Friday, December 4, 2015

Forest Fire Flying

The Northwestern part of the U.S. has thousands upon thousands of acres of forest lands that are managed and cared for by the U.S. Forest Service. This is timber-covered country whose mountains reach to ten thousand feet or more in elevation.

In my day, the Forest Service relied heavily on various types of aircraft to service these great forests lands. Though they actually owned few planes of their own, they contracted with privately owned air-service companies to furnish planes and qualified pilots to do their flying. This type of back country flying included fire-suppression tanker planes, fire patrol planes, utility and cargo planes, and planes suited for dropping fire fighters by parachute (which are better known as smoke-jumpers).

The Forest Service has created and maintained numerous landing strips scattered over this huge section of the Northwest. Many of these strips were located in deep canyons along streams, creeks and rivers. They were usually short, sometimes rough, and often were what was called “one way strips,” meaning you had to land in one direction only and no going around for a second shot if you missed the first one. It was well known that over the years quite a number of pilots and their passengers had been injured or killed trying to use these strips. Most of the strips required pilots with mountain flying experience to safely negotiate them.

My first experience with this type of flying with the Forest Service was as a fire patrol plane pilot for an air-service operator in Grangeville Idaho. On a typical patrol, I would report into the office in the early morning and be assigned a plane to fly, usually a Cessna 180 or 185 or a Cessna 206. I would be given a briefing on the route I would fly and introduced to a Forest Service person who would accompany me as an observer and radio operator. The observer was a man familiar with the route and he would occupy the right front seat beside me. In his lap he would have large map grid of the area with the route and all the lookout towers depicted on it. He would have ear phones and a boom mike on his head for easy and continuous communication with the dispatch office at the home base. Also he would be contacting each of the lookout towers along our route as we flew by them.

This particular season I was hired to fly a Cessna 206, which was a six-place machine. The 4 rear seats were removed and a few modifications installed. I would be flying patrol but with two smoke jumpers and a jump-master on board. Each jumper also had a fire pack to be dropped separately. These contained most of his necessary equipment, a sleeping bag, food supplies, etc. If a fire was spotted, the jumpers were deployed so as to land in a nearby clearing if possible.

As soon as they hit the ground I would make a low pass over them and the jump-master would shove the fire-packs out. This was a bit tricky. Each pack had its own small parachute. As I made the low pass I had to signal the jump-master the exact moment to shove them out so as to land in the clearing where the fellows on the ground were. As a general rule I managed to drop them on the spot or very close. I had done this many times.

It was late in the season. The nights were getting cold in the high elevations and the packs were important to the men I had just dropped. On the first low pass I yelled, "Let ‘er go!" and the jump-master shoved out pack number one. I pulled up in a tight turn so I could observe where the little chute and pack would land. There was one lone, very tall pine tree in the middle of the clearing and... you guessed it.

The blasted chute settled directly over the tip top of the tree. I made the second pass and again at the right instant yelled, "Let ‘er go!" As I pulled up and turned to watch, the second little chute was caught up in some sort of wind gust and started floating slowly away from the clearing. On and on...and on... it went on down the canyon. I don’t know where it landed, but it definitely was not in the reach of the poor jumpers on the ground. There was nothing else I could do so I headed home, knowing that those men were going to spend a long cold night and maybe several days without sleeping bags, blankets, tools and food.

About five days later I was out at the airport servicing my plane when two very large men walked up to me. I recognized the biggest of the two was one of the jumpers I had marooned up in the mountains. He walked straight up to me with a serious look on his face, reached out with his huge hand and grasped the front of my shirt. He pulled me up close and in a low controlled growl said, "Dale, I want to explain to you what it's like to spend two days and three nights at about eight thousand feet in these here mountains without anything to eat but some candy bars. No sleeping bags, no saw, no ax, no nothing. I OUGHT TO WRING YORE NECK."

What could I say but, "Yes sir, yes sir, no sir, yes sir." He then let go of my shirt and stomped off. Whew. I was very happy that the boss had told me that the season was over and I could go home for the winter. I sure didn’t want to have that dude in my care again!

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