The For­est Fly­ers

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text and pho­to­graphs by Cheng Xueli

“You have no idea what a for­est fire re­ally looks like un­til you see one in per­son,” de­clares Zhang Ying­hai, com­mand pi­lot and vice di­rec­tor of the avi­a­tion de­tach­ment of the for­est fire ser­vices di­vi­sion of China’s armed po­lice forces. On May 17, 2017, he and his team­mates bat­tled with a huge fire in the Old Barag Ban­ner near the city of Hu­lun­buir in In­ner Mon­go­lia Au­tonomous Re­gion.

The fire had al­ready burned 8,400 hectares of for­est when Zhang’s bri­gade ar­rived. Both the avi­a­tion de­tach­ment and the ground of­fi­cers, a force of 12 air­craft and more than 9,000 peo­ple, joined the fire­fight­ing ef­forts. In less than four days, the fire was ex­tin­guished. How­ever, the cost of the vic­tory was tremen­dous hard­ship, sac­ri­fices, and dan­ger.

“Dan­ger is al­ways part of our work,” says Zhang. “Re­cently, a fire­man was rap­pelling from a heli­copter when the rope got stuck, leav­ing him hang­ing from the heli­copter. But our pi­lot was calm enough to care­fully find a place to set him on the ground.”

China’s First Aerial Fire­fight­ing Force

Glob­ally, aerial for­est fire­fight­ing is noth­ing new. In the wake of World War II, the United States re­fit­ted many of its sea­planes from the war to carry and drop fire re­tar­dant. Canada, home to vast ex­panses of forests, de­vel­oped a spe­cial am­phib­ian air­craft to fight for­est fires in the 1960s. It could fill up with wa­ter and travel to the fire with­out miss­ing a beat.

Com­pared to those Western coun­tries, China’s devel­op­ment of an aerial for­est fire­fight­ing force started late. In July 2009, the avi­a­tion de­tach­ment was of­fi­cially formed in Daqing, Hei­longjiang Prov­ince in north­east­ern China, be­com­ing the first for­est avi­a­tion force in the coun­try. Af­ter years of rapid devel­op­ment, the de­tach­ment now has 18 he­li­copters, three com­mand pi­lots and six first-grade pi­lots. They pro­vide trans­porta­tion, for­est pro­tec­tion, fire­fight­ing, pa­trol and search and res­cue ser­vices.

Just men­tion­ing the phrase “avi­a­tion de­tach­ment” brings aerial fire­fight­ing to many peo­ple’s minds. Along with their direct fire con­trol and prevention ef­forts, an­other ma­jor duty of the de­tach­ment is to take fire­fight­ers to ar­eas near the fire. Air trans­porta­tion of fire­fight­ers has grad­u­ally be­come com­mon prac­tice in China. “We save tons of time trav­el­ing by air, which en­ables us to get fires un­der con­trol be­fore they get too big,” com­ments Zhang. “The peo­ple in­volved in the fire­fight­ing save tremen­dous en­ergy, so we don’t need as many.”

How­ever, since weather in the moun­tains can be se­vere and change fast, tur­bu­lence is fre­quent and air-land op­er­a­tions are al­ways filled with ten­sion. Years ago, when then-vice di­rec­tor Lin Hon­gri was re­turn­ing from a mis­sion to trans­port fire­fight­ers for a land op­er­a­tion, he found the run­way shrouded in clouds so thick that land­ing seemed im­pos­si­ble. He had al­ready been in the heli­copter for more than three hours and fuel was run­ning out. Lin even­tu­ally found a small gap in the clouds to the south­east of the air­port. With help from the weather radar, the ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot quickly de­ter­mined the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the clear­ing. Lin flew the chop­per at an al­ti­tude of just 200 to 300 me­ters around the moun­tain­ous ar­eas south­east of the air­port for more than 20 kilo­me­ters be­fore land­ing safely.

Train­ing in the Field

For the com­par­a­tively young avi­a­tion de­tach­ment, fire­fight­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is gained both through drills and real op­er­a­tions.

In Au­gust 2011, the for­est fire ser­vices or­ga­nized a large-scale fire ex­tin­guish­ing field drill just as the de­tach­ment had be­gun for­mal train­ing. When the de­tach­ment was asked about par­tic­i­pa­tion in the joint drill, some ob­jected. “We had just be­gun train­ing. We didn’t want to lose face by screw­ing up dur­ing the drill.”

How­ever, Wang Xingkun, then air squadron com­man­der of the de­tach­ment, was think­ing dif­fer­ently. “We should not only join the drill, but even lead it,” he de­clared. “If we are afraid of los­ing face in peace­time, we may lose our lives to the fires. A for­est fire will never wait for us to be fully pre­pared.”

“In re­cent years, fire­fight­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in the United States, Rus­sia and Canada has ev­i­denced that drop­ping wa­ter from he­li­copters is one of the most ef­fec­tive meth­ods for fire sup­pres­sion,” com­mented Wang. The de­tach­ment de­cided to par­tic­i­pate in the ma­neu­ver and used he­li­copters to drop wa­ter from spe­cial buck­ets at­tached with ca­bles. Although such wa­ter drops are fre­quently per­formed in many de­vel­oped coun­tries, tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties had pre­vented China from us­ing them in the past.

A heli­copter pi­loted by Wang lifted off with a mas­sive bucket for the first time. Af­ter 30 min­utes of flight, the plane’s body be­gan to shake sud­denly. “What bad luck! I ran into se­vere tur­bu­lence,” re­calls Wang. As his speed dropped, the heli­copter ex­pe­ri­enced even worse shak­ing. In such con­di­tions, emer­gency safety pro­to­cols rec­om­mend Wang re­lease the bucket to save the heli­copter. How­ever, the veteran pi­lot was not keen on de­stroy­ing a piece of equip­ment worth more than US$70,000 so fast. Grip­ping the con­trols tightly, Wang slowly re­duced the am­pli­tude of os­cil­la­tion and pulled the heli­copter up with all its power. Ten min­utes later, the heli­copter had re­gained sta­bil­ity and raced out of the tur­bu­lence. This ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vided Wang with first-hand in­for­ma­tion that he later passed on to other pi­lots trained to per­form a heli­copter wa­ter drop.

The team never stops learn­ing. Dur­ing drills, the de­tach­ment re­al­ized that if the flame front ex­ceeds 10 me­ters in height, wa­ter dropped from a heli­copter, if in­suf­fi­cient in amount, will break up into par­ti­cles and oxy­genate and feed the fire. Af­ter dis­cus­sions, the de­tach­ment de­cided to do four drops right in a row. They per- formed ex­per­i­ments to de­ter­mine the ideal den­sity of fol­low­ing he­li­copters as well as air speed and the most ef­fec­tive ma­neu­vers to drop the wa­ter. All these prob­lems were solved one by one in three months. On the day when the field ma­neu­ver was car­ried out, Wang’s air­craft lifted off first, fol­lowed by three other he­li­copters, each over an in­ter­val of 30 me­ters. For­est fire ex­perts spoke highly of the for­ma­tion af­ter see­ing its fire­fight­ing op­er­a­tion, and be­lieved that it filled the gaps in China’s for­est aerial fire­fight­ing.

Their newly-de­vel­oped tech­niques were soon put into prac­tice. On Septem­ber 18, 2015, a fire broke out in the forests of the Greater Hing­gan Moun­tains in north­east­ern China. Due to many sud­den changes in wind di­rec­tion, the fire spread er­rat­i­cally and the sit­u­a­tion re­mained se­ri­ous for a long time. The de­tach­ment dis­patched eight orange he­li­copters in two for­ma­tions. The four chop­pers in the first for­ma­tion per­formed wa­ter drops with buck­ets. The sec­ond for­ma­tion, con­sist­ing of four he­li­copters with belly tanks, flew over the fire at a low al­ti­tude and dropped wa­ter from the air. The fire was con­tained quickly.

By now, the de­tach­ment has per­formed sev­eral hun­dred flights and ac­cu­mu­lated data on more than 3,000 fires. They have also stud­ied more than 30 dif­fi­cult sce­nar­ios in­volv­ing po­ten­tial ex­treme con­di­tions and de­vel­oped more than 10 new aerial fire­fight­ing tac­tics.

“Fire can dec­i­mate old-growth forests in min­utes,” in­sists Zhang. “And for­est fires pose a great threat to per­sonal and prop­erty safety, not to men­tion the en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and wa­ter and soil preser­va­tion ef­forts. We carry out dan­ger­ous mis­sions through­out the year, but we are hap­pi­est when we see our lush forests thriv­ing safely.”

Two for­est fires broke out, one on May 19 and the other on May 21, 2016, in the Greater Hing­gan Moun­tains in China. The de­tach­ment sent out three he­li­copters to trans­port fire­fight­ers and per­formed wa­ter drops with buck­ets to sup­port the ground fire­fight­ing force.

Dur­ing a flight drill, one heli­copter found that its en­gine was over-heat­ing. Xu Shaolei, a mem­ber of the sup­port per­son­nel on the heli­copter, de­cided that it was an en­gine surge and re­ported it to the crew. Fol­low­ing emer­gency pro­to­cols, the heli­copter re­turned to its base 30 min­utes later.

Check­ing the en­gine pa­ram­e­ters of a heli­copter. To en­sure flight safety, the de­tach­ment car­ries out reg­u­lar heli­copter main­te­nance.

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