Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Fighting Fire With Flight: Fire bombers douse flames in California

The finest of airport cars on our trip: 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood, Montague-Yreka Airport, California, 1997.

By Ty Greenlees and Timothy R. Gaffney


Twenty years ago, this week, my colleague and friend Tim Gaffney and I flew out of the Dayton International Airport during the Dayton Air Show in his Grumman Yankee to begin a flying journey across the U.S. reporting on the state of aviation and why flyers fly. We called this project The Spirit of Flight. This is one of many stories Tim wrote and I photographed during the two-week trip.

It's humbling to fly through the sky in a small airplane while the earth reaches up towards you and looms high overhead before you.

My partner, Ty Greenlees, and I were appropriately awed Monday as we flew north from Sacramento, Calif., toward Yreka, a small, high-desert town at the foot of Mount Shasta. While my little orange Grumman AA-1B chugged along, straining for altitude, forested peaks and ridges rose steeply below us.

We followed Interstate 5, a railroad and the Sacramento River up steep, forested valleys as the land rose to peaks more than 6,000 feet high. Far ahead, its snowy slopes rising into a massive, wind-raked pile of clouds, Mount Shasta slowly filled our windshield.

Mount Shasta is a volcanic peak that arises to more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The United States has many fourteeners, but Mount Shasta stands by itself, rising majestically from land just a couple of thousand feet above sea level.

We landed at Montague-Yreka Airport, a small field with a 3,300-foot runway. Ty's mother-in-law, Sallye Hale, vacationing in the area, greeted us with two cold bottled beers and a slab of smoked salmon. The airport manager loaned us the airport courtesy car, a 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood two-door. It was a huge, white land yacht of a car. We iced down the beer and the salmon in a foam cooler. We could hardly open the Caddy's doors, they were so heavy. Ty drove and did a terrible Elvis impersonation.

Tim flies past the Castle Crags Wilderness Area in northern California near Mount Shasta - 1997

Then we had a chance to see what real airplanes do for a living. A passing thunderstorm had touched off numerous wildfires in the hills west of Yreka. White smoke plumes rose high into the air. We saw a spotter plane circling high over one of the fires and guessed that fire attack planes were on the way. We staked out one of the fires at a pulloff along a state highway.

This was a sight we never see in Ohio. In the western states, state and federal agencies fight forest fires from the air as well as on the ground. Airplanes drop smoke jumpers into fire areas and attack fires directly by bombing them with water or fire retardant chemicals.

We had seen two four-engine planes, a gray C-130 Hercules cargo plane and a red and white P-3 Orion, circling a fire as we passed Mount Shasta. Now, we figured those planes would be back to fight the fires near Yreka.

We didn't have long to wait: The P-3 soon showed up. It made a low pass over the fire, circled behind a hill, then came around again. It was scant feet over the hill when it let loose a long plume of red fire retardant that fell over the fire like a blanket.

It was a serious situation, as fire crews on the ground battled fires that kept springing up and the Orion bombed the area again and again, swerving each time to avoid surrounding hills. But we couldn't help treating it like an air show: While I watched and Ty took pictures, we sipped our beer and chewed on succulent hunks of salmon.

We got on much closer terms with lightning the next day.

The weather was threatening, and we called the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Service Stations for weather briefings at each fuel stop.

In Idaho, a particularly nasty-looking thunderstorm was closing in on Mountain Home Municipal Airport as we left. Heading east, we steered to the left around a column-shaped shaft of rain and watched as the cloud spilling it out grew and darkened.

Lightning started flashing under the cloud, and we knew the rainstorm had developed into a full-blown thunderstorm. The winds in thunderstorms can throw a small airplane high into its midst, batter it with hail and dash it to the ground like a toy. We steered away, watching the lightning grow closer off our right wing.

When I saw a lightning bolt off my left wing, I thought my heart would stop. I looked up through the canopy and saw dark cloud spreading over us. I shouted a four-letter word and firewalled the throttle.

"I don't like it here," I said.

It was our last close encounter with thunderstorms on Tuesday. We droned on across Idaho, passing over black, convoluted fields of lava along the Snake River Plains. Hungry and tired, we landed late in the afternoon at Idaho Falls and called it quits for the day.

After more than a week of flying, we were finally headed east again. Our flight Wednesday morning to Jackson Hole, Wyo., a ritzy resort town near Grand Teton National Park, brought none of the anxiety we had anticipated.

We followed the Snake River up a valley rimmed by snow-flecked peaks. Below, a carpet of low, cottony clouds slid by. Bright sunshine bathed us as we slowly descended into the valley, landed and looked forward to a relaxing morning in Jackson Hole.

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