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118 Degrees, 22 Minutes, And 10 Seconds

By Fawn McManigal

I plan my escape and smoothly pull the power lever back. Maintaining a visual on the target, my airspeed slows, and I extend one notch of flaps. Below, a dozer track disappears into white and gray plumes of smoke. “Gotta nail this one!” I tell myself.

Descending to sixty feet above the ground I see flames spear through the heavy smoke. I align myself with the dozer track and mock its path. I too have now disappeared. Unable to see beyond my cockpit, I obey instinct and hit the dump switch at, hopefully, the right time. Five hundred gallons of water surge from the belly of the aircraft as I struggle to hold the airplane level. With the control stick full forward, I counteract the aggressive upward moment created by dropping 4,000 pounds in mere seconds.

Hoots and hollers bellow over the radio, and a thankful dozer operator expresses his gratitude for the cooling shower I have provided. I smile silently in the solitude of my cockpit and enjoy a slow, relieved climb toward blue sky. Aside from the obvious dangers of flying low without visual references, the smoke is often turbulent. But some days you decide to take that risk. 

It seems I’ve dreamed of flying air tankers forever. “How did you get into flying fire?” people ask, their tone suggesting that it must have been an accident. But, believe it or not, I wanted this. We all have dreams or goals that exhilarate us, that make us tingle with excitement. When I was younger, I thought I’d surely die if I couldn’t fly these airplanes. They represented power, aggressiveness, and freedom, the things I wanted for myself. Aerial firefighting defined me long before it was my work. Unconsciously, I had no choice.

My early daydreams had always featured a heavy air tanker, which undoubtedly lead to my first fire experience in a Lockheed P2V Neptune. Powered by two R3350-32W piston engines capable of 3,500 horsepower each, and two J34-WE producing 3,400 pounds of thrust, it screams testosterone louder than any other aircraft I have flown. I might rank it as my favorite, totally impractical aircraft. As during my first solo flight, I just couldn’t shake the “this is so cool!” feeling. Not only did the 98-foot wingspan practically brush the hillside, but I finally got to see a wildfire from somewhere other than the ground. The Neptune requiring a two-person crew, meant that I was second in command. With the help of a great captain, I absorbed as much of the fire environment as possible. Acquiring a fair amount of stick time, I became comfortable in the airplane. And, after several fires, only a few muscles in my body would tense when, in my opinion, we’d never squeeze through a canyon. “Look where you’re going and the airplane will follow!” my captain would console. Absurd logic at the time, though I have used it often since.

“So what do you do?” is the initiation of a conversation I’d rather not have. There’s a whole list of responses from which I could select, most of them sarcastic or, at best, devoid of useful information. “I fly.” “I’m a pilot.” The answer depends largely on who’s asking. Sometimes I ignore the question all together. Before I acquired this occupation I would lustfully envision being able to respond proudly, “I’m a tanker pilot!” It was something I wanted to talk about. But my first experience replying truthfully left me empty. “I fly air tankers” than prompted more curiousity than was behind the initial question. Some people just can’t believe that a woman would go after such skills. On occasion the shock value is priceless. Fortunately, the job is gratifying enough that bragging rights are not required.

While dodging thunder cells and downdrafts for 45 miles, the altitude I have accrued deceives me. I continue with false confidence. On a normal day 1000 feet above the fire is comfortable to set up a drop pattern. Today with an ample 1500 feet above ground and no apparent thunder cells overhead I proceed. Four smokes are aligned on the mountain slope, obviously sparked by the lightning I passed not too far back. I scan the instruments to assure appropriate altitude and airspeed. Marginally satisfied I continue with full power. In a matter of seconds 1000 feet is stripped from beneath my wings, and counting. Holding the nose of the airplane down just enough to prevent a stall, I prepare to jettison the load of mud in an attempt to stay airborne. Power required to turn cannot be spared even though the terrain is rising.

I scan quickly between my airspeed indicator and the ground, holding onto the load through the last few seconds of choice. The downdraft subsides and grants me a few extra knots of airspeed. I take a couple of deep breaths to slow my heartbeat and begin a gentle bank toward lower ground. On a hot day, a heavy M18 Dromader has disabilities when it comes to altitude and airspeed. It is a slow struggle obtaining a mere 1000 feet above ground again. A second attempt into the fire ends in frustration. Loitering in the mountains with a heavy airplane, during a thunderstorm, is not a place I like to be. Thankfully, the third time pays off. The incident commander directs me to two individual trees, a challenging task in the wind. The drops are rewarding as each one covers the tree it intends. But my contentment is short lived. Suddenly, my head is violently slammed into the side window of the cockpit. I cinch the shoulder harnesses and lap belt tight and prepare for the worst turbulence in my career. Upon landing, I decline the load and return. It’s a difficult decision, but without structures or persons in danger this one just isn’t worth it.

In my short time as tanker pilot I have learned several things: It’s a small community; always plan as though you’ll have to carry the load from a drop; multiple windsocks on an airport will never agree on a wind direction; a sixty - foot drop altitude is awfully high; flying an airplane with available power turns a burden into pleasure; wearing a Nomex flight suit in 118 degrees is hot; and several other gems I’d rather not discuss. But most of all, when I get to fly a mission, which can be rare, it is one of the most gratifying activities I have ever experienced.

Finally, after seventeen days of sitting, I get a dispatch. The airplane will feel awkward, the former level of trust forgotten. We will be strangers forced to reunite quickly. Fumbling to gather my flight suit and boots, I attempt to control my nerves. My gear is hot, but the cockpit even hotter. In my haste, I have already missed something in my start flow. Taxiing to the runway the left brake responds weakly. I try to pump it. With the coordinates in the GPS, all the initial frequencies set, and the gate armed in case of an emergency, I align with the runway centerline. The left brake is definitely weak. The takeoff roll seems much longer than normal, and the horses at departure end respond accordingly. Once airborne, the flight controls feel mushy. My tension does nothing to reduce the sweat or still my trembling right leg. The airplane surely didn’t vibrate like this last time. Just how long has my generator inoperative light been on? Stagnation can do immense harm, not only to skill but to the psyche. Many in the industry would agree that idle time is, quite possibly, the most difficult. However, there is no better attitude-adjuster than a launch.

I have found it increasingly difficult to express myself when asked, “Do you like it?” or “Is it fun?” I know these people are looking for a concise statement. But I am flooded with emotions no amount of words could explain. I edit myself before speaking. “Yeah, it’s fun,” I reply in a tone that could also describe my feelings toward the game Twister. What do you want me to say? It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I saw a buck under my nose on final to a drop yesterday. I saved a house. I made the lives of the ground crew easier. My retardant line held the fire. I love my job. These are just the facts, absent of the emotions that initially invade me. There’s a great sense of accomplishment regardless of the mission, and that comes from the challenge of doing a good job every time. I can’t imagine anyone else thinks it’s quite as neat as I do. And that’s pretty neat too.

 

Fawn McManigal isan aerial firefighter by day. Otherwise, she writes, rides motorcycles, travels, and creates a healthy amount of mischief.  She rebelled against formal education and detests "The Norm."

Photo of firefighting in Canada courtesy of The Aerial Firefighting Industry Association.

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