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In the Line of Fire

A ramp attendant in Winnipeg once sardonically described our fuel stop as the “Great Canadian Air Race.”


July 7, 2010
By Michael Bellamy

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A ramp attendant in Winnipeg once sardonically described our fuel stop as the “Great Canadian Air Race.” Yes, it’s an annual pilgrimage: helicopters hopscotching from airport to airport, crossing the country in a quest for rising fire indices. This annual aerial firefighting migration may end in Dryden, Kamloops, or any centre with a valuable forest to protect and has become a Canadian summer icon. And among the pilots and engineers who crew these ships, a strong camaraderie exists, for every summer they abandon their home and families to chase fires.

The helicopter is at times very demanding of a pilot and never more so then when fighting forest fires. Caught up in the clamour of frenzied calls on the radio, it’s often a user’s fight for coherency. We want to respond, but that’s what we are there for, to be effective in controlling the fire. The helicopter is the quickest resource that forestry has to subdue a fire and that’s our mandate. The goal is not to put out the fire – a tanker or helicopter will never do that – but hopefully we can prevent the fire from spreading until the firefighters on the ground can get to it. That being the task, we strive to get the bucket filled to capacity and on target as fast as possible.

It also begs the question, why does the B.C. Forestry constantly demand a bucket on a long line when experience has taught us this impedes the effort on both counts? I have heard how the long line does not fan the fire, when in fact the opposite is true. A medium manoeuvring in the hover with a 100- or even a 130-foot line (30.4- to 45.7 metres) generates substantial downwash. Helicopters fitted with tanks are embraced by the Forestry, yet a bucket suspended 7.4 metres below the helicopter is spuriously regarded as no longer effective.

The long line certainly has its advantages when dip sites are confined or when the fire crew need you to fill a Port-a-Tank deep in the trees. But when trying to arrest an active fire, or during initial attack, the long line impedes the helicopter’s potential.

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The primary task for the bucket on initial attack is to subdue the fire’s aggression and moisten surrounding fuels. It’s always a good strategy to emulate what nature does best – make it rain. The reality is, what is already burning is lost, so it’s best to deny the fire further fuel. Hovering with a long line, beating the tree tops with rotor wash and then concentrating the load in one spot is just asking for trouble. As one retired B.C. forest officer told me, it makes no sense to inflict water erosion on a few square metres when the fire is spreading rapidly in all directions. A concentrated drop directly into a pocket of intense flame soaks some charred logs, but also blows the fire out the sides into dry fuels.

I’m also beginning to suspect flying with a bucket directly on the hook is becoming a lost art. It requires considerable skill and experience to be accurate, but once learned, the helicopter becomes a safer, faster and much more effective tool in slowing the advance of a fire.

There are pilots whose long-line skills are almost perfect; however, far too many accidents are directly attributable to slinging a bucket in
this way.  Settling with power, a scenario pilots encounter more often than they like to admit, and the inadvertently losing visual reference in dense smoke compounded by the lack of basic flight instruments on the left side, are two common hazards. Numerous machines milling about in dense smoke is bad enough, but when pilots are restricted to only looking out the long-line bubble on left side, it’s just a matter of time before the inevitable happens. Insisting on using a long line no matter what the task pressures pilots without developed or current skills into often dangerous situations.

Long days, high temperatures, erratic schedules and a radio system that constantly deluges a pilot’s ears with the clashing of repeater switching can create an incredible fatigue factor. Add to that specious knowledge with jurisdiction over a helicopter’s potential, and exasperated pilots may base their contribution on the hour meter and not the fire.

I appreciate the long line and advocate its use when conditions warrant, but a pilot should always have the autonomy to decide how best to employ his or her helicopter. Most have gained extensive fire experience and perhaps the B.C. Forestry should start capitalizing on this resource. Corporations that recognize and encourage employee expertise seldom fail; there is just too much enthusiasm for the task to even entertain the thought.


This is Michael Bellamy’s debut column for Helicopters. The native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has been flying fixed- and rotary-aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of other books, including Crosswinds.


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