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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of August 1 - 7, 2001


Baby of the big-lift helicopters helped stop Sage Fire

Amazing flying machine and crew took center stage

By Pam Morris
Express Staff Writer

The Sage Fire brought the Columbia Helicopters traveling fire-fighting show to town.

A Boeing Vertol 107 hovers over Penny Lake as its bucket dips 550 gallons of water from the pond during mop up operations on the Sage Fire. Express photo by David N. Seelig

The show was staged at the dusty end of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. There, a black-and-white flag bearing a skull and crossbones flew from a truck-mounted pole. The stars and stripes hung fluttering behind a trailer filled with parts and a grimy bookshelf full of helicopter repair manuals.

This was backstage for an orange-and-white, tandem-rotor Boeing Vertol 107, the workhorse helicopter of a handful on the fire, which started in Warm Springs Canyon near Ketchum.

Columbia Helicopters of Portland, Ore. owns it. The U.S. Forest Service contract rate for it is $3,679 an hour.

Itís the baby of the companyís heavy-lift fleet, which also includes Sikorsky CH-54 and Boeing 234 Chinook helicopters. The company hires them out for fire fighting, logging and construction.

On Friday, the heli-crew stood by in Hailey while firefighters on the ground completed mop-up operations on the fire, which charred more than 300 acres.

Two pilots and three mechanics waited for another call for the machine to help douse the sputtering embers of the fire, which kept federal and local fire crews guessing for three days. Two other pilots and a mechanic were off-site getting some rest.

The helicopter and its crew had been working a fire near Provo, Utah, when it was called to Ketchum.

They go wherever theyíre needed. Their summer began with spring fires in the pines of northern Florida. From there, fire after fire drew the crew north.

Pilots Keith Saylor of Sacramento, Calif., and Joe Caughlin of Garden Valley, Idaho, were two of four pilots who flew the Vertol during the Sage Fire.

Keith Saylor 

Saylor said they were surprised when they discovered that people all up and down Warm Springs Road were watching them work.

"Weíre used to working in the backcountry where no one ever sees us," he said.

The biggest challenges to flying over a fire, Saylor said, are dealing with winds, figuring out how to approach a drop and working to ensure the safety of workers below ó "trying to hit the spot," he said.

"All of the pilots are trying to find the safest way into dip- and drop-sites, and the safest way out," he said.

Joe Caughlin

Flying the monster Vertol is a complicated process at best. Gauges, buttons and switches litter the craftís dash, and each pilot is responsible for separate duties.

The 23,000-pound bird can travel at speeds up to 165 mph at 12,800 feet above sea level. Its design stems from a model first made by Philadelphia, Pa., helicopter manufacturer, Vertol, which was bought in 1960 by aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. of Seattle. Columbiaís Boeing Vertol 107 entered service in 1962.

It takes two pilots to drive it. Two plexi-glass pop-eyes on either side of the cockpit allow a pilot to lean out over the helicopterís chassis to see a bucket below that hangs by a cable. The bucket is about 7 feet high and nearly as wide.

The helicopter dwarfed tiny Penny Lake from which it drew water. It dipped 550 gallons of water into its 1,100-gallon bucket every 20 minutes or so. At eight pounds per gallon, one bucket of water dumped the equivalent of a big truck load of water in each pass over the blaze.

The helicopter drew a crowd that marveled at the machine every time it returned to the lake. It was no big deal for the pilots who said they enjoyed being the center of attention.

"No one flies a helicopter because itís not fun," said pilot Keith Saylor. "Itís the most fun you can have with your pants on."

They couldnít have done it alone, though.

Crew chief Larry Dahlke of Olympia, Wash., and "fourth man," young Matt Cole of Weippe, Idaho, said that as fires go, the Sage Fire was easy.

The crew calls Dahlke "Mr. Columbia" because heís been keeping the companyís birds in the air for 21 years. He came to the company fresh from five years in the U.S. Air Force.

The soft-spoken mechanic likes fire work better than logging. He said itís easier on the machines and that the freedom of fighting fires is better than the long months and close confines in the logging camps of Alaska.

Keeping helicopters in shape to lift enormous buckets of water is a lot easier than repairing them after theyíve been wrenched and twisted by 8,000-pound trees in directions the metal bodies were never intended to go, he said.

Told that a lot of people were really grateful to the heli-crew and the other crews that put out the Sage Fire, Dahlke said quietly, "Well, thatís just what we do."

The crew wasnít sure where the traveling show would go next. Their radio crackled with voices that said there was still a fire near Provo and that another was working itself into a frenzy near Susanville, Calif.

They knew just one thing for sure: It might be a while before they are again center stage in front of such an appreciative audience.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.