Remember those big dual-rotor helicopters I used to fly? I miss that, my Bambi Bucket blazing days.
One summer, I was on standby watching the late-night news at home, when they said a big fire got totally out of control up in the Swedish north. I thought—funny, they haven’t called. Five minutes later my beeper went off.
Racing with the blue light on my car through town, down to the base. We gathered the crew, put our 500-gallon bucket inside the helicopter and fueled up, some five hours’ worth. Setting our course due north. All through the last hour of that flight, we could smell the burning forest. And when we got there, the night was ablaze.
We landed just briefly to get the bucket hooked on, and then we got started. Two pilots and a crew chief flat on his belly above the open shaft, right on top of the bucket. He’d hold the button to open it. “Ready, steady, go,” I’d call over the intercom, seeing the white cloud falling below in the cargo-hook mirrors by my feet.
All through that night, we’d fill the bucket in a river and then empty it. Half a fire-truck’s worth each time on that all-consuming fire.
A week later, we reeked of sweat and smoke, salty circles around our flight suit armpits. Four helicopters, day and night. Living on pizza and fast-food meatballs. Sleeping at a Baptist summer camp with moist little rooms and squeaky beds. The local papers calling us Angels.
It was thrilling, us against the Fire. Sometimes, the heat so intense you had to cover your face in the cockpit with one arm and fly with the other. The engines roaring as you breathed black smoke. Ten tonnes of helicopter and water in the air, still all in the palm of your hand, going easy on the stick as you’d turn and swing the bucket and cry, “Ready, steady, go” to spread the water in an arc.
The firemen screamed and cried on the frequency, like they were calling in napalm on their own position, only — it was water. When things were less intense, we’d waste a bucket on them, to cool them off. The Angels.
And I could put a bucket in, even the old salts would admit it, because there are different ways. When the fire’s moving across grassy fields like a rabbit farm let loose, then you’d use speed and altitude so all the water comes down like mist, just quieting it all down.
Or when oak trees are eaten whole by fire, glowing like Moses’s burning bush, then you’d swing it in, going low, so it hits like a fist of God, right in the middle.
I miss that…