Helitanker fights fire from above

This Sikorsky S-64E Skycrane helitanker, viewed from the inside, is stationed in John Day. The helitanker is used to stop fires before they become unmanageable. The Eagle/Patrick Bentz

Recent stretches of dry weather have fire management and suppression officials pushing to move firefighting crews to different parts of the western United States.

Last week, a helitanker and crew on lease from Evergreen Helicopters Inc. arrived in Grant County. They are currently stationed at the Grant County Regional Airport.

Gary Ogle is one of two captain/pilots of the Evergreen helitanker, a Sikorsky S-64E Skycrane. The other captain is Jerry Olson. The crew is based out of McMinnville, but spends much of the fire season in different locations around the West, depending on where fires are likely to erupt. Before being stationed in John Day, they were based in Rollins, Wyo. Last year they spent time in Montana, Idaho and California.

"They just put us where they want us," Ogle said, "and we just go from there."

Helitankers are being used more frequently by the Fire and Aviation Management office of the U.S. Forest Service due to the grounding of 33 large airtankers in May because of safety concerns. Since that time, five airtankers have been recertified for service, and inspections are continuing on another three, all owned by Aero Union Corp. of Chico, Calif. According to a recent press release from the Forest Service, that agency and Department of the Interior will acquire more than 100 additional aircraft to aid in this year's wildland fire season.

"We are committed to using available resources to stop fires before they become unmanageable," said Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. "These additional aircraft will enable fire managers to fully maintain their ability to stop nearly 99 percent of all fires on initial attack and continue to protect communities."

The Sikorsky S-64E helitanker stands approximately 20 feet tall and has six large rotor blades. It carries a 2,000-gallon water tank and has a top speed of 114 knots (approximately 131 mph). The crew will start a shift carrying between 1,200-1,500 gallons of water; as they burn fuel, they are able to add more water to the tank. After they empty the tank, they are able to reload from any stream that is at least 18 inches deep. The siphon has a screen at its mouth that prevents anything larger than 1/2-inch square from entering the tank, thus preventing fish and other larger organisms from being removed from the stream. The snorkel, as the crews affectionately call it, can extend nine feet below the wheels, affording a margin of safety when refilling the water tank.

The helitanker can fly for about two hours before refueling. Maintenance is carried out progressively over a 150-hour flight period, with a portion of the necessary maintenance done every 30 hours. This prevents having the helitanker out of service while a complete maintenance check is completed. Once a call for service comes in from the Forest Service, the crew can have the helitanker in the air in as little as 15 minutes.

The crew size is between seven and nine people, and includes two pilots and at least four ground crew members. The crews are on call from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening every day. They get two days off every two weeks. According to Ogle, they like staying in John Day.

"We've been in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado. This is nice. We're getting close to home!"

Additional information on the Evergreen Sikorsky can be found online at http://www.evergreenaviation.com/EHI/specsheets/s64.html.

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