arguing with a fire pilot is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud: after a while you begin to think the pig likes it.
It Wasn’t Too Bad
By Smoky Val
We responded to a fire in the Banning Pass during a storm with winds 55 mph. Shortly after lift-off it felt like actually we hit something over the mountains north of Hemet airport.
"What the hell was that?"
"That was a wind shear."
"Shit, I thought the airplane was going to come apart, but I guess it wasn’t too bad."
Over the fire now; God it’s rough. I keep hitting my head on the overhead. We have a Lead airplane and two Airtankers. Gee, that first drop was way off. I guess next time they better move over at least two wing spans, but I guess it isn’t too bad.
No one said anything about that turbulence. This was one of my first fires flying Air Attack and I guess this is the way things are done, or I’m sure someone would have said something by now! Two and a half hours into the fire now and we still haven’t done a damn thing with the fire. Even the helicopter is having a hell of a time, but he says it isn’t too bad.
My pilot says he’s getting sick so he sucks up a little oxygen. I’m feeling a little sick myself but don’t say it. After the radios bounced out of the case and I put them back I did get sick and finally said, “Let’s quit and go back to Hemet.” Sure is funny no one seems to mind.
Coming back it’s still rough. We even drop the landing gear but that doesn’t help either. Back on the ground I even say, “Well, that wasn’t too bad.”
Once again to a fire on the Los Padres. The Santa Ana winds are blowing hard. Over the fire now and we’re getting blown south about five miles, every time we make a turn and gaining and losing about 2,000 feet. Once again I check in with the helicopters on the fire. How is it going down there? “Well, the winds are pretty squirrelly, but it isn’t too bad.”
Damn, I thought they would want to shut down. I can see dust devils all over the fire area. Guess I’ll wait for the tankers and the lead plane to show up. Hope they hurry. Ah ha, they finally got here! “Okay, let's work on the left flank upper side of the fire.”
“Now let me know if you can do it. Fine if you can, if not, we can call it off, okay?”
After two drops I contact the lead plane and ask, “What do you think?” He responds, “Well, it isn’t too bad.”
Hmmm! Well, what the hell. After all, I had heard the pilot on the first tanker call the other one, "God! I hit about 4 g's on that one. Watch it when you come across the ridge.”
I tell them to load and return! Damn, I guess I’ll have to stay here now. I check with the helicopters again and tell them to shut down if it gets too bad to fly. “Be safe,” I say. After about another ten minutes I say, “I’m shutting down.” Amazing how quickly all the other ones shut down too. And they had said it wasn’t too bad.
This confirms my suspicions so I contact the IC and advise him that we’re shutting down and returning to Goleta. Once we get close to the coast line, the airplane does anything it wants to. All we can do is hang on for dear life until it’s over. Now we know it was a wind shear. Later at the bar, after a few beers, the tanker pilots tell me, “That was the best goddamn thing you could have done today. It was the shits out there.”
I wondered why no one had said that to me over the fire. A few more beers, and I ask my flying partner, “Why in the hell weren’t you over the fire, asshole? I had to come all the way from Hemet.”
What he said didn’t surprise me. He said, “I was flying the fire, but it was so rough I shut down and went back and they told me if I wouldn’t fly the fire, they would get someone else. I guess that’s why you’re here!” After a few more beers we all decided it wasn’t too bad.
The next morning they wanted us to fly the fire again, but after yesterday no one seemed to be in a hurry to go. I finally convinced them to check with the local lookout near the fire to see what the wind speeds were. They called back, lookouts reporting 60 to 65 with gusts to 75 mph. I get scared all over again and tell them we’re not going until the winds die down!
But now it isn’t too bad! I guess I could go on and on, but what the hell, it wasn’t too bad.
I still drink too much and I can’t keep my hair from turning gray. Ever wonder why we do the things we do? Let’s take last year’s fires in the fall. Here we had the Santa Ana winds blowing again (mild they say), so one of the helicopter pilots checks flight service. What did they say, we asked. He says, “You don’t want to know! The C-141s at Norton are reporting moderate to severe turbulence near the mountains, and airliners coming into Ontario are reporting the same over the mountains. Flight Service is advising, If you don’t have to fly -- don’t.”
By the way, if a big airplane gets knocked around in the sky, can you imagine what it does to the smaller ones?
Oh! Oh! What’s this, one air attack and one airtanker to Malibu, and 15 minutes later, one air attack and one airtanker to Simi Valley? Shit! But they are predicting mild Santa Anas! Wonder why the C-141s and the airliners were reporting moderate to severe?
Oh well, I guess we’ll find out (we always do). And we did. Point Mugu was clocking wind at 77 mph, but after a few beers at Camarillo we all said it wasn’t too bad.
It seems kind of funny in a way, our own manuals (5700) (8300) tell us when winds exceed 30 mph over ridges we shouldn’t be flying over the mountains. I haven’t seen a fire yet that was worth losing anyone on the ground or in the air. I went to the Panorama Fire in 1954 and to another big one in 1980. It will always grow back again and burn again sometime. But, then again, when and if we go we can always meet at the bar and lie to one another and say it wasn’t too bad!
Frank "Smokey" Vallesillo