GARDEN ROUTE DISTRICT NEWS - As the Garden Route slips out of summer and the days start to get shorter and cooler, the Working on Fire team at the Denneoord Aerial Fire Base starts to wind down, both physically and mentally.
The Denneoord emergency airstrip was opened in December 2017 and was immediately a major boost to Eden's firefighting efforts. The Southern Cape summer fire season runs from December until April, and the past season has once again seen the team provide superb support to the ground teams.
Residents have become accustomed to the sound of the big AT-802 Bomber taking off, along with the unmistakable Huey Helicopter with its Bambi bucket suspended below.
Above them, the Cessna 182 acts as an aerial command and control, and once the battle has been won and the flames extinguished, silence once again returns to the suburbs of Denver Park and Eden, George. But who are the men behind the controls of the flying machines?
Everett Montagu, KwaZulu-Natal born pilot, flies the Cessna 182 spotter aircraft and carries the enormous responsibility of literally conducting the operation from above. His role is not only to guide the ground teams by what he sees, but also to give the bomber and helicopter pilots clear, concise and accurate instructions. Because they are flying low, often in very strong winds and bad visibility, Everett acts as their eyes in the sky on the best approach and exit routes to the flames. While the spotter is the eye in the sky, Everett talks openly of his admiration for the ground teams, who are the front-line firefighters exposed to the most risk.
"They take a lot of the risk," he says. "With my buddies flying 50 foot over a fire in treacherous conditions, 40-knot winds, power lines and turbulence off the mountains, I've got to make sure they are safe - and for me, that's huge reward. I take control of the fire with the IC, or incident commander, and we formulate a plan on the best options to attack the fire."
And he certainly does feel the weight of responsibility in his decision-making role with the IC.
The spotter aircraft is light and feels turbulence quickly, meaning that Everett has to multitask in the heat of battle. But as he so perfectly puts it, his job is to fight with communication. "We use our words. We have to draw a picture for the bombers and choppers coming in as to where the target is, how much water needs to be put down, where the ground teams are positioned."
I start to get a sense of the need for the spotter pilot to stay calm. He is flying an aircraft in difficult winds, he is listening and communicating to air traffic control as well as his bomber pilot and his chopper. He is communicating with the IC, and giving instructions to ground teams.
"Sometimes we are operating five radios at the same time, but we cannot afford to show stress, as this filters through to the rest of the team." Everett smiles as he tells me that he sees his job as trying to create a sense of calm in what is often a disastrous situation.
Gerrit le Roux is the man behind the stick of the big AT-802 bomber. Originally from the North West Province, the tall, soft-spoken man feels it is an honour to fly for Kishugu, a company that operates under the logo 'For the greater good'.
Gerrit loves his job, despite the fact that his time at the controls is usually when the wind is at its worst, for it is in these times that the fires are out of control. The very nature of the flying means that the criteria to be called a bomber pilot are very high, but Gerrit is humble, and quick to point out how he admires the job that gets done jointly with both the spotter above and the ground teams below.
The AT-80 is a big tail-dragger, and not easy to fly, especially in gale force winds and bad visibility.
It's the biggest single-engine bomber in the world, used extensively in Canada, Australia and the USA, with a capacity of 800 gallons (3 104 litres) of water, and capable of delivering a huge load. By gallons of water per hour, the AT-80 is also the cheapest option.
For the romantics out there, sitting in the cockpit of a Huey helicopter will always stir the emotions.
For Bruce Benson, Working on Fire's Bell UH-1H ZS-HLX helicopter, referred to as "Huey", is a special helicopter, and his eyes light up as he tells me the history. "We get to know our machines well, and I've been with ZS-HLX for quite a while." After taking the serial number off the data plate, Bruce googled her past, and was delighted by what he found.
"This particular Huey spent a year in Vietnam during the war, after which it was sold to Air America, which was made famous by the Mel Gibson movie [We Were Soldiers].
"His passion for his bird is obvious as he tells me about the bond that a pilot develops with the machines. "They have a lot of character."
Like Everett and Gerrit, Bruce has an inherent love of flying. It is the absolute non-negotiable for this job. And like both other pilots, Bruce refers to the ground teams as the unsung heroes.
"We put down water to enable the ground teams to get into the fire and put it out. It can get hairy, but safety is paramount, and if we can no longer fly safely, we stand down." Bruce has flown in Cape Town's city bowl in 60 knots of wind. That's nearing 120km/h. In such conditions the aircraft takes on a life of its own.
These are the conditions in which these hugely skilled pilots earn their salaries. The aerial firefighting club is elite. It's not a big club, and the camaraderie between its members is huge.
As I leave the Denneoord Fire base, it isn't so much their flying skill that had struck me most, for indeed I had always been aware of this. It is the absolute humility of the team and their complete lack of ego. Next season, as the heat and winds return and I hear the unmistakable sound of engines overhead, I shall raise my cap and simply say, "Godspeed."
Jeff Ayliffe has been in media for 25 years. A former full-time radio presenter who moonlighted teaching skydiving, he loves sharing his passion for conservation and anything outdoors. Also known for doing daily handstands in unusual places for charity, some say that he and Spiderman have never been seen together in the same room...
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