His career as an aerial firefighting pilot started as long ago as 1987, when he got a call from Rautenbach Aerial Spraying that they needed a pilot to fly a spotter aircraft over fires. Based in Mkuze as a temporary pilot, he was offered a permanent position in this unique line of work, and his 35-year career started.
“Aerial firefighting was still in its infancy in South Africa when I started, and I knew nothing about it other than what the Americans were doing,” Wolfie said, tongue in cheek. “As fate would have it, I joined at the exact time when the forestry industry started investing in its aerial resources. I consider myself very fortunate to have grown alongside its development. Like most things, the learning curve was steep.”
His training in Virginia in Durban had not prepared him for real-world hazards. The training was usually done on calm days and smooth tar runways. Whenever the wind started blowing, the instructors tended to cancel the flying.
However, the runways used in the forestry at the time were mainly crop-sprayer based, and they were never in line with the prevailing North West wind that blasted through during the fire season. Crop sprayers typically fly when there is little to no wind, and the runways are prepared wherever there is available spare space.
In these challenging conditions, Wolfie spent four months in Mkuze and mainly flew with Sappi management over fires. Together, they worked out how to tackle the raging fires using the Garret-powered Thrushes. “My experience in a neighbouring country, however, cemented my understanding of the scope and scale of aerial firefighting.”
Wolfie can proudly say that after facing many challenges in South Africa and Swaziland, with high-density trees, they built a couple of runways where no trees grew. Over the years, with strong winds, these were some of the most challenging runways to use and some of the worst fires he has ever encountered. Winds blew over 80 km/h, and crosswind landings were standard. There was no flying on calm days.
A new chapter started in his life in 1988, where he would spend the next 25 years in Piet Retief. Looking back, technology changed significantly from how they used to fill Bomber Aircraft. The Kloppersrus airfield had an overhead filling system where the bombers would taxi under a long arm with a hose attached, and the filler crew would jump onto the wing, open the top hatch and drop the pipe in to fill the plane. “Unfortunately, the arm would start to sag after a while, and the prop would just miss the arm component. This seemed to be a popular method of filling at the time,” Wolfie laughed.
Over the years, the system of filling bombers changed. Side loading was implemented whereby water was pumped into the side of the bomber using robust water pumps, taking water from JoJo tanks or small raised concrete dams. The pilot would indicate to the bomber filler crew when to stop.
He loved being a Spotter pilot, as the foresters would hop on board for any reason to do ‘orange’ day patrols. Many hours were flown with the Spotter doing fire break inspections, especially towards the end of the official permitted burning period. “I learned a great deal about fire behaviour and how different vegetation burns during wildfires. One example that interested me was that forestry management sometimes planted wattle between their pine and gum tree blocks as a form of a firebreak.” Wolfie explains that Wattle trees burn much slower than gum and pine trees. This gives ground teams a better chance of stopping a fire. “Pine trees burning in a wildfire are genuinely frightening as they explode. One could hear the explosion from where we were flying. Wolfie greatly respected the bomber pilots and foresters over the years. He witnessed everything from explosions to large pieces of wood that get hurled up the air and fireballs from pine trees that drop down and start spot fires. These pilots tried to control these types of chaotic fires. “With Kishugu’s Integrated Fire Management approach and landowners who prepare better for fire seasons, we see less of these types of fire behaviour.”
Challenges that Wolfie got used to in his career were flying patrols with forestry managers in the Spotter on “orange” and “red” days when aerial firefighting was still young. Take-offs with a C-182 in strong crossings required him to lift off sideways. He had to watch the tall grass and when the gusts stopped and the grass was upright, he would apply full power and roll diagonally down the runway with the nose as much into the wind as possible.
High wind speeds, approaching the runway sideways and landing diagonally on the one corner with lots of rudders turned straight to line up before running out of runway width. “ It was pretty interesting when he had four people up in the C–182. “Flying was uncomfortable in the turbulence, and 99% of the time, people got sick, then they had to stay in the air until the fire was under control. Today, they don’t fly with passengers anymore.
Over time more and more things changed and improved. Longer, better runways were built and positioned into the prevailing wind. Water filling points increased and were manned by trained people so that the whole operation worked faster and more efficiently. Operations centres were established with dispatchers and dedicated radios.
They did many things vastly different than now, and Wolfie grew alongside aerial firefighting in South Africa to where it is today.
“Flying 150 hours a season was common, with days of nine hours doing patrols and over 80 fires during a season. There was no relief pilot or days off during the seasons. Interestingly, foresters were not allowed to go on leave or leave their plantations during a fire season. So, the pilots just slotted in with their routine, and we all learned to respect our challenges. We became family and held many braais where families were included. I remember we even had a pilot who got married at the Mondi Central airstrip among the aircraft!”
Working on Fire was established in 2003, and aerial firefighting expanded around the country. “I started working with Hueys and Mi8s manned by Russian pilots and South African co-pilots. We now had two fire seasons, Summer and Winter fire seasons, with more bases. For the past 17 years, I was stationed at Stellenbosch, and I still call it home.
Since its inception, we have focused on vegetation fires. Fire seasons in the Cape, which is very mountainous, were fascinating. “When the South Eastern or the North Westerly winds start to blow, the turbulence for the spotter aircraft is something else. ”Wolfie explains: “ You circle the fire and do 150 knots downwind and less than 40 knots into the wind. Then the downdrafts pull you down….. and down….. and down, and you see the ground or sea coming towards you. Then you have to give full power, your airspeed reads 40 knots. Then you are out of the downdraft, and you get pulled up relentlessly, and all the power is off, and your airspeed is high. This goes on for the entire duration of the fire. You can find a spot between or above these winds, if lucky. But the turbulence doesn’t go away. And while all this is happening, the aircraft also wants to roll violently left and right.”
Flying over a fire around Hout Bay and Chapmans Peak can become challenging in these conditions. I remember looking at the sea during the downdrafts and thinking about Moses parting the red sea. When that downdraft hits the ocean, it seems like a parting has occurred. I have also developed a lot of respect for Cessna.
Although 35 years of firefighting in places like Mtubatuba, Kwambonambi, Piet Retief, Stutterheim, Mkuze, Warburton, Swaziland, Paulpietersberg, Vryheid, Tulbagh, Eshowe, Melmoth and other towns have passed, there are still many more impressive and unforgettable moments to come!