“Diligence, professionalism and exceptional piloting skills were required for 17 days on end and still ongoing, to suppress one of the biggest fires the Cape has seen in the recent years,” were the proud and encouraging words of General Manager of Kishugu Aviation, Johan du Plessis.
With the Winter fire season in the Lowveld still in full swing, many of Kishugu Aviation’s aerial resources and ground teams were urgently dispatched to assist in the raging Southern and Eastern Cape fires, concentrated around the areas in Vermaaklikheid, Riversdal, George, Herold and de Vlugt areas and going as far as Tsitsikamma.
“This was another great example of exceptional teamwork among our staff,” stated du Plessis.
Initially, on 24 October, two of Kishugu’s Bomber aircraft, also known as the Air Tractor (AT 802), purposely built for firefighting and successfully used worldwide for suppressing wildland fires, were positioned to Stilbaai. Other resources such as a Huey and Spotter aircraft were already assisting on the fire from 22 October. The Huey and Spotter Aircraft, based at Denneoord firebase near George, are permanently based throughout the year.
Upon the arrival of the two Kishugu Aviation Bomber aircraft in Stilbaai, these pilots immediately commenced with active firefighting, together with the Huey with guidance from the Command and Control Spotter Aircraft. At the same time, a South African Air Force (SAAF) Oryx helicopter was also actively fighting the fire together with the Kishugu Aviation aerial resources and WOF ground teams.
In disastrous situations like these, all possible resources need to be allocated at the request of the Incident Command post, which consist of various role players in a specific area. Other role players actively involved in suppressing this fire, ranging from Provincial Disaster Management Centre, local farmers, Working on Fire ground teams, Southern Cape Fire Protection Association, Garden Route District Municipality, PG Bison, Mountain to Ocean, and many more, showed tremendous teamwork and collaboration across the different organisations to ensure lives, property and the environment are saved.
On Friday, 26 October 2018, further assistance was required from Kishugu Aviation to suppress the fires that were moving in the direction of George from the north. These aerial resources were relocated to Denneoord. Upon arrival at Denneoord, the Bombers were filled, and firefighting operations commenced immediately.
“In conversation with our pilots, emphasis needs to be placed around the difficult or mountainous terrain in which these fires are burning as well as taking into consideration constantly changing environmental conditions, such as high wind speed, low visibility and smoke. The safety margins are small with virtually no room for error, which distinguishes Kishugu Aviation’s pilots from other normal commercial operations,” du Plessis said. He continued by saying Kishugu Aviation’s training standards are high, which measures equally to global aerial firefighting standards.”
During firefighting operations, there is a combination of caution and skill, ensuring constant risk assessment while entering a bombing run or a water drop. At times it is dangerous and extreme skill and concentration is required to adequately suppress a fire.
Currently most of the fires have been contained, with minor flare ups. “We would like to thank everyone for the tremendous teamwork in containing these fires. You are all true heroes.”
Did you know:
- At times the wind speed was up to 90 km per hour, which made the firefighting operations extremely dangerous and difficult.
- At one stage during the George fires, the distance to which pilots needed to do aerial firefighting, was 40 nautical miles away (approximately 74 km) from the airbase, equivalent to traveling from Nelspruit to Malelane in one go.
- In many areas where fires were fought, pilots needed to take extreme caution of obstructions such as terrain, towers and overhead powerlines within the operational area. Coupled with this, smoke and low visibility played a massive role.
- Teamwork between the ground and aerial teams are vital. Sometimes ground teams can’t approach a Fireline without the aerial team first cooling it down.
- Due to dangerous environmental factors, pilots sometimes experience frustration and helplessness during firefighting operations as you can’t always effectively save someone’s property.
- On the other hand, it is very satisfying to know, that when prevailing conditions are suitable, you can save many lives, property and the environment.
- The firefighting flying experience could be compared to being in a tumble dryer or washing machine (bumping and shaking) which makes it extremely uncomfortable and can contribute to fatigue.
- Firefighting aircraft often needs to take off on challenging air strips with limited take off distances which makes a loaded Bomber aircraft difficult to get airborne.