For those who suffered through the bad editing of the first submission I apologize. I owe a great deal of thanks to xtchr for agreeing to edit the story.
All the characters and scenario's are fictitious. The dangers and emotional harm are very real for those in the professions of the story. Seeing the harm done to critical care providers, and one in particular, prompted me to write the story so I am pleased that with xtchr's help the tale reads as it should.
Ian Cameron was only half-listening to the words the Minister was saying as the two caskets were lowered into the ground. He and Maureen, his wife of 13 years, stood in somber reflection in the cemetery, alone amid dozens of people. Ian had known Bert Sharpe for many years and Anne Sharpe, nee Svenson, even longer. Now watching their caskets disappear into the earth the end of their friendship hit home.
It was a hot, arid, summer day, the type of weather that dried the underbrush creating perfect conditions for forest fires. It was another such day that brought them to this cemetery as husband and wife, to bury their best friends. Feeling Maureen squeeze his hand, his thoughts travelled back to the chain of events that led to him and Maureen meeting, leading to their being at the cemetery this day.
"Damn, Damn, Damn. Now what the hell am I supposed to do?" he thought.
Ian was flying a Canadair CL-215 water bomber fighting a major wild fire in northern California when the call came in about a group of college students, volunteers, trapped by encircling flames at the base of a particularly remote and dangerous ridge.
He grabbed the intercom calling, "Bert, get your butt up here." Bert was the flight engineer on his plane having responsibility in this situation to look after scooping the water from the lake, and then ensuring Ian could drop the water when directed to do so.
When Bert arrived Ian told Bert and Anne, the co-pilot, "I just heard on the radio that there's a group of college kids trapped beneath Widow Maker Ridge, and they need someone to make them a path to safety."
"What's wrong with the helicopters?" Anne asked. "That's their sort of job. In that terrain it would be near suicide for us to try and make the path."
"I know." Ian answered, "But one of the choppers is refueling and the other just dumped its load and it'll take twenty minutes for it to get there. From the sounds of things those kids don't have twenty minutes. I intend to try but I don't have the right to risk your lives as well, so if you say 'No Go,' we'll just have to pray that the chopper can reload and get there in time."
To Ian's surprise it was Anne, the one he considered the cautious, sensible member of his crew and at 43 years old the youngest, who answered first.
"We're old farts and those kids still have a lot of life ahead of them, if I didn't do anything to try and save them.... Well... I don't want it on my conscience if those kids die. But, I would rather not die a hero. So you'd better be able to get us out of it alive. I'd really rather die of natural causes, in my eighties, with my thirty year old lover screwing my brains out."
"I agree with Anne on all three points, particularly how I want to die." Bert opined, then added, "What the hell are you waiting for?"
Ian had expected responses somewhat similar to those. He arched his eyebrow in a quizzical expression at Anne's preferred method of expiring finding it surprising. Her comment did, however, break the tension.
When he first decided to take flying lessons Anne was his flight instructor. He started the lessons when his marriage was in its final throes before separation, and she provided a sympathetic ear. She hadn't told him everything about her background, although, he did know she had been married before as it came up several times during their talks about his failing marriage. She had encouraged him to change careers, to flying full time. After he had landed the job with the water bomber outfit he now worked with Gawain Air Services, she decided to give up flight instruction, and become a bush pilot in Alaska.
Five years ago, when he became the pilot in command of the CL 215, he tracked her down and invited her to change her career and sign on as his co-pilot. He guessed it was because she had been both his instructor and confidant, that when she took the right-hand seat she was able to anticipate his every move. They had a synchronicity that was amazing. He didn't want, nor could he imagine, anyone else as his co-pilot for what they were about to try.
Bert, on the other hand, had been with the company long before Ian joined. Ian learned that possibly, short of the people who designed them, no one knew the onboard systems better than Bert did. After an initial wariness, Ian and Bert soon grew to have respect for each other's skills, which quickly grew into a strong friendship as they got to know each other. The three of them had a reputation as being the best team
Anyone who has flown knows the havoc that air currents have on aircraft, even as large as a 747. Turbulence can shake a plane fiercely. Updrafts and downdrafts can change a planes altitude drastically in a matter of seconds. Flying in turbulence can be like riding a roller coaster with square wheels. One thing that always accompanies fires is turbulence.
The CL 215 was designed specifically to fight fires. It was squat and rugged with oversized control surfaces. Its twin radial engines were mounted on top of the wings keeping them as far as possible from any debris that might rise from below. All in all not an elegant aircraft to look at, but then again it was built for a purpose not for looks. Nor was it built for comfort as it was incredibly noisy inside. It was an amphibian which increased its utility as it could land on both land and water.
The crews who flew the plane could forgive its short comings for one big reason. It was designed to handle extreme turbulence, a trait that Ian and his crew would be relying on heavily for what they were about to attempt.
The decision having been made, Ian radioed, "Drencher", the call sign they used, "to Firebase. Loaded and proceeding to Widow Maker Ridge, wish us luck."
"Firebase to Drencher, Good luck and God speed. over."
As they set off to try and save the youngsters Ian heard Bert softly said, "Amen to that".
They did a slow circuit of the ridge to determine what sort of approach would be most effective. After their quick survey of the scene they decided in order to save the volunteers they could not just do an area drop but would have to create a corridor for people on the ground to scramble back to the fire perimeter. In order to ensure complete coverage the path they needed to make, unfortunately, required that the CL-215 fly low and slow, directly at and beneath the crest of the ridge. As a general rule, water bombers do not drop near personnel on the ground as the hot spots the planes attack are normally well back from the edges of a fire. This allows them to drop from a safe altitude as precision is not critical. In this case the fire fighters on the ground were surrounded and the best route had their plane flying directly over them.
The bonus part to this flight plan was the students would get doused by the tail end of the water drop. It would help protect them from flying sparks and embers kicked up by the turbulence caused by the water drop while they were running for their lives. The big question on the crews mind was would the bomber pull up in time to clear the ridge?
To say it was a bumpy ride would be a major understatement. The CL-215 yawed and rolled from side to side as they approached, at times seeming like it was fighting to stay away from the flames below.
Bert yelled out, "Bombs away," and shortly thereafter, "Perfect! We've soaked the kids and they have a clear run. Look at 'em go!"
After the corridor was made, Ian looked up. The view from the cockpit was the ridge looming in front of the flight path they were on. The next order of business for Ian and Anne was to save their skins. The good news was the influx of cooler air, caused by the water, made the fire on the ridge flair causing a tremendous updraft. The bad news was as low as they were flying the updraft was filled with smoke and flames. Drencher was flung upwards and barely cleared the ridge, although Ian swore he heard the sound of tree-tops scraping and banging the bottom of the fuselage, followed by sharp cracks.
Smoke filled the cockpit making breathing difficult. The smoke made seeing where they were going hard as well until the venting fans cleared the cockpit air. Just as it looked as though they had made it out safely, clearing the fire zone, the engines started to misfire as they needed clear air to run properly. The engine problems cleared quickly as the designers had anticipated pilots having to deal with bad air in similar situations, though doubtless not one as seemingly suicidal as the one Ian and Anne had just flown.
Ian's next concern was about a safe landing. After what they had just been through he didn't trust that the landing gear would work properly but reasoned the watertight integrity of the hull should be okay.
Ian got on the radio, "Drencher to Firebase," he paused, taking his finger off the mike button when a fit of coughing from the smoke overtook him, "Drencher to Firebase, Houston we have a problem. We believe we may have some fire damage and will be landing on the lake, repeat Drencher," he took another break to cough, "landing on the lake. Acknowledge please?"
"Base to Drencher, roger, Drencher landing on lake acknowledged."
As they had a ways to go, Ian thought he would investigate Anne's earlier statement a bit.
"So Anne, how do you intend to find a thirty something lover when you're in your Eighties?"
"I have a plan." she enigmatically stated.
"Pray, do tell?"
"I'm going do whatever it takes to keep this body looking hot into my fifties. Then when the time is right I'll search the neighborhood for the horniest fifteen or sixteen year old teenage boy I can find. I'll hire him to do my yard work, teasing and flashing him until he's eighteen, then seduce him with fantastic sex so he'll remain my lover until I expire."
Bert chimed in, "Me too."
Ian looked at him with a bit of a smirk. "You're going to go looking for a fifteen or sixteen year old boy? I didn't know you swung that way, not that there's anything wrong with that."
Bert scowled at Ian and simply stated, "I don't Asshole." Landing on the lake did not require them to use any of the systems other than those they were already using to fly. As they started their landing approach, Ian started having doubts about just how watertight the hull would be. He called on the intercom, "Bert, keep a sharp eye open for any water leakage."
"Copy that, I'll let you know if we start acting like the Titanic."
Anne and Ian set down the CL-215 as gently as possible on the choppy surface of the water and slowed to taxi speed. Bert came up to the pilot's area and said, "It's leaking, but not too bad at the moment, but if we stay out here too long we might want to break out the bailing buckets."
There was a sand beach with a road leading to it on the lake, so Ian decided the safest thing to do was to taxi the CL-215 to the beach then ground the plane on the sand.
To speed up refueling the plane would normally taxi towards the beach, when in the shallows they would lower the landing gear to roll up on the beach to meet a waiting fuel truck. It saved about 20 minutes of down time doing it this way which allowed them to use the extra 20 minutes fighting the fires.
The approach to the beach was a well-practiced maneuver as they had been using it for the last two days, so Ian did not anticipate any problems coming to a gentle stop on the sand. The only difference would be this time they did not lower the gear, afraid that trying to lower the wheels would cause the leaks to accelerate and they would sink before reaching dry ground. Drencher, as planned, coasted to a gentle stop with its nose firmly stuck to the beach.
After shutting down the flight systems they all climbed out the front hatch. The hatch was on the nose to enable a crewman, Bert, to attach a tow line to a boat if it ever needed to be pulled to shore. In this case, it gave them a perfect exit to shore without getting their feet wet.
Ian was the last one out and as Ian jumped to shore Bert said, "You know if we started jogging right away we may be able to make the highway and hitch a ride out of here before the A and E's (airframe and engine technicians) arrive and try to lay a beating on us."
Ian turned around to look at the plane. At first glance he wondered if Bert may have had a good idea. The tires, which are not covered in flight, were ruined as he had suspected. The rubber had blistered from the flames and both had essentially popped from the heat and were now completely useless. The acrid smell he had noticed in the cockpit was from the burnt rubber and the stench if it outside surrounding the aircraft nearly made his eyes water.
Added to that, the scraping sound Ian thought he heard did turn out to be tree tops grating the bottom of the plane, as evidenced by the branches jammed in the landing gear retraction system. It was unlikely that they would have been able to lower the gear even if the tires were okay.
The bright yellow and Day-Glo orange high visibility paint was burnt off in places and the entire underside of the wings were black with soot. It looked as though... well, it looked as though it had flown through a forest fire.
As tempting as Bert's suggestion was, there really was nothing left to do but wait for the shit to hit the fan, and did it ever.
While the airfield they were using as a base of operations was only 5 minutes away by air, it took about 30 minutes for the ground crew to arrive, with the tow boat on a trailer behind the maintenance truck.
As he stepped out of the truck, Terry, the head of the ground crew said disgustedly, "I see we won't need the boat. You dumb asses could have saved us ten minutes if you told us you were grounding it on the beach."
In mock fear Bert asked, "You aren't going to beat us up for this are you?"
Terry answered, "No, though really I ought to for what you did to this plane. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind putting shackles on Anne chaining her up naked in the hanger as punishment for the whole crew."
Anne snorted, "In your dreams Terry, in your dreams."
Terry responded, "Hey, a guy's allowed to have fantasies isn't he?"
Anne had long since gotten use to Terry's juvenile behavior and no longer took offense. She tolerated it because she knew he was a damn good mechanic. She replied in a bored tone, "True enough but keep your bondage fantasies to yourself."
As she walked toward the old Chevy suburban the maintenance people had brought for them, all eyes turned to watch her. She was tall at five foot ten and built like the proverbial brick outhouse. She had long legs, a firm butt, nice sized breasts and blonde hair showing her Nordic ancestry and was indeed the type of woman who fueled men's fantasies.
Terry continued, "The fire-fighting crew you saved reported what happened, so I'll cut you guys some slack this time. People are already starting to say you're heroes."
Terry then muttered, "Heroes my ass, look what you've done to this plane. Real heroes would have done the job, and brought the plane back in perfect condition."
You might think that being hailed as 'heroes' would be a good thing, but you would be wrong! The FAA, Federal Air Administration, hit like a ton of bricks, citing Ian with several violations the most serious which was the catchall 'dangerous flying'. To add insult to injury, or maybe it should be injury to insult, his license was suspended for medical reasons. They deemed the smoke inhalation was dangerous, and even if he did pay off the fines, he would need to be cleared by a doctor before he could be reinstated.
While the company was lauded for their work, the only thing the executives of Gawain Air Services could see was they had damaged their airplane. When the A and E's had finished their inspection they had declared the plane to be 'not airworthy', meaning they did not think it was feasible to fix it where it sat on the beach, and they could not fly it back to the airport maintenance shop.
In the end, it was flown back, slung underneath a Sikorsky S64 Skycrane heavy-lift helicopter.
When the A and E's finished their inspection at the base, they determined the plane was to be disassembled and shipped back to the manufacturer, Canadair, for a complete overhaul.
Gawain Air Services decided that although the publicity of saving lives was great, the bottom line was greater. They couldn't have their Captains going around pulling that sort of stunt for, in their words, "Their own personal glory." The company executives were not impressed and definitely not amused, so the crew got fired. Ian tried to convince them that he, and he alone as the plane's Captain was responsible, but their view was the others should have talked him out of the attempt to save those kids.
Ian suspected that having to pay a crew which would not have a plane to fly for an unknown period might have had something to do with losing them their jobs.
Being a bit of a fatalist he considered this to be all part of fate's practical joke department. They were getting dragged over the coals for flying too close to the flames, and at the same time being trotted out for various press conferences as heroes.
During what turned out to be his last talk show, Ian finally had his fill of being lauded as a hero. The host had brought in several of the kids who been on the ground to create the, 'Ever so grateful hero worship" scenario. As Ian was now an unemployed hero, his response was one only those present got to hear the first word.
"Bullshit. These kids, and all those who fight the fires on the ground are the real heroes. They willingly go into the dangerous areas on the ground knowing full well the danger they face. Our job day-in day-out is safe as can be, in a plane. That we, and I do mean it was a joint decision of the crew, chose to take the risk once, is no big deal. "These (pointing at the volunteers) are the true heroes not me."
With that he stood up, shook the boys' hands, got hugs from the girls and left.
Later, Ian did what any sane man would do. He retreated to his cabin in the woods about an hour drive north of Walla Walla, Washington and sulked.
*** A little after a week of being back, Ian got so tired of the hucksters leaving messages on his phone trying to capitalize on his moment of fame, or infamy, he disconnected the land-line telephone. What really annoyed him was the damn thing was supposed to have an unlisted number.
Disconnecting the phone did not turn out to be the best of ideas, as Ian nearly missed out on the little known, and rarely experienced, Fairy Godmother department of fate, as the disconnected phone hampered her work with him for close to three months.
Ian did have a cell phone but the reception where he lived was almost non-existent and required an hour drive to Walla Walla, before it would work. Ian gave out the number sparingly to those he knew. The only messages on that number were of the, 'Give me a shout when you get into town, so I know you're alive' variety.
After he arrived, and got settled in at the cabin, the second order of business was to make an appointment to see a doctor about getting the medical suspension lifted. The FAA wants to make sure all pilots especially commercial pilots are in fit shape. After this sort of incident they err on the side of caution and require the pilot involved to be recertified medically fit. In his case, as it turned out, they actually knew what they were doing with that suspension. Ian mused on the anomaly quietly, "Go figure, a bureaucracy that knows what it is doing."