Holding the Line Revisited

Recently a friend had asked me if fighting fires with the Helitanker was different from country to country? It is different for the obvious reasons, in the same way that Italy is different from Australia or Greece or Canada. Our flying methods and procedures are solidly set and most aviators will tell you that getting creative is a post flight item for discussion. Nobody wants to be with a pilot, who during some hectic firefighting, says,”well I’ve never tried this before, but”….
We stick pretty close to S.O.P. and nothing is done in the cockpit without telling the other pilot and/or crew person.However, each country has differences that cause you as the P.I.C.’s to modify your plans.Australia has a largely volunteer firefighting force who are trained and eager. Greece has a trained and dedicated firefighting force and a sometimes huge amount of citizenry on the fire line . Professional actions are usually predictable but with people defending their own property anything can happen. The following is a previous post about what firefighting with a Helitanker in Athens Greece is all about.

Summertime and the living isn’t always easy, here in Greece. My assignment is firefighting with an Erickson Air Crane based in Athens. The flying we do with this impressive aircraft is called I.A. or initial attack. It is a simple program, get to the fire as quickly as possible and put it out.

You may think that this is the case for firefighting aircraft and personnel everywhere but I assure you it is not. It has been a very busy season protecting the City, the Attica region and the Cyclades Islands. By some accounts it has been a failure.

Our critics have been screaming on television for a couple of weeks now about the Hellenic Fire Brigade’ s inability to stop a wildfire that burned much of Parnitha, a National Park and Mountain overlooking Athens to the North West. I can take some satisfaction in knowing that I did some of my best flying on that fire and other fires in the area. The talking heads on the T.V. and so called experts can analyze, criticize and belittle the efforts of the firefighters on the ground and in the air. It is their democratic right and in a election year I would expect no less.

It is probably a good thing that I can not understand most of what is being said on television. In more than 20 years of aerial firefighting in 6 countries I have seen a lot of firefighting operations but none more aggressive than the Greeks. The following is a recent example of a fire in Athens. To say that Athens is a concrete jungle with just a few green islands in the city is no exaggeration.

Athens looking North

An afternoon dispatch call comes in for a fire in the south east side of Athens. We could see the smoke as we quickly got our flight suits on and jumped in the Crane. Our usual crew of two pilots and a pilot/interpreter in the back. The pilot/interpreter has the unenviable task of sorting out calls from three radios in two languages from numerous ground personnel, 6 other aircraft and cell phone calls from SKED our controlling agency.

The fire was quickly running through a tree covered hillside within a residential neighborhood of primarily apartment buildings. In the 15 minutes since we had launched, the ground forces had begun their defense with numerous pumper trucks and more personnel on the ground than we could possibly keep track of down in the tress.

We would have to make our drops with enough force to be effective on the crowning fire in the trees but not get a direct hit on any personnel. In Greece that is an even bigger challenge than elsewhere in the world. Along with keeping track of 4 Canadair water bombers, A Mil 26 with a 200′ line and bucket and another SkyCrane sent to help just minutes behind us we also had the citizens of this Athens community pitching in on the fire line. It is a common sight to see local residents with wet towels and T shirts pummeling the flames on the flanks and even the head of the fire in some cases. We hit the fire and the residual spray wets down the people and their fire towels and they run back into the fire line. I have never seen that any where else in the world. Its both impressive and frightening. We carry about 6 tonnes of water for each drop, the Canadair water bombers are about the same, the Mil 26 is a bit more. At any rate its enough water to flatten a car let alone a citizen in a pair of shorts and a soot blackened T-shirt. On this day the locals were working on the flanks of the fire only. The Fire Brigade was fighting the head of the fire and we were doing our best to get under the column of smoke, clear the numerous wires and drop on the fast advancing front. It was not going good and the Fire Brigade had been forced to back away from one road to another as the fire jumped each successive road. The fire was on the lee side of a hill crowning in the tree tops with 20′ to 30 ‘ flame heights. The Hellenic Fire Brigade had leap frogged their trucks and personnel to the last fire break before the apartment buildings. The line had been drawn. It was a little 14′ wide dirt road at the bottom of the hill. Behind the fire crew and their trucks stood about 100 people between the tree line and their apartments. Many people stood with dripping towels over their arms and I could tell by their hand gestures that they were shouting down to the Fire Brigade below. If you think for a second they were shouting encouragement to the fire crews, you don’t understand Athenians. They were probably shouting, stop that fire *#*^+# or we will be beating out more than just the fire!

Time for one more drop along the front then back to the sea for another load of water. Our return time would be about 9 minutes. The Fire Brigade stood along the road wetting down the close vegetation and waiting for the flames. The other aircraft were also heading to the sea for water and I said to the other pilot that I thought we would be fighting the new fire line at the apartments. The fire brigade would stand their ground but I was fairly certain the fire would spot over them or burn over them. I thought about what it would be like to see that flame front coming at you as you stood with a water hose and waited.

It occurred to me as we returned with our load of water that some of these people on the fire line may have had ancestors that had fought at places like Marathonas. Back in about 490 B.C. a hugely overwhelming force of Persians had landed on the plains of Marathon prepared to kick some Athenian ass. They did. The Persians killed almost 200 Athenians and lost about 6400 Persians doing it. That took the fight right out the world conquering Persians and they sailed for home.

We got over the fire a couple of minutes later. A black line stopped cleanly at the little dirt road and no fire spotted over the line. People at the apartments were waving towels and blankets, a few citizens on the fire flanks were waving their shirts. The fire Brigade was picking up tools and hoses and moving away. The job wasn’t over yet and there would be areas to mop up and wet down.

We spent another two hours flying the fire perimeter putting out flare ups and keeping things cool. Mission accomplished and back to our base. At the base we sat in front of the t.v. with a cold drink watching the news channel and listening to the experts scream at each other about the fires.

“What are they mostly saying?” I asked the interpreter. He just waved his hand in the universal back hand of dismissal. More bull shit.

The talking heads can have their say. I have been flying on fires for a lot of years and I’ll fight fires with these folks any day.

About Heligypsy

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” - Henry Miller
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8 Responses to Holding the Line Revisited

  1. Thanks for your insight into your field of firefighting from the sky. Your post neglected to state the extreme danger you Firefighter Pilots are challenged with while fighting these large fire’s. I can only imagine that the sky can be crowded, it is often in the mountains, heat, the lack of visibility because of the smoke and the possibility of a mechanical failure that could force you to land in the tree’s or in the fire. It takes a great deal of courage to go out their and do what you do year after year. I applaud your efforts, Keith, you and the other pilots deserve an award. Keep up the great work!

  2. Don, I Thank You for your kind words but when I think about a fighter with courage I think of you.
    I hope you get the gift you need this Christmas.

  3. Arnie Madsen says:

    Keith. I have been captivated by your journaling and your writing style. Thank you.

    I have always been a “wannabe” helicopter pilot but never got more than 50 hours in a Bell 47G2.

    I loved every minute of it but it is an expensive hobby and I was not born rich, and try as I might never became rich when left to my own devices.

    Reading your blog is the closest I will ever come to being a commercial helicopter pilot , but it feels like the real thing to me.

    That comment is directed more at your writing style than your skills as a pilot.

    There , I just demoted you from being a good pilot to being a great journalist. The one thing I like about every helicopter pilot is that you can jab them, pull a prank on them , demote them to the journalist category , they analyze it in a split second , laugh, and continue flying and telling only true stories.

    Thanks for the ride Keith.

    Arnie Madsen
    Manitoba Canada

    • Hey Arnie, Thanks for the kind words. I have been on a non writing funk for a couple of months and your comments are encouraging. I’ve got 6 or 7 logbooks to draw on and a pretty decent memory so there are quite a few stories yet to come.
      See you soon,

      Keith

  4. Hi Keith,
    I’ve enjoyed your stories and would love to speak with you a bit about firefighting overseas and your work as a pilot working on wildfires. I’m an author and photojournalist who’s published projects dealing with wildfire in the past and am now working on a book about global wildfire issues. I worked as a wildland firefighter and am currently a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.
    I’ll be in Greece and Spain this summer doing some research and will be down under later in the year. I’m sure you could provide some valuable guidance for my work if you have time to speak over the phone, Skype, or to exchange emails. You can contact me at mk at michaelkodas dot com or at the email I included with this comment.
    Thanks for the great blog.
    Cheers,

    Michael

  5. Hi Michael, I am always happy to discuss my work and I am not alone. Our company has quite a number of pilots who have spent years firefighting and I would be happy to forward your contact info to them as well if you wish.
    I am currently in Australia but will be stateside doing recurrent training with about 50 or more of those pilots in late March. I’ll contact you shortly and look forward to providing you with my perspective on helicopter firefighting.
    Best regards,
    Keith

  6. Joseph Berto says:

    Keith,
    I came across this blog from a couple of years ago. You should be published, your story does a great job in conveying the attraction of flying a helitanker, one of the most true to life impressions I have ever read. Especially the thoughts other than the flying that you experience. There is a great deal of satisfaction in the job, but it is tempered by politics and internal squabbles, more so than some other jobs. The Crane is like no other firefighting platform. I’ve worked on and off for Erickson as a co-pilot and perhaps someday we will get the chance to fly one together. I wrote an aside to working a fire with a Crane in Montana, you can read it here if you like. http://www.casesteamtractor.com/Index.htm.

  7. Thanks for your insight into your field of fire fighting from the sky. you a bit about fire fighting overseas and your work as a pilot working on wildfires.

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