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Dancing above the flames
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000
PUNTA GORDA -- Scooting a few hundred feet above the pines one afternoon last week, helicopter pilots Jeff Lodge and Al Melvin could see black smoke smudging the sky 15 miles away. Another wildfire was scorching toward the edge of suburbia, the flames leaping from treetop to treetop.
Lodge and Melvin, who work for the state Division of Forestry, coolly swooped their 1966 UH-1 Huey down to dip a big, orange bucket in a nearby canal. In 10 minutes they splashed more than 1,000 gallons of water on the fire, "killing the starch out of it," Lodge, 45, said. They directed ground crews in to mop up the embers, then headed off to find the fire they had originally been dispatched to wipe out.
"If we hadn't been in the air, there would've been a substantial danger to the homes in the adjoining subdivision," said Melvin, 53.
In Florida's annual war on wildfires, pilots like Lodge and Melvin provide the crucial air power. Their chopper carries them high enough to spot fires no one else can see, then gets them to the blaze before trucks or tractors arrive.
"They can get to a lot of areas we can't get to," said Lt. Jon Jensen of Charlotte County Fire & Rescue.
The firefighters' flying circus consists largely of aircraft built for the Cold War and converted to take on a new enemy. On Thursday at the Charlotte County Airport, near Lodge and Melvin's Vietnam War-era Huey sat a 1954 P-2 once used by Navy fliers to hunt Soviet subs, and a DC-4 built in 1944.
"This particular model was the preferred plane for the Berlin Airlift," said the DC-4's co-pilot, Will Hollenbeck, 28, while scrubbing a smear of red flame retardant off the plane's white tail. If Hollenbeck didn't clean it off, the retardant -- a mix of fertilizer, water and dye -- would dry like stucco. Flecks spattered his blond beard and sweat-stained T-shirt.
Normally, Hollenbeck would be back in Arizona, teaching students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University how to take off and land. Most of them hope to become highly paid airline pilots. Hollenbeck scoffs at that choice of profession.
"You're just a bus driver," he said. "The auto-pilot does most of the work." He prefers bombing a fire with retardant dropped from a plane built before computers: "This is all hand-flown. It still requires thinking and judgment."
Hollenbeck is part of a three-man crew working for an Arizona company under contract to the state to provide air tankers. He is something of an anomaly because he has no military experience. Most firefighting pilots learned their craft while in uniform.
Dancing above the flames to douse a roaring fire is a job that appeals to a lot of ex-military fliers. It is, says veteran U.S. Forest Service pilot Tom Albert, "the closest flying you can do to combat without getting shot at."
* * *
Airborne firefighting is no seat-of-the-pants operation. Each pilot has a different assignment. The 55-year-old Albert, for instance, flies a twin-engine Beech Baron that guides the big tankers to drop their retardant just ahead of the fire to block its progress.
Some pilots act as spotters, searching for new fires, while others soar above the action and coordinate the traffic as if they were sitting in a control tower. Meanwhile, ground crews mix the retardant and maintain the planes.
After their morning briefing Thursday, the pilots and crew assigned to the Charlotte airport mingled in the shade of a red-and-white striped awning, chugging Gatorade and bottled water brought in by the case and iced down in coolers.
The pilots are ready to take off on 15 minutes' notice, but the fires generally don't start to pop until late afternoon. So the morning is a time for cracking jokes and doing preflight checks.
"It's a very exciting job mixed with periods of boredom," said Albert, of Vida, Ore.
The contract pilots who were unfamiliar with Florida's blistering heat wore shorts and sunburns. One also wore a new wedding ring. Last year tanker pilot Chris Holm, 40, of Darby, Mont., battled fires around the country until November, then married a firefighter who parachutes out of helicopters. He was back on the job, and on the move, in January.
Air drops are not an exact science. Last week, just as Melvin and Lodge dropped some retardant, a pair of North Port firetrucks drove up. Usually, North Port's trucks are white, but the retardant painted those two a more traditional red.
* * *
Lodge laughs at the question he hears so often. No, he said, in 13 years he has had no close calls, no near-death experiences. Good planning and careful maintenance ensure that his job is, well, not dull but not overly dangerous.
"It's just a forest fire," he said. "To us it's not an emergency. It's what we do for a living." But he conceded, "It's hard not to get excited, to get your adrenaline pumping."
Lodge learned to fly in the Army, patrolling borders in Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. When he came home to the Panhandle town of Quincy, the Division of Forestry hired him and two other chopper pilots. He's the only one still flying for the state.
Most of the year, he stays near home and starts fires, flying in to set controlled burns in state parks and forests. But when wildfires break out, he hopscotches around Florida to put them out, with no idea where he might be staying from day to day.
"We end up hobos in a hotel," Lodge said. "We check out every morning. Our bags stay in the copter."
The travel wears them down more than the fires. Lodge misses his wife and three children. He would prefer to be out on his boat, reeling in a fish. But he figures his native state needs him.
"Sometimes, the last few years, you get to wondering why you keep doing it," Lodge said. "You stay away from home a lot, and there's no real schedule. You get two days off every 12."
By last week the Huey contained so much accumulated litter that Melvin quipped that he and Lodge were just "airborne trailer trash." The front end has a different paint job from the tail, which was recently replaced. And the two pilots install new doors as often as a NASCAR driver changes tires.
The orange scoop that dangles from the copter's underside is called a "Bambi Bucket." More than once, after several hours of dousing fires, Lodge has set the Huey down in a pasture and, while awaiting the all-clear signal, stretched out on the soft-sided bucket for a nap.
Some people are so mesmerized by the sight of the copter dipping water with the Bambi Bucket they forget their own safety. Melvin said he has seen boaters on a lake get so close they nearly were scooped up in the bucket.
Last week, while Lodge and Melvin were picking up water from a suburban canal to douse a fire, some adults wandered out of a house to watch, children in tow. They got within 15 feet of the whirring rotor blades, oblivious to the danger.
"You think anybody's ever heard of Vic Morrow?" Lodge asked, naming the actor decapitated by a copter while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. Two children died in the same incident. Lodge shook his head and said, "Blades and kids don't mix."
Normally the state's copter pilots fly solo, but because Melvin is still finishing his fire training, he was paired up with Lodge.
A few years back the state was planning to scale back its minuscule flight program, Lodge said. Then the 1998 wildfires scorched a half-million acres. At one point, more than 100 aircraft from all over the country were trying to keep Florida from turning into one big cinder.
Afterward, the Legislature increased funding for the Division of Forestry, and now the state has hired more experienced chopper pilots, building a crew of seven. Melvin, another Panhandle native who lives in Milton, is a Vietnam veteran who until recently flew copters to and from offshore oil rigs. When Exxon bought out Mobil, he was out of a job, until the state hired him.
Melvin already knows what he will do the next time he gets time off: change the landscaping around his house to make it wildfire-proof.
"I'm going to go home and tear my lawn up and pull all my wife's flowers out and install a sprinkler system on my roof," Melvin said. "And I'm going to put a helipad in my back yard."
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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