They torpedoed enemy ships during World War II. Now they fight fire.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 3 of 8)
FPL’s strategy is to attack a fire quickly before it gets out of hand. The Skymaster is airborne ahead of the others. An air attack officer, a forester with expertise in fire behavior, sits in the right seat. He will reach the fire first, size it up, make contact with the ground crews if they are there, and direct the TBMs when they arrive. The Cessna 210, carrying a mechanic and two crew members to refill the retardant tanks, heads for the appropriate satellite field, which will usually be within 10 or 15 miles of the fire.
“It takes only two or three minutes to load [retardant],” says Bradley, “and a total of about six minutes to get airborne, including the time for warmups and runups.”
Around three in the afternoon, the fire siren sounds. I run for the Skymaster. This is my chance to see the TBMs in action. Pilot Glen MacDorman is already in the Skymaster’s cockpit, preparing to start up. He motions me to the rear seat. Air attack officer Bob Steeves sits beside him.
The dispatcher tells us the fire is at Little Sevogle River, about 22 nautical miles from the airport. Even as the Avengers are being filled with retardant, we are on our way, heading northwest at about 1,000 feet. MacDorman starts to enter the coordinates relayed by the dispatcher into the Global Positioning System unit when we spot the smoke ahead. The GPS, a Garmin GNC 250 navcom, is the most sophisticated piece of equipment on the TBMs. The readout can give the pilot the heading, track, distance off course, ground speed, and estimated time of arrival, as well as bearing and distance to the fire.
We make a steep right around the head of the fire at about 500 feet. It is a small one, not more than a couple of acres, probably started by campers or fishermen. But the tops of the taller trees are already ablaze, and unless the fire is put down, it can spread quickly. A ground crew is already working at the scene. Nearby a female moose stands placidly in the middle of a small pond.
The tankers radio that they are on the way, and the fire attack officer decides he wants the first tanker to hit the head of the fire. MacDorman switches on the siren to warn the ground crews. (A full load of fire retardant can knock down a large tree.)
The TBMs come in one at a time. They make their pass at about 125 mph with wing flaps set at 10 degrees. The pilots can drop the full load of 625 gallons, or drop half on the first pass and the rest on a second pass. Or they can drop a “string load,” which is one half followed immediately by the remainder. Drops are usually made at an altitude of 100 feet or less. The fire retardant is not intended to extinguish the fire but instead to isolate the fire by creating breaks in its path. Once the fire is surrounded by a ring of retardant, the burning areas inside are extinguished with foam.
Tanker 13, piloted by flight leader Erwin Joyall, comes in first. We bank sharply over the TBM’s flight path and drop down to follow alongside and just above him to the drop. It feels like we are in a dogfight at treetop level. Joyall drops a full load, making a good hit on the head of the fire, and climbs away. The cabin of the Skymaster is filled with the smell of wood smoke.