MRE’s, I’m down to 1000 pounds of Jet A so power isn’t a problem and the ton of supplies come off the ground with 85% torque. I need about 400 pounds of fuel to get back to Clear Alaska and I want to have a minimum of 250 pounds in reserve when I land, and I need to be on the ground by 2400 hours (midnight for you civilians), so I don’t exceed my 14-hour limitation.  I’ve programmed four sets of Latitude and Longitude into my Garmin 296 GPS.  My Pratt and Whitney PT-6’s are burning 600 pounds an hour, so I figure I have about 30 minutes to put in four long lines of supplies.  Did I mention that fuel management is a BIG part of my job, more so than the lower 48, as the closest road is 30 miles away?  The first load is just up the hill from the heli-spot, not more than two miles.  The crew is down in the tall tress, its smoky and the words of my Forest Service Check Pilots come back to me, “Ken, you’re a good pilot, but not a great long line pilot, safe and competent, just not great, don’t try to put in a heavy load on the side of a steep hill with reduced visibility late in the day.”  Did I mention I was using a lot of fuel and my pucker factor was going up faster than my fuel load was going down?

Dang, long lining bites me in the posterior once again…to do or not to do…that is the question.  I’m thinking I can do this, I’m thinking WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!  Viet Nam, shoot downs, Mexico with the Christians in Action, taking the toilets to Lassen Peak and Mount Whitney, what am I trying to prove at age 62 with 13,000 hours of flying? All are flashing like little snapshots through my beady little brain.  But, the load was swinging nicely underneath and I was looking out the bubble and could see the 10 foot diameter hover hole down through the 75 foot trees, I can do this…. all we have to fear is fear its self!  So I gently lower the first load, and behold, it went well.  At least I didn’t see anyone running for cover down in the LZ.  The next two loads were going good, maybe too good, I mean this Check pilot “JIM A” he knows his stuff and who am I to argue with his assessment of my abilities, maybe I’m just being lucky tonight, maybe I’m just kidding my self, am I the only one who has these doubts about their abilities?

The last load is about 5 miles away an off I go with about ten minutes of fuel on station, this IS going to work out.  But it was not to be.  When I called the Smoke Jumpers to determine if they could see me, the answer was, we can’t see you or hear you, big problem!  I circle once, twice and make a decision that will affect the comfort and security of the Airborne Fire fighters.  I’m out of fuel and duty time and visibility; I’m out of here.  Some small amount of sniveling from the heli-spot manager, and I basically tell him to pound sand and to start earlier tomorrow.  I’m flying back to Clear Alaska under the Midnight sun and life is wonderful.

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