Working on the Chain Gang

The spring of 2005 I was in Mesquite Nevada fighting fire, flying for the SEAT program as a pilot for New Frontier Aviation. Mesquite was a temporary fire fighting base so we had to use portable and mobile fire fighting ground equipment for mixing retardant and loading our aircraft.

Finding a ground crew willing to open 5 gallon buckets of retardant and dumping the contents into a mixing tank can be a challenge under ideal weather conditions but the temperatures at Mesquite Nevada in June, July and August are less than ideal, highs of 117 degrees are not uncommon.

The State of Nevada had on loan to us female prisoners from the Penitentiary at Gene Nevada. There was also a crew of female inmates working at Gene and rumor had it that a SEAT pilot there struck up a romance with one of the girls and got together with her after she was released. I don’t know how much truth there was to the story but it made for some juicy talk amongst the SEAT pilots as well as the inmates that worked for us at Mesquite. Especially since said pilot had a wife back home; wherever home was.

The 4 inmates that worked for us a Mesquite were hard workers and gave us absolutely no trouble. Rick Beals son worked as a loader mixer as well and did a great job. That’s him far right of me in the picture.

The inmates were interesting to get to know and although why they were inmates was never my concern their social order was of interest. The woman at my right, standing a bit animated, was the boss, the others followed her lead. Two of them, one being the youngest of the 4 had a close relationship and I was unsure that it was romantic but maybe more of a mother daughter relationship.

The boss  lady asked me one day how old I was and I told her 65, she thought I was in good shape for someone that age. When she found out I was only 55 she was mad at me for a few days as she felt that she had been lied to. I was only being light hearted and a bit playful but it dawned on me that she had probably been lied to enough in her lifetime, or at least felt she had been that even joking around she found no humor in it. She wasn’t mad for long and it was back to business as usual.

I enjoyed flying out of Mesquite regardless of the heat but the heat was a factor. We had 3 aircraft from our company working out of there and I pulled relief in all 3 planes. Relief being 2 out of 14 days that the regular pilot was required to take time off; therefore the relief pilot.

One aircraft was the 660 Thrush which I had flown at Wells Nevada the year before, the 2 other were M 18 Dromaders, one a Radial engine and the other a Garrett turbine conversion. I had over 4000 hours in the Dromader, mostly the Radial engine but some in the Turbine as well.

The previous fall I had undergone major surgery, the kind that can ground pilots but I had gained my Medical back and was glad to be back flying.

The set up at Mesquite for loading aircraft was fast and efficient with the aircraft lined up from front to back in an alley between hangars. If you were first in line the heat wasn’t bad but if you were ‘Tail end Charlie’ the heat from all the aircraft in front of you would find its way back and become unbearable. The Thrush had air conditioning but neither Dromader was equipped with it. The Radial engine Dromader created plenty of heat but the turbine powered Dromader was miserable as the exhaust came around the right side of the engine cowling and if the wind was wrong the heat from the exhaust came directly into the cockpit.

On one of our firefighting missions I was 3rd in line loading and was feeling the affects of too much heat, I was in the Turbine Dromader. When it came my turn to load I shut the aircraft down and climbed out as the ground crew pumped retardant on. The crew knew how many gallons I was hauling and where to shut it off, not normally something that I would leave to anyone else but I needed to get out of the aircraft for a minute.

I didn’t want anyone to see me so I walked down through the parked vehicles and knelt down and threw up. I was on my knees trying to clean up and get back to my plane when Blake Ford drove by; busted.

“Brian I believe you are done for the day”. He was right so I parked my aircraft and called it quits.

Blake was the FMO, and I had worked with him in the past. He’s a good man and knows his job; he was pretty much our boss there at Mesquite.

I drove to St George Utah that evening and started my 2 days off duty the next day. Joy was with me and was concerned as to how out of it I was. The next day she drove me to the Hospital and they put me on an IV, it is one of the fastest ways to get fluids back into your body; I was excessively dehydrated. The also tested me for a peptic ulcer as I had a history of them. The test came back positive and they put me medicine for that. In less than 36 hours I made a complete recovery from dehydration and heat exhaustion and was back on my feet; the peptic ulcer took a while to heal but it did in short order.

That was my only experience with heat exhaustion. There were all the right factors involved but the medical staff at St George were on top of it from the go; I’m grateful for that.

Joy had to head home after a few days and was upset about my condition. I assured her that I would be okay but it was hard on her just the same to leave me there not knowing how I would do. I was impressed as to how fast my health turned around. I had a decent fire fighting season and later that fall was able to drive to Yuma AZ  and get my Agriculture License taken care of as I was scheduled to fly there that fall.

Just one of the many experiences that I had fighting fire. I dropped retardant from Washington to Florida and Wisconsin and Arizona and a lot of places in between and I don’t ever remember having a bad assignment. Some were better than others and anytime you are flying it makes for a better season. Better money and busy pilots are happy pilots; for the  most part.

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