Tag Archives: forest fires

The Hughes 500D makes inroads

Over three summers in 1974, ’75, and ’76, thanks to some pretty bad forest fire seasons, Viking Helicopters was able to make major inroads into the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and their Northwestern Ontario fire program in both Dryden and Thunder Bay. It didn’t happen overnight, of course, but eventually, the Ministry all but abandoned the piston-powered Bell 47s in favour of light turbine helicopters, including both Bell and Hughes.

One thing in particular with the Bell 47 stands out. The Ministry at one time owned a bellows tank that could be strapped between the floats of the 47G-4. It would need occasional patching, but even so, the Northwestern Region’s Thunder Bay Fire Centre was very proud of its acquisition. Yes, that’s right. The OMNR owned the monstrosity. That bellows tank leaned against a wall in our Thunder Bay hangar for quite some time.

When the contract for a turbine helicopter to be based out of Thunder Bay for the 1977 fire season was put out to bid, Larry offered one of his newly-acquired Hughes 500Ds for the job. Viking Helicopters won the bid. At the time, the D model was lacking the cargo pod.  A prototype was shipped out with flat doors, and I ended up doing the certification test flights. Much later, after additional wind tunnel testing, the cargo pod was outfitted with more aerodynamic doors to replace the flat doors on three sides.

I recall a telephone conversation I had with Larry prior to the start of the contract. He took the time to explain the financial risk he had taken in acquiring the D models. It was to be a make-it-or-break-it proposition that first summer on the fire contract with the Ministry of Natural Resources and the new helicopter. It was a breakthrough contract for the company.

I worked C-GYTX to the best of my abilities on that contract over four summers. The first summer, in cooperation with the NCR fire crews, we worked up standard equipment loading patterns for initial attack for the 500D. We practiced deplaning in the hover and hover unloading and loading. The crews familiarized themselves with the cargo hook obscured by the pod. With practice, hooking up turned out to be no problem.

Later, those initial attack standard load patterns were developed for the larger helicopters, mainly the Bell 204, 205 and 212, with standard loading as well. I believed at the time, and still do, that standard loading during initial attack presents a safer and more efficient way for a pilot to manage his aircraft.

That first summer, I took a lot of good-natured verbal abuse from the fire crews about the red, green and yellow stripes on the helicopter. I had to admit that I couldn’t see the colours from the inside, and that got a few laughs.

We had a very successful four summers flying on that fire contract before I left the company five years later to pursue other interests I had acquired from my experiences working for Viking Helicopters.

Quite a few years later, I learned that the cargo pod certification was amended to limit some airspeeds, and I wondered if the aerodynamic door fittings had anything to do with the changes to the certification.

Airworthiness Directive Schedule
MD Helicopters 369, 500N and Kawasaki Hughes 369

DCA/HU369/60  External Cargo Container Kit – Placard

Applicability:  Model 369D, 369E, 369F, 369HE and 369HS equipped with Gajon Associates Ltd
(Viking Helicopters Limited) STC No. SH1134EA external cargo container kit (baggage pod).

Requirement:  To prevent hazardous yaw oscillations during descents which could result in loss of control of the helicopter install a placard on the instrument panel as close as practicable to the airspeed indicator and in clear view of the pilot that reads:-

BAGGAGE POD INSTALLED
Vne 90 KIAS IN POWERED DESCENT ( more than 1000 fpm) OR IN AUTOROTATION (FAA AD 93-07-10 refers)
Compliance:  Within next 50 hours TIS.
Effective Date:  3 September 1993

August 1975 – fire and sweat

By mid-July the LGL survey ended up in Rae Straight, and from there, terminated. I ended up ferrying south and picking up some itinerant work with the OMNR and again with Ontario Hydro in Manitouwadge. Hydro was using some brush-cutting equipment to clean up a line into the town, and I was transporting the crews out each day to do the work.

It wasn’t long before the hot, dry weather that summer transpired to contribute plenty of smoke and fire in the area surrounding Manitouwadge. Since I was right there, Hydro eventually relented and shut down their job. I was released to do the fire flying on Terrace Bay 21. It wasn’t long before Terrace 22 ignited and the show started all over again.

Those fires ended up being quite a social event in the hotel. Some debauchery went on in the hotel’s broom closets with some of the locals and imports when we ended up partaking of the facilities. How the crews beat us to the best seats in the house every night continued to be a complete mystery for quite a while.

I can recall spending the occasional night in a local basement, on the lookout for hiding from an axe-wielding individual suspicious of something or other. I do recall that the mostly innocent second party to the crime was a blonde with a huge rack. She wasn’t shy about showing it off by draping it in a white sweater, and I made it my personal business to carve out a landing spot where the sweat likes to pool.

I still shake my head at that little indiscretion and consider myself lucky – both for the rackage and the escape from sure and certain perdition had I sneezed.

Dryden-18 finally winds down

By the time mid-August of 1974 rolled around, the bulk of the helicopter flying operations on Dryden-18 were winding down. Retrieval operations were in full swing, and those of us remaining were anxious to see the end of the operation and depart. Finally, on the 22nd, my wish came true and I was released.

Over the summer I discovered that I had taken quite a liking to flying on fires. The work was challenging but rewarding. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the full-time fire crews who went out and did the difficult work. They were always professional; they were well-trained; they worked hard; they were easy to get along with; they had a great sense of humour. It didn’t get much better than that.

From Thunder Bay I ferried over to Rouyn for a couple of weeks to demo the Hughes 500C for Quebec forestry. I followed that up with some local work out of Thunder Bay, and then did some Hydro flying on the north shore before taking a break and heading overseas.

In all, it was a successful year, not only for me, but for the company too. Larry had gambled on purchasing the new 500s, and the weather and subsequent fire season had rewarded him with a busy summer of fire flying at prime rates for some of the equipment that hadn’t ended up on contracts.

What could be better than that?

Where’s an oven when you need one?

TV Dinners were a lifesaver.

TV Dinners were a lifesaver.

On Dryden-18 it was unusual for some of us to eat in the base camp kitchen on a regular basis. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were reserved for those who could make the kitchen during scheduled hours. For the rest of us, it was catch as catch can.

Never fear, though, for Swanson TV Dinners weren’t only for watching TV in the living room. We ate them as a substitute for the real meal deals offered up in the base camp kitchen at Pine Beach.

Where’s the oven, you ask?

The oven was right inside the clamshell doors on the Hughes 500, where temperatures were warm enough to heat the eye-catching, silver-plated connoisseur’s delight. After a suitable amount of time had passed and following much anticipation, the meal was removed from the oven, steaming hot and ready to be consumed. The foil was carefully peeled back and a veritable feast presented itself to the hungry, deserving pilot. Added bonus: once the tasty entrée was consumed, there were no dishes to do.

Who knew that the Hughes 500 could be such a kitchen magician?

Occasionally we would compare the benefits of our choice for the day. If someone’s meal looked better, it would result in a mad dash to the grocery store once we got back to town. Personally, I preferred to have my dinner thawed overnight before inserting it into the clamshell oven. It heated much faster and could be consumed earlier in the day. One could keep a stash in a cooler just off the helipad, thus allowing for a delicious selection to choose from throughout the day.

Tasty and ready to eat

If you think the colour in these images is off, you should have seen the colour of the food in those trays once the aluminum foil was peeled back.

For you youngsters out there, the aluminum tray was replaced in 1986 with plastic/polyethylene in order to transition to microwave cooking. And for you purists, dessert was dropped in 2001.

Swanson's finest

Difficult as it may be to believe today, this little beauty was much in demand by some of us on the flight line during Dryden-18 in 1974.

Tower talk

I don’t recall having the privilege of flying into the Dryden airport during the festivities occurring twenty minutes away at Dryden-18 in 1974. The seaplane base was just a short distance from my apartment, so I was usually landing there just before dark, and gone by sunup.

With the influx of land- and water-based airtankers, bird dog aircraft, helicopters and commercial aircraft operating out of the strip, it must have been quite a beehive of aircraft activity. Obviously, the security mess we all have to deal with today was thankfully absent. You can have a look at some of the aircraft here, at the bottom of the page. Thanks to Rick Tyefisher for those images.

The temporary control tower at CYHD in 1974

Gerry Holmstrom doing the honours in the temporary control tower set up at CYHD during the 1974 forest fire season.

Given the amount of air traffic generated by the fires in the region, the Ministry of Natural Resources took it upon itself to install a make-shift ATC tower at the Dryden airport. It was staffed by off-duty ATC employees from Kenora and/or Winnipeg. It wasn’t much of a building, but it did provide some shade and a bit of a cross-breeze to keep the flies away if the wind was blowing in the right direction.

I was told that

“controllers were hired and paid privately by the agency responsible for the particular fire or area. Their instructions/info would not be “strictly legal” but would nonetheless be highly informative and accurate.” —thanks to Phil Gies for this

I’m more than certain that everyone using the airport appreciated the attention to detail that these off-duty ATC employees would have provided. For anyone interested, there’s a huge trove of Winnipeg ATC and other associated history located here.

Ron Berg and Gerry Holmstrom

Ron Berg and Gerry Holmstrom doing duty in the temporary control tower at the Dryden airport, a service that would have been much appreciated by the influx of traffic generated by the forest fires burning in the region.

I can remember in the very early ’70s arriving at YHD on one of Transair’s early DC-3 flights. The plane landed on a gravel strip and I deplaned onto a gravel tarmac during the airport’s startup. I don’t remember the terminal building then, but it probably began with a trailer, given the eagerness with which the community embraced the idea of modern air transport. Over time and with the improvements the community made to their airport, it wasn’t all that long before Transair was running a B737 on its Toronto/Thunder Bay/Dryden/Winnipeg run. Now those were the days—long gone now.