Two planes engaged in fighting the Washburn fire in Yosemite National Park encountered debris falling from the sky while racing to drop fire-retardant chemicals on the flames.
On Saturday, the pilot of a lead plane operated by the US Forest Service radioed to his base shortly after 6 p.m. that a tree branch rose and fell over his plane and fell to land behind him and in front of the following tanker.
The radio conversation was captured by a Twitter user and posted to Twitter.
“Hey, I just want to let you know that a branch went right over us, pretty good size, probably 50 feet above us on the way down and fell right between Tanker 103 and me- even,” the pilot broadcast on the radio.
“Okay, copy. A repeat of yesterday’s zero-one,” was the response from a ground base – an apparent reference to an incident on Friday in which another tanker was actually hit by flying debris during an airdrop. .
The managing director of the company that owns the tanker confirmed Saturday’s incident, but said an online report calling it a “close call” was overblown.
“I spoke to our captain and co-pilot in (Tanker 103), and they said it was a pretty textbook drop about 150 feet from a ridge line,” said Matt Isley, general manager of Oregon-based Aero Air at The Fresno Bee. In Monday. “They were about a third to a half mile behind the lead plane, and they said they didn’t see the branch.”
“A close call would have been had they seen the branch,” Isley added.
Erickson Aero Air Tanker 103 is a McDonnell-Douglas MD-87 jet built in 1991, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. Isley said the tanker’s crew, based at a firefighting facility at the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, didn’t learn of the lead plane’s report until after the flight.
The branch was most likely a piece of forest debris thrown through the air by powerful updrafts created by the wildfire before falling back to earth, Isley said. “In every mission there is an inherent danger,” he said. “Basically, they’re flying an airliner about 150 feet off the ground.”
“That’s something most fighter pilots wouldn’t do,” Isley added. “Let’s see Tom Cruise try that,” a reference to the action star’s “Top Gun” films about Navy jet pilots.
Isley described actual debris impacts on planes “pretty rare”.
Flying conditions for dropping chemicals on a fire include not only smoke, but also harsh and sometimes unpredictable winds. “These guys do a lot of planning for their drops, watching what the winds are doing and the smoke conditions are doing,” Isley added.
In firefighting operations, the lead aircraft flies forward as a kind of guide through the drop course with the tanker following. “The lead pilot always decides if the conditions are a little too crazy,” Isley said. “Safety is always the number one priority, and they do a good job of assessing the situation.”
After the branch encounter, tanker 103 landed for another load of chemicals and made another drop behind a lead aircraft before a rising column of smoke created visibility issues, limiting further flight, Isley said.
The radio conversation between the lead pilot and the ground underscored the concern for safety.
“So if we keep seeing this, we may have to delete it,” the pilot said over the radio. “I don’t want to risk breaking an airplane window or injuring an airplane for this.”
“Absolutely. Keep me posted on that,” was the response from the floor.
A day earlier, another tanker plane operated by another company was hit by debris in a crash on the Washburn fire, Isley said. But this tanker apparently suffered no damage and was back in the air and performing more missions later in the day.
This story was originally published July 11, 2022 3:45 p.m.