Firefighting helitanker crew stops in Craig before heading to next fire
Willie Dejesus takes pride in his job.
“We save a lot of homes,” he said as he relaxed in a chair Thursday at the Craig-Moffat County Airport. “We save a lot of families, save a lot of lives.”
As a traveling helicopter mechanic for the Oregon-based Helicopter Transport Services, Inc., Dejesus is tasked with keeping one of the company’s several firefighting helitankers tuned and running smooth as it travels the country helping fight fires.
Dejesus has been working as a helicopter mechanic for more than 30 years beginning with his service in the Navy in the late 1970s.
The Sikorsky Skycrane he works on is one of the largest, mass-produced helicopters in the world, he said. But, keeping the machine running isn’t any more complicated than the others he has put his wrench to.
“Once you know the theory and operation of a machine, they’re all kind of simple, to a mechanic that is,” said Dejesus, a Baltimore resident.
Most importantly, Dejesus needs to keep the helitanker’s captain happy as he heads into the heart of a blaze.
“If we keep the machine nice and tuned, they’ll be happy,” he said. “They don’t want no problems, so we don’t give them any problems.”
Dejesus is one of the five-member crew assigned to the Sikorsky Skycrane helitanker, which stood idle Thursday at the airport waiting to be dispatched to fight its next fire. The crew includes a captain, co-captain, crew chief, fuel truck driver and mechanic. So far, the crew has more than 200 firefighting flight hours under its belt, Dejesus said. The crew can put in eight hours a day helping to fight a fire for two or three days.
The crew was dispatched Tuesday to help fight the 230-acre Jack Springs fire 10 miles west of Greystone.
By the afternoon, however, the crew had been called to respond to a fire in the Rawlins, Wyo. area, an employee with Helicopter Transport Services, said.
Capt. Van Honeycutt, who has been flying helicopters for 53 years, said the crew works a six-month season starting in May and ending in October.
The crew can be called to any fire in the country, he said.
“Wherever the fires are, that’s where we go,” Honeycutt said. “Now, the season is kind of winding down, so we are headed back West.”
When fighting a fire, Honeycutt said he and his co-captain steer clear of smoke to successfully dump water from the 2,400-gallon tank around the edges of the fire.
“We try to cool down the edges of it and when we get the edges cool enough, we can go direct, right on the fire,” he said.
Their air attack is coordinated with firefighters on the ground, who help direct the helitanker, Honeycutt said.
“We could never win the fire attack without the ground troops,” he said. “We’ll talk to the people on the ground and make sure they are all clear because that is a lot of weight going down — better than 14,000 to 16,000 pounds of water. It’ll drive you right through the dirt.”
Crew chief Enrique Solar said the helitanker fills its belly with water from lakes, rivers or any nearby water source.
“It has actually been in California to those places where there (are) no lakes or anything, just big houses,” he said. “When the houses are burning, it just goes in there and sucks up the water from the swimming pool.”
Even though Honeycutt gets most of the attention as the helitanker captain, he said he couldn’t do his job without other crew members.
“It is a team effort, no doubt about it,” he said. “Everybody has to work together to do the job or it just doesn’t work.”
As the crew chief, Solar manages everything associated with the helitanker from logistics to mechanical problems.
“It’s a pretty crazy job,” he said.
The most appealing part of the job for Solar is managing a huge machine with numerous moving parts.
“If you like aircraft, you like mechanics,” he said. “Here is the biggest and most complex (helitanker) there is. I think it is a challenge. When everything is working and everybody is happy, I think you get a lot of pride.”
When the helitanker is not responding to a call, Solar said the crew tries to take a breather from their usually busy schedule.
“Just like regular firefighters … if there is nothing going on then you sit down and relax because you know that when there is something going on, we are going to be working long hours,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of stuff going on.”
After the crew finishes fighting a fire and settles down to await its next assignment, many residents stop by to catch a glimpse of the helicopter, Dejesus said.
“A lot of people have never seen anything like it,” he said. “We’ll answer their questions, we’ll give them a little tour of the helicopter. If there are any little kids, we’ll let them come inside.
“We like to let the community know we are here. They appreciate it.”
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