Firebombing - a Prison Without Bars

By Rob Taylor

For five months of the year it is a prison without bars and the FDI is your jailor. These three letters stand for “Fire Danger Index” and it rules the lives of not just aircrew, but foresters, harvesting contractors and anybody else who is remotely connected to the timber industry.

This index is a measure of the likely speed of spread of a forest fire and is based on the current meteorological conditions. The most important of these are wind velocity, temperature and relative humidity. Hot dry winds being the principal cause of a raging and uncontrollable forest fire; cool misty conditions would make it almost impossible to light a fire even with a dose of Avgas to help it along.

This index starts at 0 and tops at 100. O means there is no chance of spread and 100 indicate that any ignition will spread literally like wild fire. To simplify matters the scale is colour coded, the bottom being blue and then moving up to green, through yellow and finally orange and red. Usually it is from yellow up that the fun starts. If it's blue stay in bed, if orange you better be within a few paces of your aircraft.

I am awakened at 6:30 by the wind scraping a branch on the roof of my rented cottage. The forecast FDI for the day is high yellow going orange after 2pm, meaning we could be in for a busy day and shortly the call will come for all aircrew to report to the airfield. I grab my lunch out of the fridge, throw a leg over my bike and ride the 6 kilometres of dirt road to the airfield.

With the preflight of my 500 gallon Turbo Thrush done I stroll over to the crew room as the other pilots begin to drift in. Coffee all round, the dispute over which DSTV channel to watch has been resolved and the “twak praat” begins and will probably continue till the siren sounds.

And it does. The “PA” shouts the location and which aircraft are to be dispatched and its game on. I am one of them. I get the PT-6 lit and push the pitch to fine, whilst it's winding up a quick instrument scan tells me all is well and I fasten and tighten my harness. A few butterflies flutter somewhere about the latch but the moment passes. A radio check and I join the line of other bombers taxing out to the loading point. The spotter calls airborne and I taxi onto the threshold and advance the power lever. The aircraft accelerates slowly, full fuel and a full load of retardant take some moving but we have done it all before many times. Torque and ITT have to be monitored during the run to prevent overcooking the engine; the tail comes up and the speed begins to build, the tail lifts and I move my left hand from the power lever to the dump lever, I ease the stick back with my right hand and she flies. Speed - speed and more speed is the name of the game. Initial climb is lazy but as speed increases I bleed the flaps off and settle down on maintaining my direction and watching the position of the other aircraft.

As usual the turbulence is rough but that goes with the territory. Within 15 minutes I can see the smoke and the spotter issues his instructions to sequence the bombers and get the loads where the ground guys need them. I identify my target, get onto my run-in line and start descending towards a hot spot that has been selected for me. I have already had a good look for wires and I have an escape route, now it's just a matter of aiming the aircraft at the target and adjusting power to maintain the correct drop speed. Too slow and a high rate of sink develops, too fast and the pitch up on release can damage the aircraft. Looks good. I knock the dump lever forward with the heel of my left hand, push the stick full forward with the other but the Thrush still pitches up and heads skyward. The feeling of release is indescribable but I ease on power to maintain the momentum at the same time turning to the right onto my escape route clearing the area for the next inbound bomber. Now it's a bumpy ride back to the strip to fetch another load.

The wind is strong and gusting making the approach tricky with wind shear and turbulence but by maintaining a reserve of speed and landing a little deeper the aircraft is on the ground without drama and white knuckles. This is no time to show off your precision landing skills. Get it on the ground in one piece, that's all that is required. I taxi up to the loading point, the loaders clip on the filler pipe, and in a very short time it's go out there and do it all again. Sometimes this can go on all day.

Such is the life of a bomber pilot. Exciting - no. If it gets exciting you are doing it wrong. Dangerous - as dangerous as you want to make it. Stupid hurts.

Aviation Careers

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