Pilots fight fire with altitude: Truckee airport hub of activity with pilots, planes
On Sunday, Truckee Tahoe Airport went from a quiet, civilian airport into the helibase command center set for the Martis Fire almost as quickly as the fire spread.
By Monday morning, more than a dozen helicopters were staging operations at the airport, and one of its two runways were closed to civilian air traffic. In addition, 75 percent of the airspace around Truckee Tahoe Airport is closed to civilian traffic.
“This is one of the reasons this airport is so important,” General Manager David Gotschall said.
Gotschall, who was in the Bay Area for Father’s Day, said he got a call around noon on Sunday, when it was reported the fire was only 35 acres.
“Obviously, things changed quick,” he said.
According to Jenny Mannle, helibase manager, the USFS is supervising helibase operations.
The helicopters are under contract with CDF, including several “exclusive use” helicopters, meaning the ship and the crew are assigned to work exclusively for CDF during fire season. Crews assigned to the ships range in size from seven to 24.
Other ships are on a “call when needed” basis with CDF and respond as fire conditions dictate.
Poor visibility resulting from the inversion layer kept most of the copters on the ground until mid to late afternoon.
All of the helicopters, except three Sikorsky S-64 sky cranes, are capable of transporting personnel and dumping water.
The mantis-looking sky cranes are used solely to “dump water.”
Ken Fritz, pilot of one of the sky cranes, said his ship has conducted between 30 and 50 drops a day since Sunday.
The “bambi bucket” used by Fritz’s sky crane has a capacity of 2,500 gallons of water, which weighs over 20,000 pounds.
Fritz said they were pulling water out of various points on the Truckee River depending on the section of the fire they are assigned to.
He said flying the 42,000-pound helicopter with a full bucket in canyons that “have winds going in two different directions” is “like a one -armed man riding a motorcycle.”
Still, despite the tedious maneuvering, Fritz was pleased with his and copilot Ward Winter’s efforts.
“We saved the ground crews a lot of work on Sunday,” he said, “but we can’t put the fire out. The helicopter cools it down, so the guys on the ground can build the line.”
Fritz said his ship has worked extensively with the Plumas CDF Hotshot crew.
“They’re the guys doing all the work,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers arrived to help coordinate operations and traffic at the airport.
In the air, USFS helicopter coordinators are in charge of managing helicopter traffic. After taking off, helicopters report to the airborne coordinator hovering above the fire and the other working ships.
The coordinator directs the ship to the section of the fire it will be working on, the ground crew it will be working with, “dip sites” and flight patterns.
An Air Attack Group supervisor was responsible for all fixed-wing operations.
“This is such a big incident that one person is in charge of fixed-wing aircraft and another is in charge of the helicopters,” said Erich Schwab, a member of one of the USFS flight crews stationed at Truckee airport. Fixed-wing crews are also stationed in Minden, Nev., Stead, Nev., and Grass Valley.
Should additional aircraft be required, Gotschall said the airport is ready to accommodate.
“If they need to call in more aircraft, we are prepared to meet their demand,” he said.
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