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Yukon Yellow Birds page 3

Story by Robert S. Grant • PHOTOS BY JASON FRIESEN

In Tanker 266, Captain Ray Verreault and I experienced first-hand the effects of what initially seemed like little more than a harmless picturesque mass of white-rimmed ice surrounded by green valley sides. By the time we’d beaten our way to Kloo Lake, nine miles northwest of Haines Junction, it was obvious that the low-level turbulence created by the glaciers far exceeded anything we’d undergone during previous dispatches.

Before our first lake landing, Verreault overflew the water to carry out an aerial inspection for submerged boulders, floating driftwood or boaters from Haines Junction who may have been tempted to seek a close look at our yellow bird. No device measures water depth from the cockpit; we needed at least four feet to work safely. On paper, a CL-215 usually requires at least 4,000 feet during a pick-up run.

Contact with the lake surface occurred at approximately 95 knots. At that instant, water roared through the 15-square-inch openings of a pair of belly probes and flooded into the tanks. Some pilots claim that a water touchdown resembles the grab of an anchor thrown overboard. As usual, the aircraft’s nose dipped sharply down. As we carefully adjusted power back to maximum settings, the gigantic three-blade propellers strained to pull us airborne. If the heavy metal drop doors accidentally opened on pick-up, the airplane would likely trap us inside as it splashed inverted in a devastating final cloud of spray.

As bomb doors open during a drop–they can be heard inside over the clamour of the engines–the airplane pitches upward slightly as gravity pulls the load out and downward in less than a second. Constant stress and vibration on the airframe can only be imagined, but no Canadair CL-215 has lost a wing or suffered structural failure.

Normally, CL-215s cruise empty at approximately 130 knots. In most fire situations, low-level winds rarely affected us any more than 20 knots. However, our GPS readouts indicated groundspeeds up to 170 knots in bone-jarring shaking every time we returned for a load. After several tries with ailerons nearly reaching their full stops and our sloshing six-ton load scattering itself into an ineffective mist, we called it a day and aborted for the safety of Whitehorse. Above us, I watched the Cessna 337 bird dog bank into a steep turn to follow us eastward along the Alaska Highway.

Ontario’s CL-215s have assisted fire suppression activities in several other Canadian provinces and adjacent Minnesota. Often, pilots take a moment between drops to see moose browsing leisurely beside pick-up lakes, but in the Yukon’s spectacular St. Elias, Sawtooth and Boundary ranges, white Dall sheep frequently dotted the hillsides. Like their relatives in low country, they rarely so much as cocked their heads on hearing the racket from a pair of 18-cylinder radials at full power.

Finally, OATs dropped to cooler seasonal values with rain and occasional puffs of snow to help bring the two major blazes under control. Released from fire duty, Ontario’s CL-215s departed separately for their regular bases in central Canada. Tanker 266 with Verreault and I as crew selected a picturesque route across the Rocky Mountain foothills to Fort Nelson, Fort McMurray and The Pas before finally arriving in Thunder Bay after 13.6 flying hours and two days.

As a group, Ontario’s AMEs and pilots adapted quickly to unfamiliar terrain and, as usual, demonstrated their self-sufficiency in the field. They shared a common purpose with the Yukon fire control agencies–a willingness to work together in preserving the Northland. |

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