The Payson Airport has turned into a firefighting air attack base, with helicopters large and small on the tarmac ready to battle major fires like the Tinder Fire.
Currently, eight helicopters and their helitack crews operate out of Rich Henry Field in Payson. One crew, our own Payson Tonto Helitack crew, stays at the airport from April 1 until the monsoons take over.
Payson Tonto Helitack crew assistant manager Rob Wilson said, “Safety is No. 1. Even in down time, the mechanics are checking the equipment and the crew are continuing their training.”
Seven crews are “guests,” Chester Helitack, Douglas Helitack, Grand Canyon Helitack from Arizona, Sandia Helitack from New Mexico, Grande Ronde Rapellers Helitack from Oregon.
The Forest Service, National Park Service and other federal agencies maintain the helicopters to respond to wildfires around the country. It takes special crews with maximum coordination.
The helicopters deliver the helitack crews (firefighting personnel) for initial attack, transport personnel, including medical, and transport cargo in support of firefighting. Helicopters provide rapid transport, enabling crews to quickly respond and assess a wildfire situation. The helicopters can carry a Bambi Bucket or fixed tank to drop water or retardant during firefighting operations.
Michael Lewton, helitack base manager for the Tinder Fire, coordinates the helicopter crews here at Payson. He hails from Douglas Helitack out of the Coronado National Forest.
Lewton said, “Your bags are always packed for a two-week stay. You go to work and don’t know where you’re going to end up next. You also must stay physically fit because your crew depends on you.”
Fire assignments can last up to 21 days. Fire crews are self-sufficient and stay at the fire’s location if alternative accommodations are not available.
Each helicopter module is privately contracted by the U.S. Forest Service for a number of days and has its own basic crew, the pilot, mechanic with equipment and the fueler with the fuel tender. Other crew members may include medical personnel, and U.S. Forest Service personnel. In addition, with each helicopter crew you have a U.S. Forest Service manager liaison. So, each helicopter has a crew of four to 10 people, depending on its size.
Stop by the airport, you will see three different types of helicopters, the distinctive, red Kaman K-MAX helicopter; the med-size, black and green Bell; red A Star and the large, twin-blade Chinooks. This may change in the next few weeks, but here is a little information about each one.
The Kaman K-Max is unusual in that it only has room for one person, the pilot — in this case Nathan Husbyn. It’s main purpose is to lift up to 6,000 pounds, more than its empty weight. The single-engine, single-transmission, servo-flap-controlled, counter-rotating rotor has no tail rotor and channels all engine power goes directly to the main rotors for significantly improved lift. The wooden blades are unique too. Made of sitka spruce and covered with a composite, they are intermeshing rotors.
You will see an intermediate lift A Star B3E helicopter, the red one on the field has the incident medical crew, and Bell 407s, the black and green aircraft, have new avionics and are used for initial incidents, to transport personnel and complete water drops. They all have excellent views for the pilot. Both the three-blade main and the tail rotors are made of a composite. They have a pilot, a mechanic, plus two EMT/paramedics for the incident medical crew with a fuel tender plus a crew manager from the U.S. Forest Service.
The huge Boeing CH-47D Chinook helicopters, are twin-engine, tandem counter rotating rotors, heavy-lift helicopters. They have a wide loading ramp at the rear of the fuselage and three external-cargo hooks. They travel with two pilots, four mechanics and other crew members.
As fire season continues you may see other aircraft from time to time. Stop a take a look and know how fortunate we are here in Payson to have the firefighting equipment at our doorstep at Payson Airport.
Mike Lewton noted, “If you see a wildfire — stay away.”
He was also emphatic about drones, because it’s becoming an issue on many fires. At one critical point in fighting the Tinder Fire, air commanders had to break off the air attack for fear a drone spotted in the air would bring down an aircraft with fatal consequences.
“If there is a drone, all aircraft have to stop flying due to safety issues. If you fly your drones, we can’t fly.”
He also added, “We appreciate the coffee and food, but maybe the public can make a donation to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation instead.”
Rob Wilson added, “We represent our forest crew and community. We are here to protect your family now and for future generations.”