Samoa

    It didn’t feel like Christmas. It was hot. The ground crew broke out a twelve pack after my last flight of the night and we watched the sun come up. The ragged remnants of the crater forming Pago Pago bay began to contrast the pale blue morning sky. Stone cold Steve Austin arrived in a Santa suite for his first flight of the day, climbing into the cockpit of the Twin Otter to run his preflight checks. Groggy Samoans filed out of the domestic passenger terminal clutching woven hand baskets stuffed with treasures procured in the bazaars and shops of Pago Pago, the commercial center of the island of Tutuila, the largest island in American Samoa.


    I found myself in this circumstance when the opportunity to spend the winter flying for Samoa Air presented itself. My wife Nancy was enthusiastic about the prospect and our kids, Stephen, 14, Laura, 12, and Michelle, 10, were at our mercy.


    I forged the way leaving in November courtesy of jump-seat rides on Hawaiian Airlines to Pago Pago International airport. After three weeks of classroom instruction, tests, check rides, and a route-check with the FAA I morphed into an airline captain and started earning my keep. Samoa Air operated three Twin Otters on routes to the Manuas, a three island chain and part of American Samoa. We also had scheduled routes to Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, and occasional runs to Vavau, the northern most island of the Kingdom of Tonga.


    Island travel shifts into overdrive during the holidays when family bonds draw Samoans together and scheduled flights run around the clock. Christmas came and went while I plied the airways maintaining a hectic schedule until after New Year when my family arrived. Having paid my dues in the Holiday rush I at last took some time to explore and take advantage of this remote corner of Polynesia. 


    High on my list was the island of Tau, in the Manuas. Forty-five minutes north-east of Tutuilla, by Otter, it remains one of the unspoiled treasures of the South Pacific. The sight of Margaret Meads well-known anthropological study of Polynesian culture, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, it has changed little in the interim. A thin ribbon of asphalt on the south-west corner of the island has been added to facilitate air travel and an alternative to the twenty-four hour ferry ride from Pago. As the only extensive piece of flat real estate on the island the airstrip and its immediate environment host rugby, cricket, and soccer matches as well as the only straight unobstructed stretch of road. 


    The jagged crescent backbone of the island is the remnant of a volcanic crater, rising as high as 2900 feet, festooned with dense tropical vegetation, it sweeps for miles in an arc to the east. A bridge on the east end of the island crosses a narrow channel to the island of Olosega. To the south the striking geologic formation shelters a pristine white sand beach edging and extensive coral reef, part of the only National Park south of the equator. The north side of the island plunges into an often turbulent sea built from prevailing easterly winds. While the local population retains the right to cultivate the reef and the sea around the island the waters are jealously guarded from commercial vessels from other island nations.


    Marge and Tito manage the only part-time living accommodations on the island, a handful of single story bungalows and a larger structure serving as a common area for meals, cooking, or socialization. Breakfast is served for those with the ambition to rise and Marge will pack a lunch and let you borrow the truck if you are compelled to do more than walk the few hundred feet across the end of the airstrip to the beach. Immediately off the beach waist deep water allow the novice skin-diver a maze of coral and a stunning array of tropical marine life. Beyond the coral hard blue marks sheer drops prowled by game fish and shark for the more adventurous and experienced. Our small band spent hours face down on the surface or cruising the wondrous canyons of coral chasing all manner of creature, the activity balanced with stints holding down patches of sand from the ravages of the tropical breeze. Evening meals featured fresh catch of the day, paced relaxed conversation, chirping geckos, and the graceful soaring flight of giant fruit bats, flying foxes.        


    On the big island traveling east from Pago, several miles of memorable coastline lead to Tisas Barefoot Bar, the quintessential Samoa experience. Ideally reservations are made for low tide and a day in advance. Candy Man, Tisas partner, will put to sea shopping for the main course. When guests arrive Tisa welcomes you while Candy Man lectures novice patrons on the hazards of the idyllic cove, the open air backdrop for a memorable meal. Mask and snorkel are provided for the ill prepared. Candy Man stands watch with his surfboard, ready to assist those foolish enough to ignore his lecture. Shower facilities are provided when you’re ready to eat, or simply perch on one of several decks, enjoy a cool drink, and chill. Meals are served on Samoan flatware, woven plates lined with banana leaves and consumed at a leisurely pace. 


    When the sun sets and the flying foxes much flower pods it is most reasonable to ask if coconut crabs really live in trees, or how to find Slippery Rock. Recounting the experience of almost being washed away to the sea at Toilet Bowl requires another round. Where’s the best place to stay in Western Samoa? Aggie Grays or Coconuts. How much for ahi tuna off the dock in Apia? Ten cents a pound. One more round and we decide to spend the night. Candy Man breaks out some mats and we settle in. Rain splatters off the thatched roof of the stilted structure and surf pounds the outer reef. Ahhh Saaamoa.   

 

Man and Machine

Things are pretty quiet this time of the year. Hard to think of anything current and relevant to talk about and for some reason Facebook keeps deleting our posts. We’ll be back with the most current agenda post haste. We will be adding Clint Crookshanks from the NTSB to our presenters list. Meanwhile I thought I’d add something irrelevant. 

Over the years I’ve had the privilege of burning up a lot of dinosaurs in a wide range of flying machines. After a brief flirt with a Lotus Cortina and a Porsche 911 in my youth my carbon footprint on the highway has been more subdued and my ground transportation mundane. 

Some might find it odd that a relationship can form between man and machine, that you can come to depend on each other, learn quirks and moods. My first long-term relationship was a VW van I bought in Pensacola, Florida. Unlike most of my peers in flight school I lived hand-to-mouth. The van was cheap to buy and operate and transported any number of people. We went to Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, and spent many nights sleeping with the white noise of wave’s breaking on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, rising to the morning light bouncing off the ripples of an infinite sea. 

An old VW van is also a good test for relationships. Not long after I’d met my future wife we took a trip. I gave her a sleeping bag for a wrap as heat was limited. When the car wouldn’t start after a pit stop I adjusted the points with my Swiss Army Knife and we proceeded. This impressed her. 

She was a keeper.

My mother-in-law was appalled with our vehicles in later years and generously offered to buy us a car. A used 94 Plymouth Grand Voyager, gray minivan, with 64,000 miles was selected. I think of it as a soccer van. It was a cliché in the 90’s. We had accumulated a small tribe of three children and it fit the bill, soldiering on through soccer, swim teams, basketball, vacations, and visits to relatives in far off Sacramento and beyond. The three kids learned to drive in it. We loaned it to the pre-school in later years when they needed the extra space. 

The two vans cohabitated for several years before I parked the VW and moved on to a new Chevy truck in 1998. Several years later our youngest daughter began to drive and she fancied the truck: over time she took possession: my wife evolved to something small and efficient. Typically the last thing left to drive was the soccer van. It grew on me. Unlike my old VW it had heat in the winter. It had cool until a couple of years ago when the compressor died. It had cruise control and a descent radio. It had immense power and superior handling compared to the VW bus. I could put a 4x8 sheet of plywood in it and close the door.

My son and I drove 8000 miles exploring Mexico in the old Plymouth in 2008. The premise, if it quit, we would leave it there. It used half a quart of oil and came home. It had become Super Van.

It has suffered cosmetically but we’ve kept it mechanically sound over the years, spending more than most would deem reasonable. At some point people we haven’t seen for awhile are surprised we still had the car and it ran.

I got a new job with Cal Fire last year and I struck out for So Cal in Super Van. It’s transmission started slipping and shifting erratically south of Stockton on I-5, not good. Judicious use of the gas pedal allowed me to pace the traffic around me. I slid in behind a big rig to draft, a technique reminiscent of my VW days. I needed an off ramp, hopefully with services. Roth road, one mile said the sign. I coasted from the I-5 artery coming to a stop at the junction of Roth. Looking under the overpass to the left a convenience store gas station beckoned. I waited for traffic to clear then pressed the gas pedal gently. The engine sped but it didn’t translate into movement. I tried abuse. With the motor roaring the vehicle lurched ahead, I coaxed it to a dimly lit parking spot, took a breath and felt tension subside.

Fortunately, my wife is prescient and opted for the 200-mile towing with AAA when Super Van died in Stockton. She rescued me and I went to work. The transmission problem was a broken fluid line, minor, but the front wheel bearings are evaluated to have not many miles remaining. They want $1,100 for the repairs, substantially more than the value of the car. I’m looking for my Swiss Army Knife.

It’s Monday, Carpe Diem

Under the category of shit happens I was driving back to work after a day off last week, my Monday, when I saw a flash in the darkness up ahead. At the same time an insulator on the power line paralleling the road looked like a sparkler on my right. I whoad-up my ride a little and speculated that the power would be out in the area. I was headed west on highway 20 out of Willows Ca. and mostly surrounded by orchards. I passed a house, lights on, interesting.

The road swept left gradually then went straight for a quarter mile before another gradual right. It was dusty ahead for some reason and then I saw three power lines. They were draped to the asphalt ahead and I was under them. I swerved right to the shoulder to avoid them and tried to slow down. I slid sideways left overcorrected and continued to perform the maneuver, right and left, until I came to a stop in the middle of the road with three power lines suspended at an odd angle above me. One was lying on the hood of my car. The thought that I might become a crispy critter crossed my mind. I was also sideways in the middle of the road waiting for the next vehicle. Mindful not to touch anything I pressed the gas pedal and watched the power line slide over my windshield and across the top of the car. I drove down the road fifty yards or so and stopped. On the opposite side of the road the lines were laying in the grass hissing as a dozen fires bloomed.

I was driving that same stretch this morning after another day off. It’s good to be alive crossed my mind as I passed the place without the drama. I thought about the evening before at the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s “Big Room” where my bride and I had dinner, imbibed, and listened to Steel Wheels, a string blues quartet from Virginia: they were awesome: eat your heart out.

With the time change last Sunday, saving daylight, it was light as I headed into Williams Gap on highway 20 toward Clear Lake. I had already witnessed a spectacular visual feast, sunrise on I-5 framing the Sutter Buttes, and now as I turned south into Mitchell Flat a herd of 50 or more elk grazed on the slope of golden grassland climbing Cortina Ridge to the east. The road climbs, winds, and then descends crossing Bear Creek where highway 16 follows it south.

The hills are stained with ash and fire scarred vegetation on the south side of highway 20. Crews had back burned off highway 20 and 16 on the Rocky Fire to good effect. A half hour later I’m approaching Hidden Valley Lake and Middletown, both had been devastated by the Valley Fire back in September. Occasional piles of brush on the roadside, the charred remains of a hundred cars are lined up neatly in a field, mangled twisted remains of metal buildings resemble abstract sculptures, all random victims of the fire. A burnt fence exposes a swing set and a foundation. The power poles are new now and the fleets of utility trucks have vacated their encampment.

The Valley Fire ultimately burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1958 structures: 1280 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 585 minor structures. Four people died.

Four members of the Boggs Helitack crew were burned over, all survived, two are back on duty. One, the captain, was well known for his skill with the bagpipe and had often served with the Honor Guard. He will never play the pipes again. They are hoping to move him soon, from UC Davis Burn Center, to a facility in San Francisco, his hometown.

I have no concept of what they went through yet I have a sense of the shock involved when something completely unexpected tries to blow you away. They had been situated on the top leeward side of a ridge in a pen worn to mineral earth, set to wait out the storm. They heard something downwind and one of the crew went to look down the slope. He saw nothing and was returning to the group when a mass of super-heated air climbed from the downwind slope. Within seconds all four had sustained burns. They abandoned their position, having to scale a fence, and took up a location behind a metal building. The captain called on the radio, “deploying shelters”.

The intensity of the original blast of heat shrink-wrapped the shelters in their plastic covers. The plastic from one pack had bonded with the plastic cover rendering the shelter useless. We think the protective gloves did not allow for the dexterity to remove the shelters from the damaged plastic covers and gloves may have been removed for the effort. The position by the steel building was so intensely hot two crew moved to open ground several yards away and found some relief. The two at the structure joined them. They shared the viable shelters by draping them over their heads. The ground they held was covered with light fuels and on fire, so they stood. At some point the captains helmet melted on his head. Whatever had been stored in the metal building began to blow up. They were too close. They moved back toward their original position to a two-track road and bedded down. That’s where they were found.

If you ever think you’re having a bad day, take a deep breath, it could be worse. The sun will be brighter and the rain therapeutic. Kiss your wife, hug the kids, pet the dog, kick the soccer ball and scream Goalllllllll!

Monday Morning

It’s been a busy summer. I’m flying an OV-10 Air Attack and staying marginally proficient with occasional flights in the S-2T. It’s been thirty-four years since I flew Air Attack and it has changed a bit. I went to work in April but it was July before we lost the first fire, the Wragg. It grew to 8000 thousand acres destroying two out buildings. It cleaned up a lot of brush. Fortuitously, based on the burning indexes, we picked up a couple of potentially destructive starts, starts with forest structure interface, because resources were plying the skies working the Wragg Fire.

The next big thing was the Rocky Fire. It started in the back of a pot growers cabin. It might have been corralled but a second fire broke out about a mile west, immediately threatened structures, and it was off to the races. 70,000 acres, 43 residences, and 53 outbuildings later it was contained.

I thought we’d hold the Jerusalem Fire at a half-acre but the second tanker had a bad igniter and was late to the party. Another 25,000 acres of brush cleared, 6 residences and 21 structures written off.

We were on a roll for weeks, holding off one or two starts a day until the Valley fire. It began less than a mile from Boggs Helitack Base. When we arrived on-scene copter 104, from Boggs, was doing bucket work supporting its crew from a pond about a half-mile upwind. Four of the crew had separated, walking in checking residences to make sure they had been evacuated. The fire was three or four acres burning up a small hill in brush and timber pushed by the wind. The Air Attack Officer remarked how he had been thinking we were due to loose one.
Immediately it started spotting a quarter mile in front of the head, beyond four to eight properties with multiple structures lined up in the path of the advancing flame front. A paved road out in front was a thin hope for containment. Spots sprouted like mushrooms in light grassy fuels and tanker drops were directed for structure protection and efforts to contain the spread in the light fuels.

The usual chaos of radio traffic generated by a new fire emanated from the six radios in the Air Attack platform, all insistently demanding priority. The Air Attack Officer immediately grew the resource orders for airtankers, a lead plane, helicopters, engines, crews, and dozers responding to requests from the ground and his own judgment of the situation.
It was apparent the fire was going to get ugly quick threatening the town of Cobb. That’s about when out of the din of radio traffic we heard the helitack crew call saying they were deploying shelters.

I wheeled the Air Attack in a tight circle over their last reported position, the right shoulder. Copter 104 with a bucket of water queried the crew, trying to locate them. The fire was spreading laterally and what had been a well defined position became a matter of speculation.

“Can you see blue sky!”

“No,” was the terse response.

The Air Attack Officer began describing our best guess of their location to two circling S-2 tankers while we pin-wheeled overhead trying to pierce the flames and smoke, hoping for a glimpse of the foil enclosures.

“We’re next to a metal building!” called the strained pitchy voice of the Captain.

“Any blue sky!” called the pilot of 104.

There was no reply.

Sheltered in thermal reflecting aluminum bags with skins thickness measured in millimeters the crew of 104 bedded down in the inferno.

The pilot of 104 continued calling, “Crew 104!” over and over.

After minutes of silence there was a last pleading call from the flames. “104.”

It was their last transmission.

The fire had been burning for about a half hour when we heard the last call from the trapped crew. An hour into the fire rows of houses in the town of Cobb were being consumed while air resources concentrated on supporting the evacuation efforts. In at least one instance tanker drops were directed to protect people fleeing, on foot, and being overtaken by flames.
The four crew burned over were eventually located by their brethren who risked their own lives in the effort. They were transported to Boggs Helitack Base by pickup where two were loaded onto separate medevac ships and flown to UC Davis Burn Center: the last two were transported by 104 from Boggs Helitack to Davis. Minutes after 104 departed Boggs the base was burned over.

In almost any situation a series of events line up leading to an outcome. At the Valley Fire the most chilling unseen component, in my mind, was an unusual localized wind event spawned by the breakdown of a hurricane off the coast of California. Winds on the fire were initially between ten and thirteen when the fire started. They were reported to be 53 knots by one aircraft an hour into the conflagration. Positions deemed defensible from past experience were cooked by radiant heat and unseen moving masses of superheated air created by churning vortices and the desiccated vegetation.

The fire consumed over 50,000 acres in the first eight hours.
It’s now Monday morning and it’s interesting to read and hear the pundits. It refreshing to see the out porting of support from the community in support of those affected.
It is my hope that those compelled to place blame or assign responsibility will recognize that fighting fire is an imperfect science and a potentially deadly occupation. And that the lessons learned will be implemented to facilitate more desirable outcomes.