"Fight`s On!" – Anytime Eighty-Nine by André Jans and Eddie Sarber
When raging bushfires threaten the US West Coast, it takes special aviators to fly against them in the California Department of Forest’s (CDF) air tankers. Wildfires, often ignited through negligence by the general public, are ruthless in the devastation they cause to property and the emotional damage they cause to people.
One of the aviators actively engaged in putting a halt to these fires is retired US Navy Commander Joseph "Hoser" Satrapa. A skilled and devoted aviator whose reputation extends back to the Vietnam war, Hoser operates a Grumman S-2T Turbo Tracker air tanker out of Grass Valley airport in California.
Living in the forests of nearby Grass Valley himself, Hoser is well aware of the dangers wildfires pose to the surrounding community. August 10th, 2009, was a particularly memorable day for Hoser, as a fire came close to his home some 1800 feet downslope. Both Grass Valley air tankers got there within five minutes and stopped the fire before it became a real danger. Often neighbours stop by to say thanks for his service. Such "real-time feedback" as Hoser calls it, stimulates him even more to challenge and conquer the threatening fires.
So how did evolution turn a USN pilot into a flying fire fighter? Charles Darwin would be surprised, no doubt. It all started in 1966 when a young "Cone" named Joseph Satrapa started flight training in Vought F-8 Crusader fighters. Even before joining the Navy, young Joe had been a skilled rifleman, and in his opinion a jet fighter would be a good way to continue that interest in guns.
Things did not go as well as expected when young Joe fired his aircraft’s 20mm guns for the first time near El Centro. On his first three firing passes he missed the target. This upset him to the bone, so he resolved to make his fourth pass count. Flying as number four in a flight of four, he cut off number three during the last gunnery circuit, then "hosed" all his remaining ammunition at the target -- missing it again! After being chewed out by his mission leader for his lack in-flight discipline, Satrapa was awarded the callsign "Hoser."
This incident proved to be unrepresentative of Hoser’s future. He became an excellent pilot and a dedicated gunnery instructor. Hoser completed 162 combat missions over Vietnam and made over 500 carrier landings during his Navy service. Known throughout the Navy for his dogfighting prowess, Hoser focused on maximizing his flying skills and developing the skills of other Naval aviators, rather than on furthering his own career. He was almost as revered for the lack of deference he showed non-aviators, especially those in higher ranks.
By the early 1980s, Navy pilots with aerial gunnery skills were in short supply. Hoser’s F-8 had left USN service in the mid 1970s, and the F-4 Phantom, the fleet’s mainstay fighter from that decade, lacked a gun. As the Navy replaced Phantoms with F-14 Tomcats, few pilots had the expertise needed to exploit the new aircraft in close-range air combat. Yet in 1985, just when the Navy needed his knowledge the most, Hoser was forced by regulations to retire as a LCDR.
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of the Navy John Lehmann, himself a Naval Aviator, asked a group of Navy fighter pilots what he could do to help them the most. "Bring back Hoser!" was their response. A presidential order by Ronald Reagan ensured that Hoser returned to service in February 1986, assigned to the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, Topgun, with the rank of Commander. Lehman himself handed over the Silver Leafs on the day when Hoser was welcomed back into the US Navy.
Hoser describes his role of training Navy pilots in dogfighting as "taking them into a (virtual) phone booth and beating the hell out of them during the first flight engagements." Many pilots had their egos cracked during these training sessions, then rebuilt as Hoser showed them new skills. His motto was "There’s no kill like a guns kill," a viewpoint he maintains to this day. Many current US Navy pilots own their lives to his education and remember the useful lessons imparted for life by Hoser’s unconventional but effective training methods.
The G-forces that accompany high-speed jet fighter operations took their toll on Hoser as he aged, and he retired again from the US Navy in February 1991. So what to do next? Many military pilots enjoy flying airliners, but a pilot like Hoser wouldn’t fit into that world of "boring, bus passenger" transportation.
Being a West Coast resident and outdoors enthusiast, often confronted with annual bushfires himself, the job of aerial firefighter fitted him well. Air tanker pilots require broad flying skills, aggression, and common sense, all which are attributes of fighter pilots as well. Dropping retardant from an air tanker requires accurate timing, much like firing a gun during a dogfight. Missing the target can be deadly, as it allows the fire to spread and take its awful toll of devastation.
Firefighting with planes is all about teamwork, acting in cooperation with wingmen, fire assault coordination, and ground forces. When alerted for a mission, both the S-2T Turbo Trackers assigned to Grass Valley take off and attack the fire together. They approach from different angles, releasing their retardant loads on the target fire a few seconds apart. This technique is referred to as "Box it," isolating and killing the fire by putting it into a virtual 3D box. If the fire has already spread too wide to be boxed, the air tankers will create a "stopping line," slowing its advance so larger air tankers such as P-3s, a C-130 or even a DC-10 can come in and assault it.
The CDF’s S-2T Trackers were updated from piston-engine S-2As between 1996 and 2005. The S-2T’s more powerful Garrett engines give it better flight characteristics and a larger payload. The S-2T is able to transport 1200 gallons of liquids. Most of the time this payload is a fluid called "fire retardant D-75F," a mix of water (85%), fertilizer (10%), gum thickers and pigment for colour. In Hoser’s words, "It looks and feels like pink snot." Although 1200 gallons seems a lot, the air tanker must make a perfect run to drop on target and spread the retardant to maximum effect.
With visibility poor due to smoke, low altitudes, winds and, often, other aircraft in the area, maintaining situation awareness – another fighter pilot skill – is vital for every pilot in the fire zone. "Close to the ground, if you are looking in the cockpit at your instruments, you are looking in the wrong place. It is totally head-up, seat-of-the-pants, instinctive flying down low," explains Hoser. It’s not unusual for air tankers to return to base with tree leaves stuck on their airframes.
Recently, Hoser faced an even more dangerous situation when he flew into the retardant dropped by the lead S-2T during an operation. After the lead aircraft made the drop, the hot air and smoke column suspended it in the air. The retardant covered the windscreen of Hoser’s air tanker. Completely flying blind, his experience took over. A wingman guided him out of the dangerous area so Hoser could slow down and clean enough of the Perspex to see again.
Although the Tracker is a small airplane, it is capable of operating from remote, forward locations and therefore able to respond to a fire call much more quickly than bigger planes or firefighters on the ground. Often, Trackers have put out a fire before the coordinating OV-10 bird-dog plane has reached the threatened area. While this kind of competition may not be welcomed by the OV-10 crews, it surely is appreciated by the people threatened by the fire.
Although Joseph Satrapa has entered his golden years as an aviator, we dearly appreciate the service he daily provides and we look forward to hear his callsign in the future. HAARR!!