Fires and Flying

S. John Collins / Baker City HeraldBrian Sigler of Bend pilots one of two Kaman K-MAX helicopters stationed at the Baker City Airport this week to douse hot spots on the 204 Cow fire at the southwest corner of Baker County.

Brian Sigler has to hover his helicopter so precisely that he can dip a bucket dangling 150 feet below his aircraft into a container scarcely bigger than a toddler’s wading pool.

Also he once had to fly over the Las Vegas Strip and gently place six air conditioners on the roof of a hotel.

Sigler, it hardly needs to be said, values visibility.

Which is among the many reasons he has such an affinity for the Kaman K-MAX.

“When I look out I don’t even see the aircraft,” Sigler, 37, said Tuesday morning as he stood beside the noticeably narrow helicopter in a grassy field on the west side of the Baker City Airport. “The best thing about it is visibility. I can look out from both sides. It’s real nice to fly.”

He was waiting for the call to do just that.

Sigler, who lives in Bend and works for Central Copters of Bozeman, Montana, was ready to take off on a 25-minute flight across Baker County to the 204 Cow fire southwest of Unity, where he can douse hot spots with 660 gallons of water.

Sigler and the helicopter’s mechanic, Tim Foust, are part of a veritable air armada stationed at the Airport to help ground crews corral the fire, which has burned about 8,800 acres since it was started by lightning Aug. 9 on the Malheur National Forest.

On Tuesday morning five choppers were scattered about the Airport. The fleet included a pair of Kaman K-MAXs from Central Copters.

Both helicopters boast a distinctive paint job featuring a black background and dollops of dark red intended to denote the fire retardant sometimes dropped by airplanes to slow a blaze’s spread.

This too is a nod to visibility, Sigler said.

The Forest Service, which hired the helicopters, wanted the choppers to have a more conspicuous appearance, he said. The red-on-black scheme helps pilots keep track of each other, which Sigler said is important on a fire such as 204 Cow, where multiple aircraft often work simultaneously.

Most of those are based at the Baker City Airport, in part because there aren’t motel rooms available in John Day, which is closer to the fire, Foust said.

In addition to the K-MAXs there was a pair of Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes, and a Boeing CH-47 Chinook.

Although each helicopter drops water, there are significant differences among the three types.

The Chinook and the K-MAX both haul water in buckets that dangle below the aircraft, while the Skycrane has a siphon that sucks water into a tank.

(Some Chinooks also have an internal water tank.)

Both the Chinook and the Skycrane have a capacity of about 2,500 gallons.

The K-MAX’s haul volume is modest by comparison, but Sigler said the helicopter is much less expensive to operate — $2,000 an hour compared with $10,000 for the Chinook.

The difference isn’t due solely to water capacity.

The Chinook has a crew of four and the Skycrane has three aboard.

But Sigler flies alone.

The K-MAX has only one seat, which reflects its singular purpose, he said.

“It loves to lift and lift and lift,” Sigler said with a smile as he sat on the helicopter’s wheel strut.

Although the K-MAX has the same engine as that in a Bell (Huey) 205, the Kaman can lift twice as much, Sigler said.

Kaman, which is based in Bloomfield, Connecticut, designed the helicopter with two overhead rotors but no tail rotor.

Sigler said that although tail rotors make helicopters more maneuverable, they also divert some of the engine’s power.

The K-MAX, by contrast, is designed so that “100% of the power goes to lifting,” he said.

The design of the rotors has another benefit for firefighting — the K-MAX generates much less downdraft than typical helicopters, Sigler said, so it’s less likely to waft embers a long distance, potentially spawning spot fires ahead of the main blaze.

Although the rotors are mounted side by side rather than one atop the other — what’s known as a “synchrocopter” — they are angled so they can spin simultaneously, in opposite directions, without one hitting the other (clearly something to avoid with a two-rotor helicopter).

Sigler said the K-MAX actually has a few features in common with an airplane.

In place of the tail rotor the K-MAX has a vertical rudder similar to what you’d see on a Cessna.

Foust said the rudder has no effect when the helicopter is hovering, but it can be used to maneuver the craft when it’s moving forward.

The K-MAX’s rotors are equipped with flaps — movable extensions much like those on airplane wings.

Sigler said the flaps, which twist the rotors, are the main way he changes direction.

The K-MAX also has a pair of elevators, one on either side of the fuselage.

What this design means for a pilot is that, unlike in a conventional helicopter, Sigler doesn’t have to coordinate his hand control of the machine’s “collective” — which affects the rotor pitch angle — with foot pedals.

In that way the K-MAX is simpler to fly than many other helicopters, said Sigler, who has been a pilot for 13 years and has flown several types of choppers.

Mechanically, the helicopter is also more straightforward than most in that it lacks a hydraulic system.

That makes the K-MAX easier to maintain, said Foust, since hydraulic systems, which use fluid-filled lines, can be complicated.

“Hydraulics not being there is a big plus — it really simplifies my job,” Foust said. “This particular machine is a pretty reliable machine.”

Foust said the K-MAX, befitting its role as a heavy lifter, is “overbuilt.”

“It’s built like a tank,” he said.

Except considerably more nimble in the air.

Sigler said the excellent visibility — the wheel struts, for instance, are behind the cockpit so his view of the bucket and the fire are unobstructed — helps him make precise water drops based on directions from firefighters on the ground he talks with by radio.

He can release the entire contents of the bucket in one drop or, with a single blip of a button that actuates a release valve, dump as little as 200 pounds of water — about 24 gallons.

Aircraft, Sigler said, help prevent fires from spreading beyond control lines but they don’t, by themselves, put out the fires.

“People on the ground do that,” he said with a grin.

Each flight from Baker to the 204 Cow fire — a “cycle” in pilot lingo — lasts two hours.

Sigler said he can fly as many as four cycles per day, as his daily allowed limit is eight hours of flying.

“I’m perfectly happy flying 8s (8-hour days) in this machine,” he said.

Up to two of the cycles can involve a “hot fuel” — meaning he stays in the cockpit, with the engine running, while Foust and the chopper’s third crew member refuel the aircraft.

Hot fueling saves time, Sigler said, because once the engine is shut down he has to wait at least half an hour for it to cool before restarting it.

“Once they’re running they’d just rather run all the time,” Foust said.

But Sigler said he appreciates the chance to hop down and take a break, too.

As the lone crew member in the air, he doesn’t even have a chance to drink water during each two-hour cycle.

“It’s pretty taxing,” Sigler said.

Editor

Jayson has worked at the Baker City Herald since November 1992, starting as a reporter. He has been editor since December 2007. He graduated from the University of Oregon Journalism School in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in news-editorial journalism.

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