Friday, 1 November 2013

There's a Fire Coming ?

This is a story of one day in the cockpit with a fire-bombing pilot.
So sit and buckle up, this could be the ride of your life!

Place: Natal South Africa.

Aircraft: Turbo thrush PT6

I have just got airborne from my strip in Natal, and I'm on my way to a fire just 50 Kilometres north.
As I call "Agmans airborne" the spotter plane calls me with a heading, enabling me to fly straight to the strip,
I'm climbing over thousands of hectares of Forrest, home of the Leopard and his prey the Dik Dik.
About 15 minutes out now and the fire doesn't look too bad, not much smoke!
Not a completely true indication, when the wind gets up it could be an other story laced in horror.

It's time for me to tighten up my body harness and clip on my bone dome strap, saves me getting tossed about in the turbulence of the fire, too much that is?

You sit around your open fire! staring into it, as it dances to the tune in your mind, it captivates your feelings and emotions giving you a warm, but false! sense of security, (from the jinn within) a friendly feeling?
Oh yes it's good?

Do you know? what they say a fire is?
Well, It's one of the worlds four elements, a persistent chemical reaction, that when ignited, by what ever means? it will destroy and consume all combustible material in its path until it runs out of fuel.

Let me tell you what I think it is;
I believe fire is a malevolent creature, that stalks certain parts of our planet and when ignited it! will run maliciously through all that we hold dear, even our loved one's, destroying and consuming all in it's path without conscious or pity,
after a while it will quieten down, and it may let us subdue it.

Oh Yes! we attack it from the ground and use aircraft and even boats, and at times we consider that we have beaten it.

But I don't really believe that it is beaten? it just dives down some hole some-where and smoulders away, waiting like the beast that it is.
Waiting for it's next opportunity to create fear and devastation amongst us, as it has done for centuries?

But I have flown over forestry that has been declared "out" for over a week, even after rain.
At night when the cool evening breeze descends down the hill,
I've seen the glow of the ashes, as if it is smiling at me, challenging me, kindling my fear, with that silent little threat, that is impossible to find in the daylight.

Another time I flew into a valley that had the smallest smoke trail across it, what you might expect from a camp fire,
I called it in to the fire services and they found it was burning under the ground, one of their boffins said it was smouldering like a cigarette in brown coal deposits, they pumped water into it and fenced it off, next year it was back and had moved about 200 yards.

An other incident in the flat lands of Gippsland Victoria.
It happened when a tractor disappeared into a hole with the driver never to be seen again! in a grass field and fire belched out of it, nobody knew it was there!
the fire guys said it was at least 100 feet deep and 600 feet wide and a quarter of a mile long and could have been burning for years.
Just sneaking along, waiting it's chance. like the malevolent creature it is.

OK lets return to the aircraft and the job in hand:

I have just landed in on the fire strip and I taxi up to pick up my first load of water mixed with a fire retardant.
As I roll for take off, my day begins.

The ambient temperature makes the cockpit uncomfortable and I'm tempted to open the vents, but closed they stay,
un-till I leave the fire area! a cockpit full of burnt or burning tree bits is not so good.

Once I'm airborne the spotter aircraft gives me directions to the fire and where to drop my load.
He is high above the fire, in clear conditions and can organise us to be most effective in the drop zone, he also monitors our airborne time so we don't forget and run out of fuel, also gives us bearings back to the strip after we drop our load. A busy boy?

The sun is going down.
It's been a routine day, no problems and I
am airborne with my last load,
a splash down to be placed between the fire and the ground crew.

Who by the way, are a gang of girls from the local village,
who are trained by the forester and act as back up to the full time crews, they are lovely really, they turn out with their food and water, which is supplied anyway.

They are full of laughter and ignore any advise to leave their babies at home, they choose to not understand this advise! in fact they ignore most advice? the have no fear, they are Zulu!
it's just a day out to them with cash at the end of it, the children play well back whilst their mothers fight the fire.

Descending into the valley I noticed the embers were starting to glow again on the ground and the trees,
The wind was increasing, next thing the whole fire front exploded into a rampaging monster.
My aircraft became difficult to uncontrollable in the heat turbulence, and she desperately wanted to turn into the fire, but that not going to happen?
The violent back draught, sucked the smoke away from in front of me and I could see the ground crew retreating from the fire, running in front of a wall of fire, that was a least 400 feet high above the valley floor,
Some of them were already on fire, as they ran away from the front,
I saw them falling as they scoop up their babies and the fire overtook them, some never reached their babies, they were consumed on the spot, the fire doing the same to the babies, this was so bad.

It was horrific! they had no chance, the ground temperature would have gone from 100 degrees F. to above 600 to 1,000 degrees F.+ in seconds.
I swoop down to about 80 feet above the ground crew and dumped my load, a futile gesture of frustration.

For I knew that every-body on the ground in the valley, were dead and if I didn't get my arse out of here! I would be joining them.

I set myself up in a steep angle of climb with my power showing just below the red line, to try and climb up the hills in front of me, which are hidden by the smoke,   the fire threw one more fire cloud at me and I was gone, a few seconds later I punched out into clear air 200 feet above the trees.

I called "Agman clear" and proceeded to manoeuvre around the fire cloud, to over fly the strip.
I received no reply from the spotter, which was a bit strange?
May-be my radio or his, has gone on the blink?

As I came around the towering smoke cloud and our loading strip came into view.
To my horror I saw the fire was running up the hill towards our camp, so bloody fast at least 40 miles an hour, increasing in speed and ferocity as it climbed over the hill top.

Over the radio I called out "agman to ground"
"run! "get into the fire shelter and close the door now," but sadly it was a late call?
The fire over-ran our crew sucking the life from them and burning their bodies into matchsticks instantly! right where they stood, Shit! this is not for a man to see?  this is so bad.
Before they fell to the ground, a couple of them made it to the fire shelter, but never got the door shut, so we lost them as well, as the fire burst into the shelter and it was consumed.

All over the strip our fuel barrels and trucks were exploding jumping high into the air, it was a total wipe out, the fire seemed to gather strength and roar off into the forest. all we could do was report in, and warn anybody living in this monster path, downwind?

I called the spotter aircraft, to try my radio again, "agman to spotter" "agman to spotter over" he came back, but his reception was garbled and full of incoherent emotional babble, he was of no use.
Grief was flying his aircraft at the moment. away from the fire. He was running from his own devils.
I called " agman is climbing to 5000 feet to report in and notify civil fire authorities, downwind of the fire, and returning to base"

I was aware that this was spotters first fire, shame!  in fact it was his first day.
Yesterday when I met him, he was so full of enthusiasm  and pleased to join a fire crew, as a spotter pilot, his first job, he was only about 19 years of age, a blond haired English speaking Afrikaans.
Now I have flown away to leave him to face his own devils! as I had to face mine.
What can I do? his fate is in his hands.
I opened up all my vents to let the air flush through the cockpit and setting myself up for a descent into my base strip.

Completing my pre-landing checks plus my approach call .
On the descent my mind wants to go over to days events?
but I purposely push it out of my mind and concentrate at the job at hand, a landing down into the trees on to a small short strip, in poor light " Agmans is finals to land" and I'm back on the ground, taxing up to the parking area, I see the other two bomber aircraft parked and I park beside them, they were still sitting in there aircraft, trying to assess the day events, as I will do, we will discuss this at great length tomorrow,

"Unless we are called out!"

The only thing I will be able to contribute, will be the lack of radio communication between the bomber aircraft.
I know a few of the bomber guys fly with their radios turned off, they consider it an unnecessary and dangerous distraction.
They are top pilots who do their own thing and have survived for many years in this environment! so they stick to what they know and believe it works for them.

We all climb out of our aircraft together and stop for a short while to see the spotter on finals to land,
we wait for him to accompany us back to the hotel, nobody speaks which is normal after a bad day.
Climbing into my vehicle as it starts, my day ends.


Fire! Fire!
If someone shouts out these words to me? they may have well screamed,   Fear! Fear!
For these words are equal in my ear,
Filling my heart with fear,
For when the wind turns round, and the sky glow's red, the temperature climbs to those unthinkable high degrees,
The fire has the country on it's knees.
The time has come for you to run away,
and hope and pray you get away.
So you can remember your fear on this day,
For it will never ever go away,
It will haunt you from that day you ran away.
Written by a frightened soul who ran away.
and lived to fight another day,

So tell me what was your day like?



  1. Hello Agman, This is another of your posts I’ve been over and read several times without leaving a comment. What can one say? It’s just such a heart-breaking story. I am very glad you survived but feel terribly sorry for everyone involved.

  2. This incidents were very rare and would drive you crazy if you thought about them too much, I was just one pilot amongst others, most of us thought of it as an unwinable war against the fire,
    thank you for your comment


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