Safety & Training
Constantly Under Fire
July 30, 2013 By Michael Bellamy
Years ago when I cross-endorsed into the rotary-wing world, I didn’t think I was leaving a fixed-wing career behind so much as expanding my aviation skills.
Years ago when I cross-endorsed into the rotary-wing world, I didn’t think I was leaving a fixed-wing career behind so much as expanding my aviation skills. It was all flying, right? What I didn’t expect and what surprised me, however, was a change in the perception of helicopter pilots – especially by forest protection agencies – as different from their fixed-wing brethren.
For example, circa mid-’70s, tanker pilots were often seen lounging by their single-pilot twin-engine aircraft on a little-used airstrip. There were no facilities other than a van to sit in and the aroma of Deep Woods Off permeated the air to ward off marauding mosquitoes. And the Bird Dog Officer kept the PT 500 radio close at hand waiting for that dispatch.
During that same time frame, a helicopter pilot along with an initial attack crew would stand by in an isolated location waving at the bugs through the heat of the day, also waiting for the call to launch. Some forest protection agencies even expected the helicopter pilot to sleep in the back of the machine at night when working a fire. I’m sure those of you who go back in the industry that far will attest to this.
Let’s move the calendar ahead to the present day. At some locations, tanker pilots get to relax in an air-conditioned lounge, with satellite TV, high-speed Internet, kitchen facilities and quiet bunks for napping. Meals are brought in and duty time at the controls is further limited during fire operations. Their equipment is constantly being upgraded and there are two pilots per aircraft to share the workload.
In the same forest, however, a helicopter pilot along with an initial attack crew, is still isolated, waving at the bugs through the heat of the day, waiting for the call to launch. Thankfully, pilots are no longer asked to sleep in the back of their machines and forest agencies have accepted the “duty day” regulations, but other than PT 500s giving way to smaller radios, little else has changed – and in most instances, the helicopter has not changed.
In Canada, understandably with just a couple of private companies bidding on the tanker contract, it is easier to negotiate and stipulate on facilities for the crew, even more so when it is operated in house by the provincial government themselves. Most, if not all, of the justifications for proper amenities are laid on the altar of safety and fatigue prevention.
Having worked in both theatres, I do know that in either occupation, the pilots’ contribution is no less demanding, even though the helicopter pilot is the only one responsible for the carriage of passengers. So, how can access to weather, Notams and protection from the elements and fatigue prevention while waiting for that call to launch be less important for one pilot than for the other?
In all instances, “operational capability’ enables the helicopter to access isolated sites, which is understandable, but why does this justify a metal garden shed for the helicopter pilot to sit in while a short walk away is a tanker base facility reserved for tanker pilots only? This ridiculous and demeaning circumstance is all too common in many fire attack bases.
When did charter companies and forest agencies decide that the “initial attack” helicopters needn’t be on par with fixed-wing operations even though they are exposed to a much greater risk? Perhaps it’s because there are dozens of charter companies competing for that same lucrative contract – and after all, we’ve been doing it that way for years.
Helicopter operations, it seems, have always had to be dragged reluctantly into the modern age. Remember the controversy that occurred in the aviation world when flight duty times were first suggested? I also recall pilots being pressured by their employers, who tried to coax them into writing letters to their respective MLAs denouncing the regulation as too restrictive and unnecessary. But thankfully, charter companies and forest protection agencies all eventually adapted to the changes and survived, and the helicopter industry became a safer one because of it.
Of course, not all forestry bases are as unconcerned and oblivious as the ones I have alluded to earlier and I have had the pleasure of working out of bases that provide helicopter aircrews with proper standby facilities. When the radio room calls and firefighters climb into the waiting helicopter, young men and women are going to be transported into a very dangerous environment. Helicopters are tasked with this significant responsibility, yet dropping foam on the fire often warrants more deliberation.
A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.