The Huey is my weapon of choice for battling wildfires
Our firefighting pilots play a key role in fighting fires across the country. They go above and beyond the call of duty to help save lives and protect the environment and properties.
This month we sit down with veteran Huey pilot, Wynand Strauss, who is renowned for his diligence when there is a call for duty. Wynand has already flown in excess of fifty hours during the current Western Cape fire season.
You are an esteemed pilot. What lead you to become a firefighting pilot?
I began flying helicopters in 1995 doing game capturing in Namibia. A year later I moved to Hoedspruit, where I continued working as a pilot for game capturing on private farms and nature reserves.
I later decided to join Working on Fire (WoF) as an aerial firefighter. I have been with WoF since 2007 and I am currently their longest serving Huey pilot. I’ve been battling wildfires for the past nine years and I intend to do it for at least a couple of years more.
Why do you love flying Hueys?
I truly believe the Huey is the best helicopter ever built. It is one of the simpler helicopters to use, yet one of the most effective during aerial firefighting. It also has an interesting history behind it, which gives it real character.
What are the most important safety lessons you learned during your career?
Never become stagnant or overconfident. When I approach a fire, I always take the time to evaluate the situation.
Don’t ever just barge in. Take the time to assess all the factors: take note of any power lines or widow makers. Observe what the fire is doing and take your time getting to the fire line – slow and steady. Always approach a fire with caution. Determine your escape routes.
I usually start by dropping my Bambi Bucket loads from a bit higher up and work it down to the right height. By my tenth drop I am bombing the fires with precision, only because I have assessed the fire and conditions well-enough to know that I am not putting myself in any unnecessary danger. You need to get a feel for a fire before attacking it.
What has been the biggest fire you ever battled?
To me a fire is a fire, and I approach them all with the same respect and caution, but there are a few fires that have stood out over the years. The first would be the ‘Firestorm of Vryheid’ in 2007. The air crews flew in very challenging weather conditions and thick smoke was a major concern.
Another one, about four years ago, was when a fire broke out in the Constantia valley in the Western Cape. The Huey helicopters were instrumental in assisting SANParks to suppress the fire.
What is your message to anyone who wishes to become a firefighting pilot?
Not only do you need to understand the risks of fighting fires, but also that you are doing it for a greater cause.
Because there are different fire seasons in South Africa, you will be away from home for at least five months a year.
During a recent fire in Knysna, the residents had tears in their eyes when they thanked us for saving their homes. That, to me, is the most rewarding: that moment when you’ve just water bombed a precious commodity and saved it from a wildfire.
The challenge of beating a fire is another motivation. No matter how big or small a fire is, I am committed to suppressing and beating it before it causes any further damage.
What does it mean to you to fly for Working on Fire?
WoF has proven over the years, that even when things aren’t going well, they never turn their backs on their pilots. They always remain very loyal to their employees.