We’re sitting in Mark Jackson’s office at Stellenbosch airfield, a gentle drizzle shining the concrete apron outside the door.
It is early April, and the fire season that started with a bang, has subsided with something of whimper, with thankfully few fires since the terrible conflagrations that tore through Betty’s Bay, Karweyderskraal/Hermanus, Stilbaai and most recently, Franschhoek.
“Ground crews play a vital role in wildfire suppression,” explains Mark. “We can throw all the water we want to at an active fireline, but if no ground crew is deployed to mop up, chances are the line will stand up again and run.”
And if that happens, it is a monumental waste of money, because aerial support during fire suppression operations is hideously expensive, with operating costs for a single Huey running as high as US $2 500 (about R35 000) an hour.
My thoughts spin back to the devastating fire that burned in Betty’s Bay for 10 days. The thwuck-thuck-thwuck of the Huey (Bell UH-1 Iroquois) intrudes on the crackling roar of the fynbos burning just above the R44 in Betty’s Bay.
It is Sunday morning, January 6, and a joint Jonkershoek/Newlands Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) ground crew is working the fireline, advancing downslope toward the disconcertingly close houses bordering the road below.
“Incoming!” yells our crew leader, and the firefighters working the line all instantly drop
down on one knee, tuck in their chins, and grasp their helmets firmly, in anticipation of the water drop.
The whoosh of the descending water speeds toward us from behind, drenches us, and knocks down the flaming front as the pilot unerringly drops the 1 000 litres of water in the bucket suspended below the chopper on the fireline, with pinpoint accuracy, before pirouetting on what seems like a dime, to speed back to Bass Lake across the R44 to refill the bucket for the next run.
The two choppers work the line tirelessly, supporting the VWS and Working on Fire ground crews, and a few hours later, this particular section of the fireline is contained, and the business of monitoring and mopping up can proceed.
Without aerial support, it would have taken many more hours of back-breaking work to contain the fireline, with the very real risk of the fire getting to the houses bordering the R44, and running up into the high reaches of the mountains towering above us, the Kogelberg Biosphere Nature Reserve just a short distance way.
When I arrived and met up with Mark, I expected to see his Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk next to its little brother, the venerable Huey, and I’m disappointed that it is not parked on the apron, in the distinctive grey and white livery of his aviation company, Leading Edge Aviation – “moustache-grey,” quips Mark, who sports a luxuriant guardee moustache reminiscent of so many World War II air aces.
“Where’s the Hawk?” I ask, the reason for my visit being to talk about the Black Hawk’s role in aerial fire suppression operations in South Africa.
“It’s in Nelspruit. When we returned from Zim, it made sense to leave it there, rather than bring it back down here for the last few days of the contract,” says Mark.
His company had been contracted to the Western Cape Provincial Government to provide aerial support in fire suppression operations until the end of March, and the Black Hawk was needed in Nelspruit from the beginning of April, the start of the inland fire season.
When tropical cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe in March, Mark
was contracted by Econet Wireless, with the assistance of the Zimbabwean Airforce, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Sir Richard Branson, to airlift relief supplies to communities cut off by the extensive flooding, in a 100km2 region in the
Chimanimani Mountains, on the Mozambique border.
Mark flew up with his sons, Peter and Steven, in his Black Hawk and his Huey, and set to work, bringing much-needed food, water, medical and other supplies to stranded communities.
“In total, we moved over 140 tonnes of cargo in 10 days,
108 tonnes with the Hawk and 35 tonnes with the Huey.”
It is gruelling work, requiring unwavering concentration for hours on end, flying a laden chopper and cargo net, putting it down as safely and rapidly as possible, supervising the unloading then heading back for the next load.
Mark notes some highlights of the Zim experience. “On one occasion, as we landed, the community stormed the chopper, and I had to explain to them that if it happened again, we’d not be coming back again.
“The atmosphere was a bit tense at times, but we ended up developing lasting friendships. The people involved were a joy
to work with. Initially, many tonnes of relief supplies were donated by the Zimbabwean people, despite them being short of so much.”
Mark ponders for a moment. “We also ended up flying in formation back to base in the evenings with Zimbabwe Airforce pilots. You do not do that unless you trust the other pilots implicitly.
“Oh, and we had no power failures while we were there, by the way,” he adds, with an impish grin.
“I’m really grateful to Danie Wilds, head of Cape Winelands Fire and Rescue, and Colin Deiner head of Western Cape Provincial Disaster Management for releasing us to go to Zimbabwe to assist with the relief effort,” says Mark.
Turning to the Hawk’s capability in fire suppression operations, Mark says: “The Huey has a 1 000 litre bucket, and the Hawk has a 3 000 litre bucket.
“The sheer volume of water means that it has incredible drenching penetration which kills a fire with far less chance of re-ignition.
“Depending on the turnaround time, the Huey can drop 15 tonnes of water per hour, compared to the Hawk’s 45-tonnes an hour.
“It is also faster and the cost per litre is lower, resulting in a saving of between R17 000 and R18 000 an hour.
“And it is also much safer, because of the high level of system redundancy. For example, it can fly on one engine, and it has three hydraulic systems with three separate pumps.
“It can also fly in far more adverse weather conditions than the Huey, and it is well suited to flying in mountainous terrain.”
Getting the Hawk wasn’t easy. It took a tortuous two year and dauntingly expensive process, to get the aircraft to South Africa and licensed for civilian use in emergency relief, agricultural operations, and fire suppression.
It is a 1981 model, upgraded to 1997 technical standards, and it was in use in Kuwait by American Special Forces.
Mark has all the original military log books, with locations and names obviously redacted for security purposes, but the details of operating hours meticulously recorded.
“It only did short hops, and had about 5 000 hours on the airframe when I bought it,” says Mark.
All military systems had to be completely removed before the American Department of Defence would authorise it for sale as military surplus.
Officials of the SA Civil Aviation authority (SACAA) flew to Montana at Mark’s expense to inspect and test-fly the aircraft, before he could bring it to South Africa.
The Hawk was shipped by sea to Durban, and trucked to Nelspruit. Denel, the local state-owned armaments company, also had to inspect the aircraft and grant approval for its use here, all at Mark’s expense, and despite having flown SACAA officials to Montana to inspect the Hawk, it had to undergo a second inspection and licensing process.
It then had to be registered in South Africa, a certificate of airworthiness issued, and finally painted in its fresh new livery, ready for use.
“It ushers in a new era in aerial fire suppression operations. Previously, there was a Mil Mi-8 and a Kamov, both heavy-lift aircraft, in use here for fire suppression operations, but reliable technical support and backup wasn’t available from the manufacturers in Russia, so they had to be taken out of service,” says Mark.
By contrast, a Sikorsky-approved facility in Montana provides the required level of technical support and service for Mark’s Hawk, but again at his own expense.
“I have to fund the cost of sending inspectors over every 12 months so they can approve it. We used the Hawk for the first time in November last year on a major fire on the Long Tom Pass near Nelspruit,” Mark says.
“It made all the difference, and a potential catastrophe was averted.”
Mark’s career in aviation started in Rhodesia in the 1970s, where he trained as a flight engineer, working on Alouettes and Hueys for a number of years, after which he learned to fly.
“That makes me a pilot-mechanic,” he says, a distinct advantage, because he can fly choppers and also fix them.
“I’ll never get used to how lucky I am. Flying is amazing, and it is such a privilege to be part of a flying family.”
The Black Hawk will return to Stellenbosch airfield in time for next fire season, which starts on November 1.
Norman McFarlane is a volunteer wildland firefighter at Volunteer Wildfire Services.