Tampa airport. The white zone, is for happy reunions and brave goodbyes. A last kiss, a look back and then its off to Greece and three weeks of firefighting in the Air Crane. Airline travel is a grind. This day is only about 7 hours old and the flight and connect time will mean that I get into Athens in about 20 more hours.I wish I could sleep sitting up crammed into my economy plus seat but short nods followed by the painful realization that my neck pain is now only exceeded by a cart meets head collision that seemed all too intentional to be accidental. The insincere apology and announcement follows. Cart coming through the aisle, watch your head and elbows… get whacked.
Athens on short final and the garbage dump is burning again. Down the jet way I am passed by mostly Greeks who beeline to the Camel smoking booth that is exhausted out the top and spews smoky air into the hall just before baggage claim. Lovely.
Bags are claimed and my taxi driver Demosthenes,named for the famous Greek orator lectures me on the fate of modern day politically corrupt and morally and financially bankrupt Hellas. He sums it all up as we arrive at the hotel with, so basically Greece is fucked.
I have heard this said in several countries and its usually an exaggeration but after a dozen years of coming to Greece I think Demosthenes may be right.
Maria smiles her slightly sad smile from across the front desk and welcomes me back, asks how my trip was and laughs, slides my key card and internet code across the desk and does a theatrical scan over my shoulder looking for Paula. Paula isn’t coming this trip I say and feel lonelier for having to say it aloud.
Its only 14:30, so shower, unpack and repack a six day bag are the next hours duties. I could nap but I know better. A nap is an invitation to your brain to wake you at 02:00 so you can listen to the dogs bark for two hours until you finally shower and go downstairs in search of coffee at 04:30.
I have found my back to back.The pilot I will replace. It is good to see him if only for an hour or so. I listen to his accounts of firefighting, flights, customer interactions,helicopter condition, mechanic interaction, management, latest changes to procedure, rumors, standby day discoveries of places I have seen but he had not and then I borrow his car to go get groceries. We hope to have dinner with the on duty pilots this evening but they are out on a fire and maybe they will be overnighting away, who knows where.
Back at the hotel I stuff a few store-able food items into my six day bag.Duty days are very long here. Greek breakfasts are mostly coffee, cigarettes and a look around the room for something not wrapped in plastic but fruit stand castoffs is about it. Breakfast is definitely not the most important meal of the day in this country and lunch is late at about 14:30. About 10 hours after what should have been breakfast. I carry food in my six day bag because a fire call at say 11:00 will mean that you will not see food till after arriving back somewhere at 22:30 and let me do the math for you on that. A sad excuse for breakfast at 04:30 and pork souvlaki on a stick at 22:30 is 18 hours between meals. Greeks eat late but sleep in as well. We do not.
I decide to skip the evening meal that will be running late. The crew arrived at 5 minutes before dark. I saw the crane pass overhead on the way to the airport 2 minutes away. A phone call has told me to expect a first light departure so a snack and bed for me.
Preflight in the dark and the other pilot is telling me about the fire he was on and will likely get to launch on to in about 15 minutes.It will be 30 minutes before sunrise.We do our CRM in the cockpit as the call comes in which launches us off to the bathroom because it may only be a 15 minute call and launch window but a 2 hour flight on a coffee bloated bladder that will make it an hour and forty five minutes is no bueno.
Line up and wait, the tower lady sounds sleepy and I have told her that I plan to lift in one minute at first light. We get penalized by the minute for every minute the customer wants to penalize us for, for more reasons and well, that is a story for when I no longer want to work here.
Off we go in the semi darkness over the sea and down the coast talking to a couple of miltary airbases and Athena information on the radio as we brief what we know and listen to other aircraft on their way to our fire.The language spoken is Greek but with my limited skills and the help of the interpreter I know that 3 other aircraft will be joining the party. The fire is near the ancient city of Corinthos. Corinthos was the sometime home of the Apostle Paul who was a pretty good local tent maker and big fan of Jesus although it likely cost him his head to the Romans who later dug up his bones and built a Basilica around his grave in Vatican City where the Pope lives like a king, quoting the scripture of a man who probably never owned more than two pairs of sandals at one time.
But I digress.
The fire is looking manageable but our Greek interpreter in the back seat tells of a fire near Ourenopoulis. We have to go. Right now. Ourenopoulis is on Agion Oros which houses the monasteries of Mount Athos. It is the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. It is a monastic republic and like the folks in Vatican City is its own Republic. The difference is they have no roads, no electricity, nothing has changed there in a thousand plus years and you guessed it, no fire department. We are it!
We fly the fires at Ourenopoulis till dark.Priests in black robes and long grey beards are out on the fire line with hoes. Priests in flowing robes fly down the coastline on boats and wave to us as we snorkel load after load of salt water around a previously burnt and now re burnt monastery.
The original fire was in 1622 and again in the early nineties and now, so this place is not lucky.
We help the crew chief tie down and post flight and off to the hotel we go. Its 22:00 and my hotel room is hot and I need something to eat. The standby pilot is at the hotel, he has spent a nice day driving for too many hours and tells us that the rooms will never cool down, the food is crap but the beer is cold except its well within the eight hour bottle to throttle window so I can watch my buddy have a beer and swear at the P.O.S. computer try to connect to the internet so we can send off our operating report that must arrive in the morning email. Total flight time for the day was 10.5 hours, so take that jet lag, you evil fatigue causing bastard. At least I will get a sweat soaked nap and wake 5 hours later to no breakfast and another 10. 5 hour flight day and a duty day exceeding 17 hours. The third day is a standby day and I can try to recover. I will rest but that second day takes its toll. Well, only 18 more days to go and we fight fires on everyone of the 18 days except one. Yup, Greece is no vacation.