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.
The second and third tankers are directed to drop retardant along the fire’s flanks to pinch it off. The third tanker is flown by Bob Blanchard, a temporary pilot who is working his first fire. He hits his target. “Not bad for the first time out,” observes MacDorman.
Steeves asks the tankers to refill with foam. In a few minutes they are back again to make drops directly on what’s left of the fire. By the time we head back to Miramichi, the blaze has been doused. Only strings of white smoke drift up from the blackened patch of woods. MacDorman radios to the ground crews, “It’s all yours now.”
The fire season in New Brunswick starts around the first of May and ends in mid-September. Pilots contract to work only during that time, during which they earn a base salary plus pay for the hours they fly. Flying time ranges from 60 to 100 hours for the season, depending on fire conditions. “They’ll make the money and then they’ll all quit flying through the winter,” says chief pilot Eric Bradley. “Most of them will stay at home and do other things they want to do.”
Pilots based at Miramichi have no scheduled days off during the season. Seven days a week, they gather in the operations headquarters building about noon. After meeting in the conference room, where they read the weather forecast and fire hazard reports, they wander into the lounge or out to the flightline to check their aircraft. Most of the time they wait, talking shop. The all-clear usually sounds about 6 p.m.
The pilots are Canadian; most are from New Brunswick. All are middle-aged. Conversations are in English, often tinged by the inflections of Acadian French or the throatier accents of the Québécois. Their collective flying experience is impressive—none is military, but they have logged thousands of hours of low-altitude, single-engine time as instructors, bush pilots, cropdusters, tanker jockeys, and charter pilots.
“This is blue-collar flying,” says Bradley. “Some people look down on it but we love it. You get your hands dirty. There’s no epaulets, there’s no white shirt and tie. These pilots actually work. I think the guys who do this, they’re more type-A personalities. They get bored easily. They need that constant stimulation of takeoff and landing. They think of themselves as stick-and-rudder pilots.”