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Last Flight

Ted Smith Aerostar bird dog. (Photo by BC AAO Ben Moerkoert)

Through the control column, I could almost feel the chill in the September boreal air as it whipped through the wings and over the fuselage of our small, twin-engined bird dog airplane. We had just crossed high over the Athabasca River in northeastern Alberta en route to Hay River in the Northwest Territories. It was 1991 and we had just finished a stint in northern Ontario. With two of our water bombers far behind in tow, we were finally going home after a long and difficult forest fire fighting season. All of my crew of seven were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

I knew this was going to be the last flight of the season and began to recall the events of this past summer – the places we had been, the people we had met and worked with and the fires we had all fought together. It would all be put together in a final year end report when I was back in my office. Until then, I was going to enjoy this last flight.

I was not a licensed pilot but I did know how to fly. I was an Air Attack Officer – the forestry supervisor of contract helicopter and water bomber pilots.  I did receive flight training from the pilots I worked with and had flown many types of helicopters and airplanes over the years when I was given the opportunity. My actual training was in directing aircraft in forest fire attack and over the last fifteen years, that was what I had done.  I was fully-trained in forest fire behavior and firefighting attack strategy as well as aircraft flight characteristics, capabilities and limitations. This was all done from the right seat of my bird dog airplane. In the left seat was my bird dog pilot.

Keeping aircraft from bumping into one another over a forest fire while trying to drop water and fire retardant and not hurting any ground firefighters in the process can be extremely mentally and physically challenging even at the best of times. It can takes years and hundreds of thousands of training dollars before your trainer would allow you to solo as an Air Attack Officer. It is just that complex and difficult a job.

There are inherent dangers and risks in fighting forest fires and those increase exponentially when you add aircraft to the mix. But it all comes down to taking calculated risks. Since 1971, when several firefighting staff had been killed in various aircraft accidents in the north, the rules of engagement began to be defined in a way that saw the casualty rate begin to diminish to the point where it was now rare to experience an aircraft accident. But they did happen. Over the years, I have lost a number of friends and co-workers to these risks. You were always fighting the odds of something going wrong.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for fighting fire were refined in the late 70s and 80s and were becoming standardized not only in Canada but in the United States as well. As a result, we could now easily share aircraft and personnel between the provinces and states as needed. So, although we were based in the north and worked for the territorial government, we could expect to work in other provinces, like Ontario, where we had been for the past two weeks.

I looked over at my pilot who was sleeping in the left seat. Al and I had worked together as a good team this summer. We had had each other’s backs and he was a good bird dog pilot. He could maneuver the airplane into position over the fire so that I could have the best view of any part of the operation. At times, we could get into trouble facing challenges such as flying near high flames and through heavy smoke, near power lines, in descending air, over steep terrain, around other aircraft and obstacles like birds and tall tree snags that seem to pop up out of nowhere. But Al was always a step ahead of the game with a backup plan. And a backup plan for his backup plan. He was a good pilot who reduced the odds of something going wrong.

This trip from Dryden, Ontario, to Hay River was long, dreary and monotonous . Along the way, through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I had slept off part of my exhaustion. So, Al was now taking his turn. He had only asked me to take over flying while he had a ten minute snooze. But it was already past a half hour since he folded his arms and turned his lights out. I knew he needed the sleep so I didn’t wake him.

We were now crossing the south shore of Lake Athabasca at two hundred knots and at an altitude of four thousand feet above ground.  I could see numerous flocks of Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Trumpeter Swans pass far below us, all heading south for the winter. They would stop to rest and feed at Lake Athabasca after passing through Great Slave Lake. Most of these birds flew at lower levels so there was little danger in hitting a bird with the airplane. But we did have to keep a watch for Grey and Snow Geese which flew at much higher altitudes and sometimes in flocks of hundreds and even thousands. They were the last to come out of the north because they summered in the high Arctic islands. The odds of running into a flock of geese at this altitude at this time of the year was extremely high so I was very wary.

This was also the flight path of the extremely rare and endangered Whooping Crane which nests in marshes on the Alberta/Northwest Territories border and winters in Texas. There were less than 15 of these birds left on the planet in the 1940s and now, through careful protection, preservation and nurturing, that number had slowly grown to almost 140. So rare are these birds, in fact, that very few human beings have ever seen them in their nesting grounds.  “Whoopers” are the tallest of all birds in North America. An adult male stands at 1.5 meters and weighs as much as 7.5 kilograms. It has a wingspan up to 2.5 meters. These cranes fly at about 45 kilometers per hour.

Their habitat in the north is so well-protected that I’d never even met anyone who has seen a Whooping Crane. I had only heard stories. So, seeing one in my regular work day was obviously impossible.

We had had a “bird strike” earlier that summer while fighting a fire south of Hay River. As  the airplane was in a sharp turn and I was describing our run on the radio to the water bomber pilot overhead, a Peregrine Falcon had strayed into our path and we took it on the windshield. It was such a loud bang for such a small bird but we were doing around a hundred and twenty knots just above the trees and the entire airplane shook wildly. The bird left its entrails and we now had the problem of not being able to see where we were going. We had to request a replacement bird dog team while we went back home to scrub down the airplane. But I will never forget the huge impact of that little bird on my airplane.

Bird strikes account for a number of aircraft crashes and deaths every year when aircraft are flying close to the ground, especially during take offs and landings. The closer you are to the ground the higher the risk of an accident.  When you are higher up, you have more time to react to an inflight emergency. That’s one of the reasons why, on long trips like this, we fly at a higher altitude.

Crossing over Lake Athabasca, I leaned forward and changed the radio frequencies to hear if anyone else was flying in the area. All was quiet on the Athabasca front. I had just turned to check up on my sleeping pilot when something caught my eye on the horizon ahead. It was difficult to see because it was directly on the horizon and it was not moving. My flight training immediately told me that if you see an unmoving object anywhere in your field of vision, you are likely on a collision course with that object. I kept my eye on that object until I could determine that it  not another aircraft.

It was a bird. It was a huge bird and it was heading directly at us!  I immediately pulled the airplane up and to the right slowly and steadily so as not to wake up my pilot.

The bird, too, rolled sharply to its right and swerved down at the last moment it saw us. It was a close call. Then, as it passed under the left wing, I saw the red crown on its forehead and the black wing tips. It was a Whooping Crane! My heart began to dance wildly because I was now one of that small group of humans who has ever seen one of these magnificent birds in its nesting ground.

I looked down again at my pilot who was now snoring heavily into his microphone. A cold wave of reality washed over me as I began to wonder: After all that we had gone through this past summer, what are the odds of getting killed in your sleep by a Whooping Crane during the last flight of the season?

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November 2011, Cairnsmore.