“I’ll bet you have had some frightening experiences?”
It is a question I often get from people who ask about my helicopter firefighting career. “Not too many really”, I say “and I work hard to keep it that way”
A few emergencies, some low visibility scenarios and a couple of close calls with air traffic and ground crews who zigged when they said they would be zagging.
There was a Helitac Crew that I thought were gone. Burned over; maybe dead. That was frightening. I was in no danger of anything; maybe hyperventilation, as I called for them over the radio. It was 1988, mid summer, a busy fire season in the North.
My firefighting crew were from Cumberland House, a small Cree Indian Village. I had a good crew. They knew their business, took care of each other and were easy to work with. They did have one small fault and its a fault shared by most Natives. They don’t talk. Well, they talk Cree. English, if they really have to and no more than necessary. Over the course of a fire season I got pretty good at framing my questions over the radio so that they only required a yes or no answer. I could have cross examined any witness with the radio technique I had developed.
Early in the fire season I got a pretty good indication of how little I was going to hear on the radio from Albert, the Helitac crew boss.
I had flown a load of supplies in the big S-58 to our fire camp down river from the fire we were working. After unloading the gear and groceries with the help of the fire camp cook I was ready to pick up the crew before it got dark. There were no roads this far North, everything was flown in and out on fires.
The Sikorsky S-58
I asked the cook if she needed anything else brought out in the morning?
“I would like one of them fire boys to stay in camp with me. I don’t like them wolves howlin’ around here”.
“The wolves are just chasing down game that is escaping the fire” I said. “They won’t bother you, just bang some pots and pans together”
“I’ll BANG a pan “she answered, looking sideways at the top of my head.
“Be right back with Albert and company” I said, heading for the helicopter.
” Helloooo, Albert, its ALA, (my call sign) heading your way to grab you guys for dinner, are you anywhere near where I set you this morning?”
“No”, came the reply over the radio.
“Ohh Kay then, are you down by the river?”
“Well, I’ll fly along the river and when I get close maybe you could wave me over and uhh, maybe say, here, when I am close?”
After a couple of minutes and a flight past the fire’s edge, no Albert in sight and, of course, no call.
“Albert, its ALA and I’m guessing I might have missed you, your vigorous waving and perhaps my engine drowned out you saying, HERE !”
To which I eventually hear, “You-went-by-a-minute-ago”.
“I am turning around here Albert and I have an idea. I could hear Ely chuckling in the background on your last transmission, so what I would like you to do is key the mike on that radio as I get close, hold it up to Ely’s head and slap him. I’ll hear Ely yell, then I’ll look down and spot you guys”
The microphone is keyed the whole time and I can hear everyone laughing as I fly back down river. There, under the shade of some Cedars, near a gravel bar is my crew, sitting and smiling through soot blackened faces.
I like these guys.
Next blog, I’ll tell you how I thought I’d lost them.