So you want to fly in Alaska? Well, a lot of flying on fires occurs at 500 feet above sea level to 2,000 feet. Not very high and certainly the Bell 212 can fly at maximum gross weight at these altitudes, 11,200 pounds. It was originally designed for over water flights. So flying on fires involves, crew shuttle, long lines, water dropping and recons. The thing is there are very few places to refuel, so fuel management becomes an issue to contend with. I carry a barrel hand pump with me, along with young strong helitack crewmembers to pump the Jet-A into 2 Hotel Lima.
Once in a while I do get to fly in the mountains, as the old saying goes, be careful what to wish for. A mountain top repeater needs repair. There are no roads to the repeater site. A helicopter has already crashed there, in previous years, flying a similar mission. The weather is 28 degrees with blowing snow and reduced visibility. The radio technicians show up and seem to think they’re getting on the helicopter with out briefing us on the mission or getting the prerequisite safety briefing from us. We quickly find out that the mission has changed from what dispatch told us. The Lat and Long is different from what the radio guys say it is, from what dispatch says it is to what our maps say it is…I go with the map.
Fire season is over for now, heavy rains, cool temperature have put out or slowed the fires in my area. Right now we have the distinct possibility of heat exhaustion and hypothermia injuries at the same time on the fire lines. As I crank up 2 Hotel Lima I’m thinking, the reason I must love flying Alaska is there is no normal days. Every mission is different and has the possibility of stretching my abilities as a helicopter pilot to the max. More than a few pilots’ abilities have been stretched PAST the breaking point. All my radios are working and I call Tok Dispatch on out new narrow band FM radios. The radio, a Tec Sonics, has about four million frequencies in it and we add more every day, and we have two of the radios on board. We also have two aircraft VHF radios and 10 GPS’s. One is the aircraft GPS, that belongs in the Smithsonian Museum, one is my Garmin 296, and my MAP 60 SCX, and my backup to my backup and each crew member has at least one GPS. If those GPS satellites ever quite working, “We’re in a heap of trouble”! Just in case, I unfold my paper map.
We’re flying to Mt Fairplay, which is just off the road to Chicken Alaska, coincidentally it Chicken Fest weekend at Chicken Alaska. We soon find the base of Mt. Fairplay, as the top is in the clouds. I circle around for a few minutes and the cloud cover drifts away. I land on a “relative” flat spot at 6,500 feet MSL. There are lots of rocks in our LZ. On short final, I have the helitack open the doors to check out the final spot my skids will touch down on. We’re on the ground, and as I shut down number one PT-6 and then number two, I’m thinking that three things could happen now. One is the 2HL will start up just fine, after the radio tecks are finished and we all fly back to Tok. Two is the helicopter will not start up, or have some other “grounding” problem, and we will stay the night on Mt. Fairplay. Three, my least favorite, is we walk to the highway, which should only take a day or two. The radio technicians start work and I check out the rest of the site. Behind a rock, not far from where I’m parked, I find some left over aluminum from the helicopter that crashed here. I’m pretty sure that pilot didn’t plan on crashing that day, he even felt he was a good or better than average pilot. I don’t plan on crashing, but carry a personal GPS/ELT emergency transmitter (that makes 11 GPS’s on board), I also have a personal survival kit with a tent and sleeping bag, shotgun and Mountain House freeze dried food. I don’t expect to use them, but better to have and not need, than not have and need. I’m looking down the mountain, with my binoculars, and see something moving, a grizzly. He is no threat at three or four thousand feet down the side of the mountain.
After about three hours, it time to move on to Mt. Neuberger. More blowing snow, and high winds make my approach interesting. I use the Larry Holdridge School of Mountain Flying. Long slow approaches, with the power on long before touch down. I don’t want any sudden power changes just before touch down. The wind is blowing a steady 20 MPH and the ambient temperature is 28 degrees on top of the 6,500 mountains. My sleeping bag would make for a cool night, if we were stranded up here. I’m wearing insulated boots with wool socks, 511 trousers, long johns, T-Shirt, Sweat Shirt, flight suit and medium weight jacket and I’m cold. You can’t afford to screw up landings, start up or take offs here. One screw up might be your last!