Greece is no vacation

Helicopter Pilot, will travel

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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…

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Greece is no vacation

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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.

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The Next Generation

I was reading a post on Facebook the other day by one of our newer pilots. He was going to celebrate his Mother’s birthday. She was turning 56. What? A few of our other pilots are about the same age as my sons! So, I am finally one of the old guard. My job title is, Training Captain, for firefighting.

Besides my normal duties as a firefighting pilot I am also called upon to assist other pilots in transitioning from copilot to Captain. I’ve seen quite a number of really good capable pilots come to our company in the last few years and the majority of them arrive with the background and skills that allow them to smoothly transition to the Captain’s position.

The work is not for entry level, low time helicopter pilots and if you know anything about helicopters and what we do with this aircraft you would surely agree. Sometimes because of hiring practices in foreign countries we are, shall we say, encouraged, to hire pilots from that country who may be short of the type of experience, we as a company would prefer. These pilots while generally capable and in some cases excellent aviators just don’t have the background and experience in the work we do. You may think that this is where I come in and you would be partially correct. I often fly with foreign pilots and some of them are really very good pilots. When you are flying in a country where your knowledge of the language, procedures, local weather and other regional aviation knowledge is almost nil it is very beneficial to have a pilot from that country on the flight crew.

The challenge is training these pilots and let me add, that this challenge is not just limited to foreign nationals anymore. You can only go so far with training on the ground. A pilot needs and surely this is obvious, to fly! I had this confirmed the other day in a couple of flights I was on as P.I.C.. The first flight was a yearly check flight and the second an actual fire. I performed safely but with some difficulties on both flights. A lack of flight currency gave the expected result. Minor miscues and some awkwardness in performing routine flight duties including practice emergencies left me feeling a bit frustrated with myself. If I had been the one assessing my performance I would have concluded as the other pilots on the flights with me did, that my inability to perform as desired was expected.

If you don’t fly much for a while you get rusty. Its like any skill. OK, no problem,you will fly again, you will get busy and your skills will return and you shall pass those skills on to trainees and they will learn and succeed.

Its not happening, or it isn’t happening as it should, would be better way to phrase it.Our company is certainly not the only company with this problem. Our operation has circumvented the shortage of flight hours in previous years by hiring high time large type helicopter pilots who can transition with a minimum of instruction and flight time and safely operate the aircraft. So, where is the young blood? If all us gray hairs bail out in the next five to ten years where will our experienced pilots come from? How do you train when there isn’t enough flying to get the training done?

When I began flying with my current employer it was a company that flew a lot of hours every year primarily on helicopter logging. Logging isn’t for everyone but it will place demands on your abilities that get you up to speed in the aircraft quickly. You can fly an average of a 100 hours a month or more and your motor skills,confidence and feel for the aircraft improve rapidly.

We still log. We still fight fire,we still do construction and we even do a few things we have never done before but we don’t do enough of any of it with the people at the controls who need the experience the most. In logging we used to put pilots of varying experience and abilities in the command pilots seat and away we went. We don’t do that now. We let people who know better or should, tell us that we can only put top producers in the command pilots seat, effectively closing the door on bringing along new pilots. Short sighted and in a few years perhaps fatal, although I hope not literally.

We had a busy fire season in the U.S.A. last year but our primary customer the U.S.F.S. has decided to handicap our ability to train as well. When I first flew fires in Type I helicopters you could fly in the command pilots seat as long as you were flying with an approved Captain. Now you can only fly with a limited number of approved U.S.F.S. training Captains. The result being that we have more trainees than we have Captains to train them. The”new”pilots end up sitting over in the copilots seat and their experience is limited because of that. The reasons for this limited training Captain scenario may be the fault of of both the government and our industry, but putting an arbitrary number on trainers that could meet the requirement and pass on their knowledge is counterproductive.

I can’t speak to what is happening in other areas of our flight department, but I do see some new faces and I can only hope they are getting enough flight time to improve and excel.

So here is my problem or challenge. If I don’t fly enough to maintain my proficiency to a level that would allow me to demonstrate a flight maneuver I am forced to fly more as the sole manipulator of the controls and therefore ” steal” flight time from the trainee.I get back up to speed and can demonstrate the flying but the trainee doesn’t get enough time to improve at a rate that is good for them and my employer.

A simple solution would be to fly more and everyone wants that but it has to come in the form of a revenue flight. Train more by setting aside a larger budget for more flight training of the non revenue type. That has to happen and it really needs to, soon. A flight simulator; that would be great and if we can get a customer to pay for one along with the purchase of multiple aircraft then it remains a possibility.

For now, I suppose I’ll have to hope for a busy fire season where both I and the other pilot do enough flying to allow us both, to be all that we can be. That would be good.

Posted in Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot | 1 Comment

Quote

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
— Helen Keller.

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Holding the Line Revisited

Recently a friend had asked me if fighting fires with the Helitanker was different from country to country? It is different for the obvious reasons, in the same way that Italy is different from Australia or Greece or Canada. Our flying methods and procedures are solidly set and most aviators will tell you that getting creative is a post flight item for discussion. Nobody wants to be with a pilot, who during some hectic firefighting, says,”well I’ve never tried this before, but”….
We stick pretty close to S.O.P. and nothing is done in the cockpit without telling the other pilot and/or crew person.However, each country has differences that cause you as the P.I.C.’s to modify your plans.Australia has a largely volunteer firefighting force who are trained and eager. Greece has a trained and dedicated firefighting force and a sometimes huge amount of citizenry on the fire line . Professional actions are usually predictable but with people defending their own property anything can happen. The following is a previous post about what firefighting with a Helitanker in Athens Greece is all about.

Summertime and the living isn’t always easy, here in Greece. My assignment is firefighting with an Erickson Air Crane based in Athens. The flying we do with this impressive aircraft is called I.A. or initial attack. It is a simple program, get to the fire as quickly as possible and put it out.

You may think that this is the case for firefighting aircraft and personnel everywhere but I assure you it is not. It has been a very busy season protecting the City, the Attica region and the Cyclades Islands. By some accounts it has been a failure.

Our critics have been screaming on television for a couple of weeks now about the Hellenic Fire Brigade’ s inability to stop a wildfire that burned much of Parnitha, a National Park and Mountain overlooking Athens to the North West. I can take some satisfaction in knowing that I did some of my best flying on that fire and other fires in the area. The talking heads on the T.V. and so called experts can analyze, criticize and belittle the efforts of the firefighters on the ground and in the air. It is their democratic right and in a election year I would expect no less.

It is probably a good thing that I can not understand most of what is being said on television. In more than 20 years of aerial firefighting in 6 countries I have seen a lot of firefighting operations but none more aggressive than the Greeks. The following is a recent example of a fire in Athens. To say that Athens is a concrete jungle with just a few green islands in the city is no exaggeration.

Athens looking North

An afternoon dispatch call comes in for a fire in the south east side of Athens. We could see the smoke as we quickly got our flight suits on and jumped in the Crane. Our usual crew of two pilots and a pilot/interpreter in the back. The pilot/interpreter has the unenviable task of sorting out calls from three radios in two languages from numerous ground personnel, 6 other aircraft and cell phone calls from SKED our controlling agency.

The fire was quickly running through a tree covered hillside within a residential neighborhood of primarily apartment buildings. In the 15 minutes since we had launched, the ground forces had begun their defense with numerous pumper trucks and more personnel on the ground than we could possibly keep track of down in the tress.

We would have to make our drops with enough force to be effective on the crowning fire in the trees but not get a direct hit on any personnel. In Greece that is an even bigger challenge than elsewhere in the world. Along with keeping track of 4 Canadair water bombers, A Mil 26 with a 200′ line and bucket and another SkyCrane sent to help just minutes behind us we also had the citizens of this Athens community pitching in on the fire line. It is a common sight to see local residents with wet towels and T shirts pummeling the flames on the flanks and even the head of the fire in some cases. We hit the fire and the residual spray wets down the people and their fire towels and they run back into the fire line. I have never seen that any where else in the world. Its both impressive and frightening. We carry about 6 tonnes of water for each drop, the Canadair water bombers are about the same, the Mil 26 is a bit more. At any rate its enough water to flatten a car let alone a citizen in a pair of shorts and a soot blackened T-shirt. On this day the locals were working on the flanks of the fire only. The Fire Brigade was fighting the head of the fire and we were doing our best to get under the column of smoke, clear the numerous wires and drop on the fast advancing front. It was not going good and the Fire Brigade had been forced to back away from one road to another as the fire jumped each successive road. The fire was on the lee side of a hill crowning in the tree tops with 20′ to 30 ‘ flame heights. The Hellenic Fire Brigade had leap frogged their trucks and personnel to the last fire break before the apartment buildings. The line had been drawn. It was a little 14’ wide dirt road at the bottom of the hill. Behind the fire crew and their trucks stood about 100 people between the tree line and their apartments. Many people stood with dripping towels over their arms and I could tell by their hand gestures that they were shouting down to the Fire Brigade below. If you think for a second they were shouting encouragement to the fire crews, you don’t understand Athenians. They were probably shouting, stop that fire *#*^+# or we will be beating out more than just the fire!

Time for one more drop along the front then back to the sea for another load of water. Our return time would be about 9 minutes. The Fire Brigade stood along the road wetting down the close vegetation and waiting for the flames. The other aircraft were also heading to the sea for water and I said to the other pilot that I thought we would be fighting the new fire line at the apartments. The fire brigade would stand their ground but I was fairly certain the fire would spot over them or burn over them. I thought about what it would be like to see that flame front coming at you as you stood with a water hose and waited.

It occurred to me as we returned with our load of water that some of these people on the fire line may have had ancestors that had fought at places like Marathonas. Back in about 490 B.C. a hugely overwhelming force of Persians had landed on the plains of Marathon prepared to kick some Athenian ass. They did. The Persians killed almost 200 Athenians and lost about 6400 Persians doing it. That took the fight right out the world conquering Persians and they sailed for home.

We got over the fire a couple of minutes later. A black line stopped cleanly at the little dirt road and no fire spotted over the line. People at the apartments were waving towels and blankets, a few citizens on the fire flanks were waving their shirts. The fire Brigade was picking up tools and hoses and moving away. The job wasn’t over yet and there would be areas to mop up and wet down.

We spent another two hours flying the fire perimeter putting out flare ups and keeping things cool. Mission accomplished and back to our base. At the base we sat in front of the t.v. with a cold drink watching the news channel and listening to the experts scream at each other about the fires.

“What are they mostly saying?” I asked the interpreter. He just waved his hand in the universal back hand of dismissal. More bull shit.

The talking heads can have their say. I have been flying on fires for a lot of years and I’ll fight fires with these folks any day.

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Firefighting in the city

Athens, Hellas and the wildfire that had travelled cross country for about 15 miles, was now reaching the city.

The fire was running through the upscale neighborhood about as fast as a person could run. There were in fact a lot people doing just that and if we didn’t get the fire spread slowed down it looked like a few people might lose more than their properties.

Sea Snorkeling

Firefighting with a Helitanker in urban areas means people, vehicles, animals and other aircraft running around in the smoke and flames. It can get chaotic.

The primary goal is to do no harm and the primary thing not to harm is you.

Wildfires in urban settings get priority over wildfires where people and property are not in immediate danger. When the smoke reduces visibility it becomes very important to separate yourself visually and especially physically from the other aircraft trying to do the same job.

We had about 8 large helicopters and perhaps twenty fixed wing air tankers. Five of the large helicopters were our own Erickson Air Crane Helitankers

Fire was leaping indiscriminately down tree lined streets and blazing through parkland filled neighborhoods and so far all of our efforts were being directed towards structure protection.

It can be immensely satisfying to save houses, structures and barns but when a fire really gets ripping you can’t save everything and just as often you may get directed to places where the need doesn’t seem as great as the homes you had been protecting.

We had spent the last 15 minutes in some heavy smoke and nasty turbulence to stop a series of spot fires in houses where some where a man was trapped in a house. I had punched a pretty good hole in the roof of one small house to cool the contents and while the damage was considerable the fire would not be spreading to the neighbor’s house.

It’s never an easy choice to drop on a house. If the fire is just on the house periphery or has only began to burn the porch or roof you can use a lighter coverage level of water or retardant and get the flames under control.

On some fires where structures are in close proximity to each other it becomes essential to put the house fire out so it doesn’t get other houses involved.

We make drops through roofs, front windows, knock porches off the back of houses and  often have to flatten houses that are doing nothing more than being a good ignition source for the next door neighbors house.

The good and bad of carrying up to 16,000 pounds of water is that you can do a lot of good and if needed you can use that mass of water to get the water or retardant inside a building. You had better be darn sure there is nobody inside the building and in some cases I have dropped through barn doors and roofs  knowing that the animals inside could be harmed with the drop but burning to death is a much worse option .

The main difference I see with fires in urban areas in Europe versus North America is that in Europe we make most of our own calls on where to drop and we are often the only firefighting asset available.

On big fires like we had in Athens, with gale force wind ,smoke and poor visibility we  have only seconds to decide in the smoke where and what to drop on.  Get it wrong and its all on you.

Posted in Flying Stories, helicopter firefighting, Helicopter Pilot, Random rantings, World Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Flight, Duty, Safety and Profit

When I first started flying helicopters commercially in about 1975, my boss told me that he could use all the helicopters he could get for about 5 months of the year. After that, he said “I wish you could all go away for about 6 months.” It startled me to realize that I was just another commodity or tool to be used to operate his company. I accept and even appreciate that early lesson in business and I suffer no delusions about my value to any employer these days.

I have nothing to offer but my labor to any employer and my employer owes me nothing more than to compensate me for those labors and provide as safe a work environment as is realistic.  We have blurred the lines a little over the years in the employee/employer relationship and while I certainly recognize the benefits of team work and goal setting I remember that team owners fire coaches and players with equal enthusiasm.

I currently have a great job with one of, if not the best helicopter operations in the world. Having worked for too many helicopter operators to list including my own companies I can speak with some authority on company comparisons. Like most companies the down turn in the economy has had its negative effects but all things considered we as a company, are doing well.

I was talking to one of our management folks the other day and mentioned that, while part of our operation is supplying services to resource based industries, we also do a lot of business based on disasters – flood, hurricanes, fires and you name it. I am always careful not to bemoan a slow start to the fire season. Its bad JuJu, Karma or what ever you may believe to wish for something that will occur soon enough.

All this gets me back to what my first employer told me and the problems that arise when I as a pilot, go from slow times to full tilt for about 5 months of the year. My company does particularly well at spreading our business eggs around the globe but I do mostly firefighting for the company and as such I coast for about 4 months, go balls to the wall for 3 months , lay back for a month, coast for 2 months and go full tilt for another 2 months. Sometimes. Some years its more, some years its less.

My company needs me to be able to work the long days and short nights when the need is there. A long day in my line of work is about 15 hours long. Do a week of that and you get to work 105 hours that week. Is it safe to fly on fires for a week putting in 105 hours of duty and perhaps as much as 70 hours of flying ? The fact is, that there is no way of answering that question. There are so many factors that go into a week of firefighting that what can look like a ridiculously tough week may be turn out to be the best week of duty that whole year.

After 34 years of flying helicopters and much of it firefighting I have learned to pace myself, eat properly, drink seldom or in moderation and get rest when ever the circumstance allows. I know myself and that means both my strengths and weaknesses. Can anyone legislate a flight and duty time that works for all circumstances. No, not ever. We do the best we can as pilots, or we should, to be there at a 100% when  our employer needs us  but our employer has the more difficult task of balancing the need for safety and profit.

A tired pilot makes mistakes but so does a barely current pilot. On a recent week long fire event I mentioned to the crew that morning that we were in the most dangerous phase of our operation. Mop up or wind down. When the risks are high and everyone is fresh we all tend to work at full capacity and ability. When the adrenaline flow has ebbed and we are a bit tired and the duty has become mundane, that is when we are at our greatest risk.

We all agreed and then proceeded to make a small error. No harm done and our senses and focus were back with confirmation proven that we could not tolerate any distraction from the task at hand.

I had flown about 60 hours in the past week and all of it except this mornings efforts were on fairly intense firefighting operations. Could we have lessened our risk by not working a 105 hour work week? Yes. Could the company have provided enough relief crews to support the possibility of a  short term fire event ? No.

Can companies afford to crew aircraft for every possibility and still remain competitive? No.  My boss was right 34 years ago and not too much has changed in our industry as far as the feast or famine nature of our business.

In the past we have operated three pilot operations for most remote firefighting contracts and if I was to make a suggestion it would be to return to that format. When you work two days on and one off you get a rest day and when the major fire events occur its all hands on deck if possible and the duty goes as well as can be expected.

I have been a chief pilot, general manager, owner and line pilot and it is in that last capacity that I hope to remain for the duration of my career. I don’t envy managers the decisions that they have to make but I am confident that I work for one of the best operated helicopter companies in the world. They will get it right.

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