Larry Loadhauler groans and buries his head in the pillow as his 6:00AM smartphone alarm blares across the room. "This hotel bed isn't doing me any favors, and flying until eight last night sure didn't help my stiff muscles," Larry grouses. "And 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 nine, and there's a team briefing an hour before that. 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 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 in what he's got and chugs down a second cup of coffee before driving to work.
"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 8:00PM, then worked doing routine maintenance on the planes until 4:00AM, making sure to put them back together so they'd be ready to go at 9:00AM. Larry doesn't dare bother them as he passes, knowing they'll be 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 forty to fifty MPH winds in these desolate flatlands.
Although the fire hasn't overtaken any towns yet, it's advanced to within ten 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 fires of their own.
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'll control team operations from a twin-engine plane high above the scene, will communicate by radio instead of hand signals. And in English, instead of whatever language the phrase "blue forty-two" makes sense in.
Finally, it's time to take off, and the entire team arrives at the scene about ten minutes after the launch command is given. Larry counts three company twin-engine air tankers, two helicopters, 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 crisscrossing through the fire zone, dropping preemptive retardant loads while Dick feeds the pilots updated instructions based on his communication with ground crews. Finally, in the late afternoon, Dick signals the end of the day's work as the thunderstorms roll in with welcome downpours and—whew—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.
The car ride back takes significantly longer than it would have in a plane, but no one in the small sedan wants another minute spent in flight today. (The hotel is not exactly equipped with runways anyway.)
They arrive at the hotel dining room, and pore over the predictably overpriced menu. Larry orders the flame-broiled double cheeseburger, happy for the reminder that sometimes fire's not all that bad.
Larry's smartphone buzzes just as the waiter arrives with his food twenty minutes later. It's Incident Commander Dick, and he has some bad news: He's pulled Larry and John's airplane (along with them, of course) off this fire and rerouted them to a rapidly growing inferno just west of Denver. They've got just enough time to fly up there, find a hotel room, and join the fire team...so long as they leave right now.
Suddenly, Larry's plans for a nice, relaxing evening are as toasted as the crispy, rosemary buns hugging his uneaten cheeseburger. He takes a final look at his soon-to-be-abandoned dinner, and holds back enough tears to douse an Alaskan wildfire.
Larry and John jog 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. John wonders aloud if they'll make it in time to eat before joining the Denver crew. Larry barely hears it above the sound of his rumbling stomach.