About the author : I met Jerome Laval at the School of Hunting in Tours at the end of the 80s. He preferred to go to the United States to pass his pilot’s license, and flew on several types of planes, in particular within the framework of the fight against forest fires. Since then, he joined the “CalFire”, the equivalent of our civil security in California. He tells us here about a moment that he will certainly remember for a long time…
JEP, webmaster of AirExperience-blog.com
Tanker 65, a Douglas DC-4 which was Admiral Nimitz’s personal aircraft in 1943, 44 and is now used to fight forest fires in the western United States. A great carrying capacity of 10 tons of retardant product, a magnificent silhouette, 4 R-2000 engines that snore well and it’s off to the adventure! Overview not of the Grand Canyon but inside, at the bottom. Magical. Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona. At the bottom of valleys, deserts, in the middle of burning forests. The engines roar, the relief scrolls below, just there, very close. This is the advantage of flying forest fire planes; you can see everything up close. We know the country well.
The Douglases are magnificent planes. A well-designed wing, a fuselage that defines the classicism of an aircraft. I clean it, pamper it. Its engines spit oil and its gasoline smells like real gasoline.
One afternoon, we take off from Minden in Nevada, heading south. Light north of Bishop, east of the Sierra Nevada not far from Mono Lake. After a short cruise, we see a large cloud of dense, black smoke. We get closer and as soon as we get there, the command plane tells us that it has to leave because of a mechanical problem. Here we are all alone facing a little monster of 150 hectares. A very active, dynamic fire. Big flames. Pat the Captain starts a left turn to get into orbit above the fire, observe the beast, take his marks and there, in a few seconds, we lose 3000 feet while I put the propellers and the power of the 4 engines at full speed! The plane vibrates, the engines howl, the needles are in the red. It vibrates so much that I no longer see the instruments, barely the colors green, yellow, red. I turn to Pat, very focused and worried. I don’t recognize him. The plane is no longer flying. More air. The fire has sucked in the oxygen and redoubled its power. We fall. Fright. Pat dropped the delay but we keep falling. Impossible ! And yet yes!
At this precise moment, Pat had two good reflexes. 40 seasons of forest fires and 15 years of agricultural spreading. He pushes on the handle towards the ground, the trees, the rocks and talks to me softly; “I’m going to pick up speed, I’ll be fine, don’t worry, ok? it’ll be OK. But we plunge all howling engines towards the forest in flames, towards the ground, towards the trees. We are at 400 feet, 300, 200… I see the pointed tops of the trees. I answer him ; “I’m with you Pat”.90…91…96..102 Knots. I read the speed of the plane. I look at the peaks. We are going to crash. We’re going to… 105, 107 then the plane stops its descent. The trees are 10 meters, 5 meters below. Pat inclines slightly to the right towards the river that I discover and the relief moves away lower. He still pushes on the stick while my two hands are on the 4 propeller levers and 4 power levers, fully. He’s still picking up speed. We fly. We are slowly getting out of this.
I hear a voice screaming. The radio. The firefighters on the ground saw us dive and disappear behind the forest, the flames, the smoke “Tanker 65! Tank 65! roars the Radio. Finally Pat replies that it’s fine, we’re OK. The voice says “we thought you were going to crash!” “. “We too” replies Pat, ascending to an acceptable altitude of 500 feet above ground. “Where’s Bishop?” Pat asks me, smiling at me. I reduce the engines. Poor engines… I gave them a headache. I reduce the propellers. I watch every gauge. My poor. I pamper them. I know them well. I fiddle with the GPS. “It’s over there, 50 Nautiques to the south Then we look at each other with my Pat, my Captain. We smile. We are shaking. We laugh. We burst out laughing! We laugh to cry! We look at each other. We burst out laughing! Our hands are shaking.
Bishop Airport stands out in the distance. Gear down, flaps. The plane delicately embraces the runway.
The base is calling us; “Tanker 65, you must return to the fire as soon as possible!” It doubled in size. “Okay. We take some retardant, a little fuel, a sandwich and we go back. “.
During the flight back to the fire, Pat explains to me why he spoke to me, reassured me. He was afraid that I would panic, take control from his hands and make a big mistake at the worst moment.
I often think back to this double gesture of great mastery: Reassuring your co-pilot while driving at the finest a few seconds from a crash. What a lesson.
The adventure on this DC-4 will continue throughout the season until October-November when Los Angeles will see the most destructive fires in its history. We were in the middle of this chaos.