As soon as I spotted the plume of smoke on the distant horizon I abandoned the science mission at hand, banked into a steep left hand turn, and then rolled out on course for the billowing pillar of white. “Hey, what’s up?” asked Lisa.
Smoke, I said, pointing forward.
I’m not sure if all pilots take the time investigate the unexpected, but I always do. It might be some subconscious sense of civic responsibility, but more likely it’s newshound DNA. My mother was a journalist when I was growing up, and I was a newspaper reporter myself back in the days of typewriters and Camel cigarettes. That kind of background changes you for life. It makes you more interested in (and more nosey about) all the things that happen around you.
“What do you think it is? I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a fire?”
Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I flew towards the smoke out of instinct, like a moth to flame. The plume of smoke rose like Greek temple column, straight up, hundreds of feet into the sky. A small, hot fire. As the miles spilled way beneath us I realized the fire must be right at the border of the Pecos MOA—the local military operations area. Suddenly a pit formed in my stomach. As I was behind the controls of a plane, it was only natural that a plane crash came to mind.
Just keep a sharp eye out for helicopters, I told her.
If it was a downed aircraft, I was hoping it would be one of the drones from Cannon Air Force Base. Of course, if it was a manned military aircraft that got into trouble, the crew probably hit the silk and was fine. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as we closed in on the smoke column. After all, there’s a brotherhood between all pilots. In aviation’s early decades flyers of all nations called themselves Civis Aerius Sum—Citizens of the Air.
Now the funny thing about flying at a hundred miles an hour is that sometimes it seems fast and sometimes it seems slow. In this case, the fire turned out to be about 20 miles away. It took us only 12 minutes to get there, but it felt like hours.
As we closed in we could see bright orange flames, black charred ground, and rivers of white smoke flowing along with currents of air blowing across the desert landscape. The fire was burning down an arroyo, a dry stream course common in the New Mexico highlands.
We had our “flight pad” and the GPS receiver with us so I was able to pinpoint my location in relation to the MOA. The fire was right on the border. It’s not illegal to fly into a MOA, just stupid. MOAs are where military aviators train, and generally their planes are bigger, faster, and more powerful that ours. Not a good mix and match. Flying the Plane Tales Plane into their playground would be like taking a jog on the Indy track on race day. I banked left to stay outside the military’s airspace while getting as close to the fire as possible. At the top end of the fire sat a ranch house with a cluster of outbuildings, all intact. A tough-looking truck with a flashing red light on top was parked near the edge of the smoke. Looked like the volunteer fire department was on the scene. But they were outmatched. This was too much fire for one truck to handle.
“Too bad we can’t drop some water on it,” said Lisa. I had a momentary fantasy of being a firefighting pilot, diving in low above the flames, fighting the turbulence from the rising waves of heat, pulling the lever at the last minute to send hundreds of gallons of water cascading down from on high into the heart of the inferno.
What a cool job that must be.
We flew down the public side of the arroyo scoping out the blaze. No mangled wreckage, thank goodness. It seemed to be a garden-variety grass fire, probably accidently set off at the ranch at the top of the burn pattern. I did a 360 at the end of the smoke column and came back around for a second look.
The flames were spreading out in a slow moving crescent, driven by the wind across the dry glasses. “How are they going to stop that?” asked Lisa.
They probably won’t, I replied, but there’s nothing downwind for a hundred miles. They’ll probably just let it burn out.
Back at the ranch end of the fire again, I did another 360, putting the blaze back on Lisa’s side of the plane. She raised her camera to her eye and started blazing away. “Hey, can you bank right, I want to get a better shot of those flames.”
Huh. Seems my scientist buddy has some of that newshound DNA, herself. Who knew?
I banked the plane to the right, and the snapping shutter of her camera, picked up by her headset’s mike, echoed in my ears like machinegun fire.
Then, with no water to drop, and the proper authorities on the scene, our curiosity satisfied, there was nothing else for us to do. We turned our twin rudders to the fire and headed back the way we came, to resume our mission.