Well, actually, I was driving. Fast. I was late, even though I was up at 04:00 and had crossed the border at Tijuana without incident. My helicopter was sitting at an airport on the coast south of Ensenada, Mexico. The pilot I was replacing that day was on the cell phone as I blasted down the coast highway. His voice had a familiar sound of stress I’d heard in my own voice under similar circumstances. A long, tough tour and you had better get me out of here, NOW! Flying in foreign countries can be stressful. Mexico had always been of interest, but the pilot stories coming back were enough to have me questioning my current decision. Oh well, another flyin’ adventure.
A couple of wrong turns and a chance to chat amiably with armed guards at the wrong military base, I was soon meeting the pilot I was to replace. Very foggy weather on the coast gave us the chance to do a proper briefing. How unique. Mike’d been flying down here in the 212 (Bell, twin Huey) for a couple months or so, without a day off. A couple hours later, listening to Mikes stories I told him “You tell me one more story, I’ll be racing you to the truck.” He’d noticed that I had not yet given him the keys for the truck. “After we fly the ship” I told him. We are eventually off to the fire and not back until almost dark in the fog.Long duty day, about 17 hours long. No rules here on the duty day length. The previous day I’d been up at 06:00, flown a FAA part 135 check ride, gotten in the truck and drove for 6 hours from Fresno, CA to Chula Vista. Duty day end at 21:30. Supper with Mike and a short nap and it would be the start of my tour. Maybe a good meal and some rest would start me feeling better about my choice to come down here.
03:30 projectile vomiting into the toilet. Mike had left in the truck at 04:00, see ya, would love to be ya. Back to the toilet. Note to self; Americano canned goods in your diet from this point on, Keith. Try the Tacos de Pescado in Ensenada, I had been told by by friends back in California.
Day two of my tour in Mexico
It’s foggy at the airport, the flight plan is filed. It’s below legal weather limits for flight and yet, the flight plan is approved by the military officer at the airport. The weather is ceiling indefinite – about 100′ to 200′ fog and about 1/4 mile visibility. I call the tower to depart. “No Senor, the weather is below minimums for flight”. “Why yes it is,” I say “Could I hover the helicopter away from the fuel area to the helipad?” My customer is the Mexican version of the Forest Service, Conifor is the primary organization responsible for fighting wildland fires in Mexico. My Conifor boss seems to be wound tighter than a twelve day clock, and the news that we are not launching has him jumping from the helicopter and heading back to the airport office. A few minutes later, Conifor guy is back – and surprise – the tower is calling me to tell me that I am cleared to take off. Ok, sure, why not. Down the highway, over the power lines, up the canyon. Mucho power lines beside me and now above me into the clouds. Home again, home again to the Ensenada airport. “Yes, tower, I know it’s below VFR. You let me go 10 minutes ago in the very same weather. Thank you for letting me return.”
Back on the ground at the airport, Conifor guy is throwing a major fit worthy of any three year old. Very amusing. After several minutes of watching the weather not improve, the Conifor guy is back yelling at my company rep/translator. My spanish is good enough to know that the Conifor man thinks my flying skills are limited, and that we should have merely gone vertical up through the fog to get on top and over the coastal mountains. Not happening, but thanks for your input and critique of my flying. The Conifor man now announces that there is another canyon free of wires that is more suitable. I think to myself “This is good information to have had, say, an hour ago when you were on your way to your first massive coronary or stroke.” Off we go in not legal weather and we make it to the fire. The day looks good and the firefighters are placed in non-effective strategically ridiculous locations around the fire. Toe in’s at 7,000′ with guys who leap out of the ship, shovels overhead and climb the hill toward the blades. And they wonder why the Gringo pilot leaves so quickly. To avoid chopping the shovel and your head off at the same time perhaps. Apparently yesterday’s water drops were perilously close to sleeping positions near the crew.Conifor boss will fly with me to help direct my drops. Ohhhh, good. I proceed down the canyon with a long line and bucket at warp speed to a very tight water hole in the creek. Conifor guy is looking a little pale as he screams something into the intercom. Sorry, no comprendez that phrase. I think about telling him that his door is off, and he should feel free to puke down the side of the ship. I do tell him “Yes, I can hit that spot as directed by your ground crew”.Apparantly your crew also enjoys screaming into the radio. Thank you for the thumbs up. Very reassuring, excellent choice of drop locations at the tail of the fire – clear of smoke and any real active flame. Lets ignore the head of the fire, and the fact that if it jumps the creek it will be gone into the National park and the observatory above us. My spanish and gesturing seem to be unheeded. It is only important to drop where the crew is doing nothing. Ok, sure, why not.
The work is not getting better. The fuel truck is missing.Off we fly to find the truck. Found it 60 miles away,located at a roadside Cantina and gas station. Fight fire for another hour and a half and no fuel truck but I have remembered to save enough lost fuel truck reserve jet fuel. Dust cloud on wrong dirt road finds truck. Fuel the helicopter and another attempt at directions. The truck has contaminated fuel in it’s tank and the driver needs to stop and replace the fuel filter every 50 miles or so. I try not to worry about my helicopter fuel condition, Truck arrives near day end, and I have fuel to fly back to Ensenada. We will not be sleeping in the dirt on the mountain top, as was suggested by Conifor boss. Sorry, but I have had no food today and a night without gear on the mountain to wake up to a bottle of water and a truck with only 1 hours fuel left in it does not appeal to me. Another less impressive fit by Conifor guy and we are off to the fog banks along the coast. Low level, low speed arrival at Ensenada terminates at the helipad surrounded by freshly plowed field. Fog followed by brownout landing.The airport Commandante has summoned me to his office . I am apparently in violation of flying in weather below minimums. Interesting. Through the translator I have explained to the Commandante that my flight plan was accepted and that the tower cleared me to fly. Never the less, Gringo, there is a penalty ,fine to be paid. “Ohhhh, a fine” I say, “Well, in that case, you need to talk to my translator manager here. He has some pesos, and I do not. I never will have any pesos, dollars or dinero of any kind. What I do have is a contract that pays me a daily rate, whether I fly or not. I am off to the grocery story to buy some canned goods and bottled water. Have a great evening and call me if you need me to fly tomorrow morning, I can hardly wait.”
Two days down and 60 more to go.
**Editor’s note: This is just one of several stories Keith has to tell from his summer in Mexico – it is out of chronological order, but we both thought they warrant blog time. Enjoy his stories, there are more to come