Firefighting helicopters in Hawaii

Windward Aviation helicopter
Windward Aviation helicopter working on a wildfire on Maui.

The Maui News has an interesting article about the helicopter pilots that helped fight the recent fire on Maui that is currently 90% contained at 6,200 acres. Windward Aviation used some of their Hughes 369D (aka MD 500) helicopters to drop water on the wind-driven fire.

Here is an excerpt:

[Windward Aviation pilot Cliff] Cates said it was apparent from the time he and three other pilots arrived on the scene shortly after dawn Tuesday that the fire would soon get out of hand.

“It was around 200 to 300 acres and growing rapidly,” he said. “You can kinda tell when you show up on something like that. It’s very dependent on wind speed and unburned fuel. We saw that, and we knew it would be quite a fight.”

The fire was “raging” toward Maalaea Harbor, threatening Buzz’s Wharf Restaurant, the Harbor Shops and a small residential enclave.

“We did everything in our power to protect the homes down there, along with the ground crews,” Cates said.

With a cracker-dry mountainside and winds gusting at more than 40 mph, the fire was “spotting,” and spread quickly, said Windward Aviation owner Don Shearer.

“It was picking up embers and throwing them a quarter to a half-mile downwind,” he said.

Under those conditions, firefighters on the ground and helicopters making water drops from above can only try to “steer” the blaze, not stop it, he said.

“We were trying to hold it at the windmill break road, and the fire went right up to the (60-foot-wide) road and jumped a quarter-mile downwind,” he said.

“You can’t do too much with the head, because it’s burning so hot and fast,” Cates said. “You just try to control the flanks.”

The high winds also buffet the helicopters, making flying along the treacherous ridgelines even more difficult, and frustrating pilots as they try to drop 120-gallon buckets of water with perfect accuracy, he added.

“You’ve only got one shot at it, and if you don’t make it, it’s a total waste,” Cates said.

Pilots draw from whatever source of water is closest, and even drained swimming pools in Launiupoko when battling a fast-moving brush fire that threatened homes there a few years ago.

Cates said the team got lucky when the fire began burning through native forests high in the West Maui Mountains; they found a natural water source at around 4,000 feet of elevation.

“We were able to get in there and stop most of that,” he said.

In the middle of an already difficult operation Tuesday, Cates and his fellow pilots got a jolt when one helicopter dropped a bucket of water on a separate fire that had broken out near the Maui Electric Co. Maalaea power plant.

“Apparently salt water is more conductive than fresh water, and he dropped 120 gallons right through the powerlines,” Cates said with a laugh. “Thirty-thousand volts just arced through it. It was a really, really bright flash, and then a sonic boom.”

Cates was joking about it Friday, but he said the incident gave him and the other pilot a scare.

“I thought either his helicopter was coming apart, or mine was,” he said.

Cates said fighting fires was one of the most “intense” things he’d ever done as a pilot.

“There’s times when we’re literally 15 feet away from each other, pulling water from the same pond,” he said. “You just get used to it. I have to have confidence in the guys I’m working with. You grow a tight bond, and you know you can count on the guy next to you.”

If you follow the Adventures of Chopper Chick!, the name Windward Aviation might be familiar to you. The site is written by Desiree Horton who flies helicopters in support of wildfires, heavy lift operations, and Los Angeles television stations.  In August 2008 she was asked to appear in one episode of a reality series that featured her and Windward. The story line was supposed to be that she was applying for a job there, but the producers were simply trying to find a way to get her into the show. They probably figured that a pretty helicopter pilot would add another dimension to the program. The show was called Maui Choppers and at least six episodes aired on TruTV in December, 2008.

Here are a couple of pictures from her site that were taken at the filming for the television show. They were taken by Bob Bangerter.

Maui Choppers
Desiree Horton at the filming for Maui Choppers
Maui Choppers
Desiree Horton and a helicopter mechanic from Windward Aviation.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

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