Air Tanker Pilot
Larry Loadhauler groans and buries his head in the pillow as his 6 a.m. smartphone alarm blares across the room. "This hotel bed isn't doing me any favors, and flying until 8 last night sure didn't help my stiff muscles," Larry grouses. "Why doesn't this place have a hot tub?" he mutters as he drags himself to the shower. Larry blasts the hot water onto his back and shoulders, hoping to work out some of the kinks. He's got to fly today at 9, and there's a team briefing before that at 8. The southwest Texas heat is already building as Larry crosses through the breezeway to the hotel lobby.
At least this place has breakfast so I don't have to drive to the interstate, Larry thinks as he trudges to the hotel's faux breakfast buffet. Larry's not fooled by the microwaved eggs and toaster waffles. He wants real food, but he's not paying for it, so he shovels it in and chugs down a second cup of coffee. At least I'm not an aircraft mechanic, he muses, shaking his head as he plops down in the briefing room. Those guys went to work when the planes landed at 8, and worked until 5 this morning, doing routine maintenance on the planes until 4, and then putting them back together so they're ready to go at 9. Larry doesn't dare bother the mechanics, who are snoring away in their rooms until sometime in the afternoon.
Five other company pilots straggle in for the briefing provided by the regional fire command center. Ground crews have reported that the fire, which they fought hard to knock down overnight, has reignited due to the 40-50 mph winds in these desolate flatlands. Although the fire hasn't yet overtaken any towns, it has advanced to within 10 miles of the closest settlement, which is starting to ramp up its evacuation plans. The team's mission for today: Work with ground crews to keep the fire from advancing further toward the town, and hope the predicted thunderstorms roll through without starting any of their own fires.
With the briefing complete, Larry and his pilot-in-command John perform their preflight mechanical and gear checks. Larry has already prepared the day's flight plan, although their twin-engine aircraft will receive its airborne instructions from their incident commander, kind of like a football quarterback who telegraphs plays to his team members. The only difference is that Dick, the seasoned incident commander who will control team operations from a twin-engine plane high above the scene, will communicate by radio instead of hand signals.
Finally, it's time to take off, and the entire team arrives at the scene in about 10 minutes. Larry counts three company twin-engine air tankers, two helicopters and, a single-engine plane from another company, and two converted crop dusters that flew in early that morning from a fire scene that was winding down. Dick patrols the fire perimeter while his teammates hang back, waiting for instructions after Dick assesses the scene. The team spends several hours criss-crossing through the fire zone, dropping preemptive retardant loads while Dick feeds the pilots updated instructions based on his communication with ground crews. Finally, in late afternoon, Dick signals the end of the day's work as the thunderstorms roll in with welcome downpours and blessedly little cloud-to-ground lightning.
Larry and his teammates head back to the airport, taxi the airplanes off the main runway, and prepare to perform their shutdown procedures. Since they've wrapped up flight operations a bit early, the crew plans to meet for a burger in the air-conditioned hotel dining room, followed by some good downtime before tomorrow's fire operation. Larry has just turned off the airplane's comm system when his smartphone buzzes with an unexpected call. It's Incident Commander Dick, and he has a piece of news Larry doesn't want to hear.
Larry's plans for a nice, relaxing evening are toast. Dick has pulled Larry and John's airplane (along with them, of course) off this fire and rerouted them to a rapidly growing fire just west of Denver, Colorado. Since it's still late afternoon, they've got time to fly up there, find a hotel room, and join the fire team the next day. Larry and John have flown into this airport before, and their instrument ratings make it a pretty straightforward trip, even at night.
Larry and John trot to their hotel rooms, throw everything into their bags (including dirty clothes), and drop the keys with the desk clerk as they run out the door. Hard to say whether they'll get any of their unused room fees back, since they didn't give the hotel any notice. The guys pile their gear into the plane's cargo hold, punch in the Colorado airport's GPS coordinates, and agree on a flight plan they can refine while underway, depending on weather. They won't get in until late this evening, but no worries, as their favorite hotel has room service all night.