Firefighting – Small Airports Serve the State Well as Emergency Hubs

Saturday, October 27, 2007
Hemet’s normally sleepy airport fills with firefighting planes
By: RANI GUPTA
The San Diego (CA) North County Times

Air Tanker

Normally, the World War II-era air traffic control tower at Hemet-Ryan Airport stays empty, as the volume is so light that controllers aren’t needed.

This week, the airport roared to life as it became a base for planes and helicopters flying out to douse nearby wildfires. To help guide the state firefighting aircraft, eight federal air traffic controllers and managers have been brought in from airports in and around the Inland Empire.

Those who arrived at Hemet-Ryan starting Wednesday are used to features such as radar and air-conditioning. They found the floor of the deserted tower covered in a layer of dust and the windows covered with black grime.

Air Tankers on Ramp

Editor’s Note: Typically, our general aviation airports are not appreciated until an emergency such as this fire causes even the anti-airport types to understand how important the local airport is for emergencies.

At Palm Springs International Airport, Air Traffic Manager Mark Hidinger is used to break rooms with fully stocked refrigerators and cooking burners. In Hemet, he has a cooler stocked with water and Gatorade. Controllers rely on binoculars instead of radar to help track planes.

Opening the windows in the Hemet-Ryan tower can provide relief from the heat, but lets in the roar of the 17 California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection planes and three helicopters heading to local blazes, mostly the Poomacha fire burning south of the Riverside County line.

“Normally at Palm Springs, you don’t really hear the aircraft going by,” said Hidinger, a Murrieta resident.

The business-casual dress code that Palm Springs controllers typically follow also went out the window. Gary Leu, an air traffic control supervisor, arrived from his Palm Springs post Wednesday morning in a coat and tie.

“I must confess,” Leu said, “by the end of the day, the tie was off, the shirt was untucked.”

By Friday, Leu radioed planes in a Padres cap and jersey.

Hemet-Ryan’s opening as an air-attack station was fortuitous. Not long after the airport was ready Wednesday, a fire broke out in Wildomar just miles away.

“They started launching tankers hot and heavy and had that out in no time,” Leu said.

State fire officials had considered moving the air-attack base from Hemet-Ryan to March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, but decided last year to leave it in Hemet.

CalFire controllers have their own tower at Hemet-Ryan close to the tower run by the Federal Aviation Administration. While the federal employees coordinate takeoffs and landings, CalFire controllers tell pilots their ultimate destinations and coordinate the reloading of the ex-Navy planes that line up to refill 1,200 gallons of flame retardant at a time — a process that takes about four minutes for each plane.

Despite the dual towers and the variety of planes, Leu said the process has gone smoothly.

“They’re all professional pilots,” he said of the CalFire workers. “They really know what they’re doing and they make the job easy.”

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