• They take to the ash and smoke-filled skies with their tanks bulging with 12,000 gallons of retardant. Undoubtedly they help save homes and forests from being ravaged — and help protect the lives of both firefighters and residents on the ground. •
VICTORVILLE - They’re the crews of 10 Tanker Air Carrier’s two firefighting jets based at Southern California Logistics Airport, and they’ve been chosen as the Daily Press “Person” of the Year for 2009.
“They’ve become firefighters in the air,” said Cal Fire Capt. Mark Grisamore, who serves with the ground crew for the Super Tankers.
Since 10 Tanker’s first jet started test runs in 2006, with a second plane added to Cal Fire’s firefighting arsenal this year, the crews have flown 338 missions and fought 47 fires.
They helped battle 11 fires this year alone, including the massive Station Fire and October’s Sheep Fire, which forced the evacuation of Wrightwood.
“We’re firm believers that it helped us to slow down the Oak Glen 3 Fire and keep it from going catastrophic,” Cal Fire spokesman Bill Peters said, with several drops from the tankers preventing the September blaze from creeping up to the east side of Big Bear.
When they’re called to action, a total of seven 10 Tanker flight crew members man the planes, with four pilots rotating between the positions of captain and first officer and three flight engineers.
Another 11 Cal Fire firefighters work the ground crew, along with two-man crews (one from Cal Fire and one private contractor) who fly the tankers’ lead planes, directing them to the drop zone.
And a vastly larger “crew” of fellow-SCLA tenants helped get the jumbo jets ready for service, with paint from Leading Edge Aviation, maintenance and support from both General Electric and Boeing, drop tanks installed by Victorville Aerospace and test support from the former City of Victorville Fire Department.
“Obviously it’s a team effort,” said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Doug Lannon. “The ground crew isn’t any good without the air crew and the air crew isn’t any good without the ground crew.”
The firefighters go through training to become familiar with the aircraft, so that they can help load retardant and marshal the plane in and out of SCLA.
This familiarity came in handy this season, when Firefighter Ben Hall spotted a flat tire on one of the tankers and waved the plane in as they were getting ready to take off to help with the Crafton Hills fire.
“That could’ve been catastrophic. They probably could’ve gotten off the ground, but then when they landed...” Grisamore’s voice drifted off. “It’s a dangerous occupation. But they train hard for it.”
If they haven’t flown a mission in the last seven days, Grisamore said the crews run a proficiency flight, dropping as many as six loads on a target and coming back for a critique of their performance.
One tanker and its crew are in Australia now, training to operate there for the first time during the continent’s upcoming fire season.
“I think that the key thing they bring to it is a professionalism,” Peters said. “It’s almost military the way they bring a plane in and take it out, saluting the pilots as they go. By having that professional bearing, it speeds up operations and increases safety.”
And after three contracted seasons in action, Grisamore said the pilots have started to be able to read what the fire is going to do the way firefighters can and help judge where a drop will have the most impact.
Peters recalled a time when a team of firefighters on the ground was getting ready to attack a blaze that was rapidly spreading in San Diego County. But just as they got ready to move up the ridge, Peters said, “All of the sudden here comes this shadow.”
It took the DC-10 just eight seconds to drop 12,000 gallons of retardant on the fire.
“It left (the firefighters) with nothing to do,” Peters said with a laugh. “Yeah, that’s a good thing.”
Though the team is a blend of state firefighters and private contractors, Peters said there is a real sense of esprit de corps among them.
“I think all you have to do is look at the flight suits the pilots wear,” he said. “They have a shoulder patch that says Cal Fire.”
But the 10 Tanker folks shrug off the idea of being considered heroes along with the firefighters on the ground.
“We just do what we’re told to do,” said Brad Tuttle, general manager for 10 Tanker. “It’s a business and a job for us, and we’re just glad to provide that service. We’re glad that it has an impact on fire.”
Source: VVdailypress. com - Article Link