BELL COUNTY, Texas — Bell County firefighters have had to deal with dozens of wildfires over the summer. While some are manageable, larger fires like the Dog Ridge fire in Bell County, or the Crittenburg Complex fire on Fort Hood, which threatened local homes, require additional air support.
That's where companies like Dauntless Air and pilots like David Fennen come into play.
Fennen pilots the 802F Fire Boss which is sometimes referred to as an "air tractor." The name makes sense as the Fire Boss can quite literally scoop up water from a lake and then dump that water on a nearby fire.
When they get a call for help, the team can identify the target area, and a nearby water sources, within minutes while still at their airbase thanks to special applications. Fennen says they will typically have the mission mapped out in less than four minutes.
"We will know before we ever show up where the shallow spots are on the lake," Fennen said.
The Fire Boss has two large landing floats which allow it to skim the water at around 75 miles an hour and force water through the floats, and up through pipes, into a an 800 gallon storage compartment, or "hopper", under the plane. The hopper doors can be opened to quickly release the water over a fire.
Fennen said the processes of skimming the water, or "scooping", requires 10 hours of training for a new pilot to do safety and takes years to become proficient in. He said pilots press a button to make "macaroni-like" tubes deploy in the floats so they can start a scoop run. They call it the "rodeo button."
"The first time I flew it, this thing, it was like riding a bucking bronco trying to get a scoop," Fennen said. "Landing on the water and scooping 800 gallons opens up a whole new can of worms and is a new skill that needs to be developed... It takes several years to really become proficient with a Fire Boss."
Fennen said they like to have at least a mile of water available for the scooping run, even though the plans can fill up in just half a mile under the right conditions. New pilots will often have the nose of the plan bouncing up and down as they deal with the drag caused by the water.
Before even starting a scooping run, a dauntless air team will have one vehicles fly low over the body of water to look for stumps, debris, or other issues. Fennan said the higher planes also keep a lookout for any issues, and the whole team of four to eight planes must agree the lane is safe.
That's just the first challenge when responding to a fire.
Once pilots get to the location of the fire, they must avoid the column of smoke the blaze is generating and start looking for potential hazards before they make an attack run on the fire.
"The first drop is the most dangerous because it is an unknown environment," Fennan said. "We really walk on eggshells. We take several laps around the fire. We'll be talking to the IC (incident commander) on the ground. We will be communicating with them via FM frequency and it may take us three or four laps around the fire talking to the IC to dial in on where he wants the water. We take several laps to make sure we are obstacle-free."
Once the Fire Boss team gets their line of attack they circle between the fire and the nearby water source. Fennen said, after a few runs, they will hit the fire about every 8 minutes.
"We get into a rhythm and it's almost like a dance once we get dialed in," Fennen said. "The ground resources can almost set their watch on when we will be back over the fire."
Even after getting "dialed in" Fennen said the team must constantly watch for the wind to change as it can move the smoke column and cause significant turbulence. Poor visibility is also a factor.
"That column can switch and we have to be ready to make adjustments," Fennen said.
Fennen said Dauntless Air had five Fire Boss aircraft working on the Crittenburg over two days. He said the team dropped around 100,000 gallons of water during that time and each aircraft dropped around 60 loads.
Fennen started working the current fire season since the middle of February. He started off working in Texas but was then moved to Michigan, Alaska, Nevada, and now Montana. He has not been home since he left in February.
While the work is dangerous, and keeps him away from home, Fennen said he believes in the company's mission and purpose.
"This is the most rewarding flying job I have ever done. It truly is a good feeling to go out and save a home. Not that we do that every single time we fly, but many times, especially in Texas, we stopped a flame front that would have burned someone's house down. It's a pretty good feeling," Fennen said.
Fennen has been flying with Dauntless air for three years and has flown a Fire Boss for 6 fire seasons.
Dauntless Air works with both Federal and State Agencies and have 17 Fire Boss aircraft.
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