Kishugu Aviation pilots battle Cape inferno
Fighting wildfires from the sky is filled with great risk to the pilots, but that risk is far outweighed by the rewards that come with saving lives and property. This according to Kishugu Aviation pilots who have been battling the Cape infernos for much of January.
Flying his Cessna fixed wing spotter plane over a fire near Stellenbosch in early January, Line Captain and Base Manager, Johannes Botha, witnessed how devastating these fires were. He saw homeowners and families dousing rampant flames with garden hoses. “Though I understood how desperate they were, their efforts were akin to putting out a braai fire with teaspoons of water”, says Botha.
Through Kishugu Dispatch, Botha directed a Kishugu Huey with a water bucket (also known as a Bambi bucket) to the scene, and soon witnessed the people dancing for joy as the fire was quickly extinguished. Flying over the area later, he was greeted by a large sign on the ground, with letters made from white-washed rocks, simply saying, “Thank you Pilot”.
“These kinds of gestures drive me to pursue my career,” he says.
Kishugu Aviation makes use of Cessna spotter planes, UH-1H or ‘Huey’ helicopters and AT-802 ‘Bomber’ planes to fight fires effectively.
In addition to skills and experience acquired in qualifying for their private and commercial licences and accumulating flying time as a pilot in command of an aircraft, Kishugu Aviation pilots receive specialised training in fire science and behaviour. They also fly with experienced firefighters before being allowed to fly solo during operations.
Firefighting helicopter pilots require a special sling rating qualification to enable them to operate water buckets. They are also trained in the international best-practice Incident Command System (ICS), which coordinates actions of different emergency responders under one Incident Commander. Introduced into South Africa by Kishugu, ICS was developed in the USA, where it became part of the national incident response system after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Western Cape provincial government and district and local authorities have taken the lead in adopting ICS. The system is now being rolled out throughout South Africa.
It is all about teamwork in the firefighting fraternity. It does not matter which Fire Protection Association (FPA) volunteering group or network these men and women work for; they are all there for the same goal.
Pilots are on standby from 10:00 to 18:00 daily but are often called out at first light. Nothing is left to chance: they have to ensure that the aircraft is ready for action within minutes of being called out. In addition to major routine services, oil changes and visual inspections between services, aircraft are inspected by pilots as they come on shift. Aircraft engineers are on standby to attend to any concerns pilots may have.
The Cessna spotter planes are first to get to the scene of a fire, where they perform a command and control function. “We are the Incident Commander’s eyes and ears,” explains Botha. High levels of concentration and multi-tasking ability are required.
After quickly assessing the nature of a fire – its direction and destruction potential – and the surrounding terrain, spotter pilots work out the best way to control the conflagration and limit damage. They communicate information to the Incident Commander on the ground, help to coordinate and optimise air water bombing operations and monitor atmospheric conditions and possible changes in wind direction. They also identify risks to low-flying choppers, such as high tension electricity cables, which pilots refer to as “widow makers”.
The helicopters have a dual function: airborne within five minutes of callout, they usually carry seven Working on Fire ground crew members, who are dropped off at hot-spots in mountainous areas inaccessible by road. “While in the air, I brief the crew about the type of terrain in which they will operate and their priorities, so they have a clear plan in their minds about what is required,” explains Jackson, who has logged 1,900 hours of firefighting flying time in 11 years.
Helicopter pilots fly for two hours, land to refuel from a mobile tanker with the chopper engine running, and fly another two hours. Thereafter they land and shut down to inspect the aircraft and have a quick break before taking off again for another four hours if required.
The major challenges for pilots flying in mountainous areas with high winds are turbulence and smoke that reduces visibility. If conditions become too treacherous, pilots have a mandate to return to base “with no questions asked,” says Botha. The main goal of the pilots will always be to put others before themselves, but to ensure that the safety of everyone involved comes first, a stand-down call is often made to both aerial and ground crew.
“Flying is second nature to me,” explains Kishugu Aviation helicopter pilot, Mark Jackson. “I can tell at a glance of the instruments whether the chopper is performing optimally, so I can concentrate on operating the bucket. I often think of myself as flying a bucket rather than a helicopter.”
He fondly recalls how a game fence shut off a farmer’s escape route as he fled on foot from rapidly advancing flames. “I managed to save him and he was truly thankful”, says Jackson. His commitment and specialised training saved yet another life.