Cape helicopter squadron rises to the fire challenge


January has been a challenging month for the South African Air Force’s (SAAF’s) Cape-based 22 Squadron as they have been called in to battle numerous mountain fires.

The first week of 2016 saw fires raging around Somerset West and Grabouw, causing damage of over R50 million with seven houses and other dwellings gutted. On 6 January, winds swept fires closer to the historic Lourensford Estate wine farm.

Working on Fire were battling the blaze with three Huey helicopters, a spotter plane and an Air Tractor water bomber. About 300 firefighters, assisted by backups from the Eastern Cape and Free State, were also assisting.

That afternoon 22 Squadron and two Oryx helicopters were called in to assist. Supported by a fuel bowser, they were immediately deployed and continued flying through the weekend.

From 9 January they moved across to Paarl and on 8 January, the Navy called for the Oryx to save SANDF property in the Simons’ Town area in support of the Working on Fire helicopters. Through the next week the Navy and City fought the fires, assisted by helicopters from the SAAF and Working on Fire.

By 18 February, the SAAF was back in Paarl for the next few days.

Each Oryx is equipped with a 2.5 ton Bambi Bucket, which is only filled to 80% capacity (2,000 litres). Speaking to defenceWeb during a lull in firefighting activities, Lt Col Kyle Jonker (Acting Officer Commanding, 22 Squadron) said from 6 to 19 January, the squadron had flown 93.6 hours, dropping 1,389 buckets of water amounting to a “mind-boggling” 2 778 000 litres.

To cater for the increased flying tempo, the squadron instituted a two-shift, 24 hour maintenance cycle: when two Oryx arrived back from Paarl on 18 January, both went straight into servicing. “What would ordinarily have taken a few days, our ground crew did overnight,” Jonker said. “The ground crews are working far harder than the aircrew are.”

Despite having an Oryx crew deployed to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the squadron has sufficient pilots on hand. However, two additional maritime-equipped helicopters (one from TFDC neat Bredasdorp and another via 17 Squadron in Pretoria) have been brought in to boost aircraft availability. An extra Flight Engineer has also been deployed to the squadron to assist.

Mountain fires in the Cape are not something new and the squadron started preparations last December. Pilots trained in the picturesque Franschhoek area, making sure all their Bambi buckets were serviceable.

Although Cape Town has contracted Working on Fire, the City’s Disaster Risk Management Centre contacts the Air Force Command Post when additional resources are required.

Jonker said each fire is different and they operate in a very dynamic environment. Generally, a LZ (Landing Zone) is identified and a fuel bowser is sent from AFB Ysterplaat to provide fuel on site. Each helicopter will deploy with two Bambi Buckets. The aircraft lands at the LZ, the buckets are fitted (often with rotors turning) and then head straight out to fight the fire. Each crew operate a six hour shift, which includes refuelling and other breaks.
“So when we arrive, most often the Working on Fire guys will be there already and we’ll just slot in with them,” Jonker explained.

There’s generally a fixed wing spotter aircraft in the air, informing the pilots where the fire line is in cooperation with the Incident Commander on the ground.

Not only can the large Oryx carry a significantly larger water load than the Working on Fire Hueys, but the three aircrew (Aircraft Commander, co-pilot and Flight Engineer) also contributes to a significantly decreased work-load. Whilst the pilot flying will call the drop, it is the Flight Engineer who actually presses the button to release the water, call the heights when picking up water, provides an additional set of eyes.

Another difference between the civilian and SAAF operations is that the third crew member aboard the Oryx allows for a shorter strop for carrying the bucket, thus potentially allowing for greater accuracy.
“The civilian guys operate on their own, single pilot operation is incredibly taxing,” Jonker said.

Once the six hour shift is completed, the helicopter returns and a crew change is undertaken. The fuel bowser crew remain on station for the entire day, often assisting the aircrew with other tasks.

Jonker said that 22 Squadron has many experienced crews with a good knowledge of working in mountains. Besides attending to mountain fires, the squadron provides their normal 24/7 standby service. Then they have to fit in their day-to-day currency and training. All this whilst 12 other members of the diversified squadron, those maintaining and flying the Super Lynx maritime helicopter, are embarked aboard the Navy frigate SAS Amatola which recently departed for a voyage to Europe.
“We fly the aircraft, but it is the ground crew that keeps it in the air,” Jonker said. “They sit there long after the working day is finished, making sure everything is ready for the next day.”

The pilots say that it is a “pleasure flying in the areas that have burnt and seeing all the houses that have survived. It does the heart good.”
“The outreach from the community has been incredible,” Jonker noted. “It’s been fantastic, wherever we’ve landed, people come to the aircraft with sandwiches or cool drinks. It’s nice to know, it’s a good feeling.”

Jonker also expressed his pleasure of working with his civilian fire-fighting colleagues on the ground, working in high temperatures whilst wearing thick protective clothing.

The Western Provincial Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning minister, Anton Bredell, praised the SAAF. “We are grateful to the SAAF and the Minister of Defence for their assistance. The Oryx helicopters are much larger and able to deliver a bigger payload compared to the helicopters we usually rely on. We know the SAAF assistance will make a huge difference,” Bredell said in a statement last week.