Fire leaped from tree to tree on the ground below as lead-plane pilot Greg McDonald checked for hazards.
Choking smoke, air turbulence, steep ridges and power lines all threaten the air tankers he escorts to drop sites. He told the story while cleaning the windows on his twin-engine Beechcraft Friday.
"I'll tell you what I saw out my right window," he said. "Two- and three-hundred foot flames."
The Ogden, Utah, man was one of hundreds working to protect Carson City houses from the Waterfall fire. On Thursday, afternoon winds had whipped the blaze into an unstoppable fire storm for the second day in a row.
Minutes after seeing the towers of flame he flew the route again, passing over power lines on the ridge before dropping to an area where ground crews had requested a retardant drop. A P-3 Orion turbo prop tanker was traveling at 130 mph behind him, ready to drop 23,175 pounds of red, liquid fertilizer from 150 feet above the ground.
Without a lead plane, tanker pilots would have to circle the fire themselves, avoiding helicopters buzzing to and from Washoe Lake for buckets of water. They'd have to do a dry run to check for hazards, then circle around to a do the drop.
"If I'm out there and I've got all those items lined up, he's in there, outta there," McDonald said. Lead planes increase the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of tanker drops, he said.
Air resources on a wildfire are controlled by the "air attack" plane hovering above other aircraft at 12,000 feet. Regular civilian aircraft are not allowed in the area due to a TFR or temporary flight restriction.
"They vary in size but they're usually about 7 nautical miles wide and extend up to 12,000 feet," said tanker pilot Greg Hoch. He flew Aero Union tanker 26 from Durango, Colo., on Wednesday night.
Like troops in combat, firefighting ground crews call a dispatcher to ask for air support. The dispatcher will contact the Air Attack plane, which will pass the word on to other aircraft like lead planes, heavy tankers, single-engine air tankers, or "SEATs," and helicopters. Before heavy tankers fly into the smoke around the fire, helicopters and SEATs are asked to stay out of the way.
"We'll ask them to stay down by Washoe Lake while we go in," said McDonald.
Then the tanker plays follow-the-leader to the drop site.
"It's a big team effort," Hoch said.
Heavy tankers can drop two full tanks of retardant - with complete landings for retardant and fuel - each hour.
"Every 20 or 30 minutes we were pulling a load out today," Hoch said.
Pilots have to be careful they don't drop the heavy retardant on ground crews.
"If we did a low drop and hit someone - that retardant weighs 9 pounds a gallon - it would hurt somebody. It would knock you flat," Hoch said. He's seen 18-inch pine trees knocked down by retardant.
Thursday was the most intense day on the Waterfall fire for pilots.
"It was burning with some really, really amazing intensity yesterday," said tanker pilot Jim Leslie of Medford, Ore., on Friday. "There was some good torching."
"Just due to steepness of terrain, the size of the fire front, spotting into the houses and the mix of aircraft all in the same airspace."
On Friday, tankers worked the head, or most-recently burned area, of the Waterfall fire. Pilots were on stand-by at 5 p.m., waiting for orders on the runway behind the Minden Interagency Dispatch Center.
"We've pretty much got retardant all the way around the fire at this point and it seems to be holding," said McDonald.
Pilots said tanker 26 is being sent to Montana this morning, while tankers 22 and 21 will stay on the Waterfall fire. There was no official word on the move from fire information officers.
The remaining tankers will be used for "burnout operations," according to pilots. That's where a line is cut ahead of the fire, retardant laid down behind the line, and all foliage ahead of the line burned back toward the fire.
Flying tankers isn't especially dangerous, if a pilot carefully considers the risk factors, Hoch said. He learned to fly in 1968 and later flew crop dusters.
"It's a lot safer than rodeoing, that's my opinion," he said with a laugh.
Contact Karl Horeis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.