Zapping wildfires: Abilene air tanker pilot stares down the heat

Zapping wildfires: Abilene air tanker pilot stares down the heat

04 March 2012

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USA — Greg Hock flies an 80,000-pound airplane 15 stories off the ground into the teeth of raging wildfires.Yet he insists there’s often more danger involved in driving to the airport than in dropping a 2,000 gallon load of retardant on a fire.

Hock is a 26-year veteran of flying heavy air tankers during firefighting operations, piloting mammoth planes like the converted Lockheed P2-V — tail number 55 — stationed at Abilene Regional.

“We’re up at 150 feet, flying around 120 knots (130 mph),” he said. “We’ve got lots of people on the ground and in the air looking out for us, looking for potential hazards.”

But on a lot of roads, like Highway 36 that runs past the airport, he said, cars going 70 mph pass within feet of each other, their drivers texting or mashing buttons on the radio.

Hock said dropping the nose of his craft and lining up on the flank of a fire can get his pulse racing at times — especially in strong crosswinds or in heavy, bouncing turbulence — but there are also long periods of inactivity. “It’s like being in a regular firehouse,” Hock said. “You’re either busting your (behind), or you’re sitting on your (behind).”

“There’s a lot of downtime, and then there are some real long, busy days,” he said.

At the Portable Airtanker Base that’s been established at Abilene Regional Airport, Hock has several people to keep him company during the slow times.

Right now, there’s the PAB boss, Ricky Hughes, a longtime firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s out of north Georgia, but has helped launch firefighting aircraft across the country. Like most of the human resources that come to West Texas to help fight wildfires, he cycles on and off regularly, being replaced with other tanker base managers as the fire season progresses.

Then there’s a rotating crew of up to six men and women who help operate the pumps and hoses that fill the onboard tanks with the pre-mixed retardant.

And there’s a “Mixmaster,” the person in charge of mixing the dry retardant compound with water and keeping it stirred up in the large storage tanks.

The hose and pump crew also helps the Mixmaster by taking wooden baseball bats to the bags of retardant mix, helping break up any chunks.

There’s also a ramp manager, who helps guide the plane as it taxis to and from the runway.

Hock’s co-pilot rounds out the crew. There are always maintenance tasks to be performed, Hock said. Last week, an electrician spent time wiring a new electrical socket, so Hock can plug in his iPad, which he uses to browse navigation charts and maps.

While on duty, Hock said he and his co-pilot have to stay within 15 minutes of the tanker base.

Thankfully, he said, Lytle Land & Cattle — a favorite lunch spot — is within that range.

When a large wildfire breaks out within range of the tankers, and if flying conditions are right, the command post in Merkel will place an order for the tanker and send a fax with latitude and longitude for the target.

Immediately, the ground crew will begin prepping the plane and pumping up to 2,000-gallons of the red slurry retardant into the tanks — bolted down in what used to the bomb bay when the P2 was a submarine hunter for the Navy.

Within 15 minutes of the initial call, Hock said, they are able to be wheels-up and heading for the fire. In addition to the two piston-powered propeller-driven engines — that crank out more than 6,000 horsepower — the P2-V has two jet-assist engines for getting the heavy tanker off the ground.

Once on the scene, Hock said he gets in touch with the air attack — a spotter plane that flies high above the action, keeping an eye on the fire and the firefighters. They fly clockwise, Hock said, with the spotter sitting in the right-hand seat.

Hock, however, flies counterclockwise patterns — at about 1,500 feet — so while he’s banking he can see the fire below out of the captain’s window on the left side of the plane.

Once Hock’s target is identified, he said he’ll line up behind a chase plane, drop to about 150 feet and slow to 120 knots and make a practice run. He said that lets the firefighters below know that the next run will be live, and they’ll need to relocate if they don’t want to get “painted.”

Using a computer-controlled pump system, Hock can let out as much or as little of the retardant as the incident commander requests. Measured in gallons per square foot, Hock sets how much retardant to drop on each pass.

He can create a line of retardant up to three-quarters of a mile long.

Ricky Hughes, the tanker base manager, said a successful drop doesn’t necessarily extinguish a fire.

“We consider it a successful drop if we can slow a fire down enough for folks on the ground to fight it, or if we protect a structure or something like a bulldozer operator in danger of getting overrun,” Hughes said.

Hock started flying when he was 17. For years he flew crop-dusters in Nebraska. He earned his commercial, instrument and multiengine ratings, while gaining much experience as a mechanic, working on his planes.

“In the ’80s, when the ag economy went in the tank, there wasn’t much spraying going on,” Hock said. “So I sent my résumé to every air tanker company I could find. My experience flying low, through terrain, and with spraying, and my mechanical experience, I think made me a very attractive candidate. I heard back from the first company I applied to and started training.”

In his 26-year career, Hock said he’s flown about 6,000 hours while fighting fires. And he’s made more than a few memories.

Once, while fighting a fire near a highway outside Tucson, Ariz., he was tasked with making a drop right in front of the head of the fire.

“We lined up and had to fly straight through a wall of smoke, then drop near the highway. There was this pretty little blonde with a TV crew filming right on the road. I saw the tape later … here comes this massive plane blasting out of the smoke, and then the camera just goes red. After a minute you see a finger start to wipe the lens clean, and there’s this woman just dripping with retardant,” Hock said, rolling with laughter at the memory.

While he said he once flew his heavy tanker along the bottom of the Grand Canyon during an operation years ago, he said one of his most tense moments came in Nevada.

“We were fighting a brush fire, and after making a drop, we had to climb a hill. We’d just dropped about 18,000 pounds of weight, so I didn’t think I had to hit the throttle that hard to clear the hill. Well, I pull back on the stick — and it’s real sluggish. I look over and my co-pilot had zeroed the flaps. We lost a lot of lift with that, so I gave it all I could, and we barely scraped over it,” Hock said. “I had a little talk with him after we landed.”Hock has a new co-pilot now.

Hock said his flying has taken him across the country, fighting fires from Florida to Alaska. During the offseason, he helps his brothers with a farm in Nebraska, and takes trips with his grandkids in a little Piper Cub.

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