Insectlike helicopter shows its mettle in tough Texas

Insectlike helicopter shows its mettle in tough Texas

07 June 2011

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USA — You may have seen it circling the smoky skies, an insectlike aircraft sucking water out of playas and dumping water on the fires that have scorched Texas Panhandle communities.

Pilot David Smith said the bright red Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter flew about 14 hours and dropped a million gallons of water on blazes in Ceta and Palo Duro canyons during the Cemetery Road Complex fires that erupted May 27.

Siller Brothers Aviation crew chief Ron Davis said the specially designed helicopter costs about $25 million.

“It’s one of the toughest helicopters ever built for firefighting,” Davis said.

A pump in the aircraft can suck up enough water through the helicopter’s 15-inch hose to fill its 2,000-gallon tank in 40 seconds, Davis said.

“We only need 18 inches of water to fill the tank. We can fill the tank out of a stream,” Davis said. “In Texas, (pilots) will suck water out of a farmer’s field. But water is so scarce in Texas they have to get permission first.”

Davis said the U.S. Forest Service makes arrangements with farmers to get water from their ponds before the helicopter descends on them.

Pilot Doug Farfel, of Utah, said the helicopter can slowly pour water to snuff out a quarter-mile grass fire in one pass. He said he was astounded at how hot and fast the Texas mesquite burns, compared to other trees he had seen in forest fires.

Siller Brothers charges $7,500 to $8,000 per hour when the helicopter is operating. It has a 1,200-gallon fuel tank and burns about 500 gallons of jet fuel per hour.

The chopper has a few advantages over the two single-engine air tankers temporarily stationed at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport, Smith said.

The airplanes can only carry about 800 gallons of fire retardant, compared to 2,000 gallons of water in the heli-tanker. And the heli-tanker can refill its water tank just about anywhere.

“We can use any water source, as long as it’s 18 inches deep,” Smith said. “That pond that was at that camp (Ceta Canyon) was a real good water source. We’ve probably put 1 million gallons, minimum, on the canyon fire.”

Jesse Weaver, pilot of one of the single-engine airplanes, said the biggest challenges pilots face is flying in residential neighborhoods.

“It’s been challenging with the structures burning and a lot of chaos on the ground,” Weaver said. “There’s been a sense of urgency in a lot of different places at the same time.”

Weaver said the fire retardant pilots spread is basically a fertilizer that is colored with a red-clay dye so pilots can see it.

The planes carry enough fuel to remain airborne for about three hours, Weaver said.

“During the Pitt Road fire, I was refilling my fire retardant tank every 20 minutes,” he said.

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