Playing with fire is all in a day’s work

Playing with fire isall in a day’s work

29 June 2008

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South Africa — ‘It’s almost as dangerous as flying combat in SierraLeone.” So says Neall Ellis, helicopter pilot extraordinaire. He’sexplaining the dangers of flying high in the Eastern Cape carrying a full loadof fuel to fight fires. In the thinner air several hundreds of metres above sealevel, with the fiery heat making that air – through which his machine’s bladesmust claw their way – even less dense and buoyant, up dead-end, no-safe-exitvalleys and on wooded mountain slopes running up to sheer cliff faces, and allthe while dangling two tons of water below, ready to dump on to a raging forestfire.

In case I get the wrong idea as we practise lifting 2 000 litres of water out ofa dam while the engine revs edge below their safety parameters, he adds:”Of course, without the danger of getting shot at.”

Then Nellis, as he’s called, smiles wryly: “That too, I suppose. Farmersdon’t always appreciate it when you take their precious water to fight a runawayforest fire.”

The law permits use of anyone’s water to fight a fire threatening life andproperty, he explains. But, for a farmer whose livelihood is constructed arounda delicately balanced equation of livestock equals grass plus water, such lawdoesn’t always make sense, which is why a few pot shots with an old huntingrifle can sometimes be loosed off. Less dangerous, of course, than a 12,7mm DShKanti-aircraft machine gun or a surface-to-air missile. But still capable ofbeing deadly if a round hits the wrong part of a rotor assembly, or even one ofthe crew flying this no-longer-young Russian Mi-8P helicopter.

Bullets apart, in the United States, airborne firefighting is considered -outside of combat – to be the most dangerous flying there is.

When the decorated, former South African Air Force (SAAF) pilot was in SierraLeone in the 1990s, twice keeping the machete-wielding, limb-severing savages ofFoday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front from overrunning the capital, Freetown,he flew one of the old Soviet Union’s most feared fighting machines, a HindMi-24V.

He called it “the office”. It was armed with a 12,7mm, four-barrelledGatling gun in the nose, plus pylon-mounted rocket pods. Side gunners and a tailgunner added to the potential sting. Today, Nellis’s weapon of choice is abright orange, 2 000-litre “Bambi bucket” laid out for checking withits steel wires and control cables gleaming, on the grass, like some giant,beached Technicolor squid a long way from the sea.

Nellis and his crew of two (co-pilot and flight engineer) are based at LangeniForest Station on the lower slopes below Mount Baziya, some 35km west of Mthatha.A shipping container acts as tool store and workroom while ranked on the edge ofthe grass landing pad are barrels of fuel: jet A1 (paraffin to you and me, whichis why country trading stores have sometimes been utilised as emergencyrefuelling points, and why you don’t leave fuel supplies unguarded).

This particular Mi-8P, developed from a Soviet military helicopter firstintroduced in the mid-1960s, is operated by George-based Titan Helicopters. Itnormally spends some five months at Langeni, from June to the end of October, onstandby for the KwaZulu-Natal Fire Protection Association.

Last July, a fire started among refuse, with a strong wind – eventually reaching40 knots – coming up around midday. The dryness, heat, wind and potentialdangers made that day Condition Red in the five-stage fire warning system.

“When we were called out, it was pretty difficult,” Nellis admits.”Up here in the mountains, it can be very turbulent. We were being thrownaround in our seats. After it was all over, we had bruises on our bodies fromthe seat belts.”

Attempting to fly “straight and level” to uplift water, there weresudden changes in altitude of as much as 30m at a time. Likewise, there was afair amount of yaw from side to side as the engine governor cut fuel in anattempt to compensate for the rapid changes in engine revs.

“All the time, we were fighting the conditions to keep the aircraft leveland fighting the engine-induced oscillations as well.

“Johnny [O’Neill, the flight engineer who hangs out the door talking thepilot in to bucket fills and drops] had to hold on, even though he’s got a ‘monkeychain’ to stop him from being thrown right out.”

This model of helicopter was originally designed to carry up to 28 passengers… but that was in cold, dense-air European conditions.

“For every degree change in temperature, we forfeit or gain 70kg,”Nellis explains.

With a 2 000-litre Bambi bucket, if the outside air heats up by 10 degrees, thatmeans 700 litres less that the aircraft can lift.

“Also, we start off with 1 000 litres of fuel on board, so burning off fuelmeans we can carry more water to put out fires.

“All the time, one has to be mentally aware of weight, air density andaltitude parameters,” Nellis continues. “We’re flying continually atour limits, at the aircraft’s maximum all-up weight. And, of course, generallyfires happen in dry, hot, windy conditions, and we’re called out when the groundcrews can’t put out the blaze.

“Some 95 percent of the time, we’re working up on the slopes of themountain when vehicles and people on the ground can’t access. In valleys, and onthe sides of cliff faces, there’re associated updraught and downdraughts, plusextreme turbulence.”

That July, the fire penetrated the forest. The flames, says Nellis, were intense.Sometimes, such flames can shoot well above the 30m-tall trees – perhaps another15m up – even higher than the aircraft is flying. Then there’s the danger posedby the aptly named “widow-makers” – the leafless trunks left after atree has died, possibly in an earlier fire, and hard to spot against the ground.

That day, Nellis and his crew had to drop their water into a valley while flyingup the overall slope of the land, but at the same time heading downwind.Normally, to disperse the water load properly, they want to drop at around100km/h.

“But now, we were trying to concentrate the load. We had to slow down; itbecame very unsafe. Should we lose an engine, we’d go right into the cliff face.It felt as though the wind was picking us up and throwing us into the mountain.I remember thinking: if I don’t do this right, I’ll have to do it again.”

With the revs of the two Klimov turboshaft engines screaming at their maximum,and the main rotor blade revs dropping, Nellis was “trying to physicallypull the controls up to get that little extra bit of height”. The Bambibucket hangs 10m beneath, meaning the aircraft needs to fly at 15m above groundlevel. It takes fine judgment as the ideal is to drop water from some 5m abovethe fire. It must be released along the line of the fire. If the aircraft isflying too fast, then the water will be too spread out, dissipated. If too slowor low, then the rotor wash will fan the flames.

At the same time, the massive bucket poses a danger of its own: not only – bythe nature of a commercial forest – are there trees all around, but also powerlines. And, of course, those “widow-makers”.

“Ideally speaking, we should drop and pick up another load within twominutes,” says Nellis. “But the water can easily be five to 10 minutes’flying time away,” adding to the difficulties. “We had some verystrange aerobatic manoeuvres to get out of trouble that day. Altogether we didabout 12 drops.”

With the fire spreading through the forest and threatening the sawmill itself, aKamov Ka-32 – normally based at Ugie, and slinging a 4 000-litre bucket – wasbrought in to assist.

“There was smoke. It was extremely dangerous flying. That’s why we get paida bonus for each hour of flying … people don’t like to say it’s a dangerallowance, but it is.”

Braam Wessels, his co-pilot, is currently paying off the last three years of afive-year flying training bond with Titan. He had thought of joining the airforce, but that means a 16-year contract. To pay for his initial fixed-wingpilot training, he worked in Britain at a variety of jobs: in the building trade,apple picking, fleecing… He recalls his father commenting that, for Braam’sgeneration, a stint working overseas is today’s equivalent, for young SouthAfricans, of the old national service.

Ideally, he’d like to be based in Cape Town with Titan, servicing the ships, orperhaps in his home town of George, flying to and from the Mossgas rigs. He’sworked on the making of the film Blood Diamonds in the Transkei and Mozambique… that dramatic scene in which the helicopter banks and weaves through a deepriver valley was shot locally. Now his aim is to build up hours. But fire workis mostly waiting, not flying, he notes.

Checking, checking and checking again before every takeoff is flight engineerJohnny O’Neill. With 13 years’ in the SAAF, and three times divorced – the lasttime when he said he was going back to flying – he’s been around the block.

In the old SAAF Alouette combat helicopters, the flight engineer doubled as thegunner. Now, lying flat on the vibrating floor and hanging out of the door,O’Neill makes sure the Bambi bucket doesn’t snag as the Mi-8 fills up at a dam;then he helps the pilot bring the aircraft in on the right path to let loosetheir “bombload” of water.

His long experience of flying, over desert and sea, in a wide variety of oftenturbulent conditions, means he doesn’t hold back his opinions of the pilots inwhose hands he trusts his life. He identifies the cautious ones … and thosewho know when to take a chance.

In the air and on the ground, the three crew members work well together withlittle discussion. There’s an almost constant stream, back and forth, of verbalinformation when aloft: height, wind, fire lines, engine parameters, fuel levels,conditions, potential dangers … but never any chatter.

On the ground, much the same. In the cold winter nights the three men, togetherwith Nellis’s partner, braai by Langeni custom “in stereo”, betweentwo fires: toasting their backsides as they cook their meat.

Braam Wessels checks the full moon: with his hobby astronomy, he’d prefer lessillumination. Meanwhile, he’ll take a 13km hike by moonlight. When it’s his turnto cook, he comes up with an interesting pasta dish in two variants, the morestrongly flavoured version goes fastest.

Johnny O’Neill, whose speciality is the cheese griller “tasters”before every braai, also delivers a mean chicken ? la king.

A fiery, chilli-enhanced, throat-stripping tomato-and-onion sauce was thecontribution of Nellis’s partner, Likhabiso Ramarou.

There’s a little desultory discussion about weather conditions, helicopterspares and maintenance issues. But they haven’t much to talk about. This is aworking camp, not a holiday, even though it’s situated in some of South Africa’smost scenic country. And so to bed, early. There’s another day on the way,waiting for a fire to fight.

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