“The Firebomber” (July 2003)
So Sergio (chief artist for X-Plane) Ben (cheif computing technologies consultant for X-Plane) Lori (girlfriend of cheif computing technologies consultant for X-Plane) and myself were driving from the Dolomite mountains of Italy where we had been vacationing down to Genoa to get back to work on more X-Plane improvements. We were fairly tightly pressed for time to make dinner with Sergio’s family, so Sergio was moving the minivan pretty smartly down the highway. Coming out of one of the many tunnels that marked this area of Italian highway through the steep mountains, we were confronted by copius amounts of white smoke drifting across the highway from a forest fire in the mountains off to our left. Suddenly, a Bombardier CL-415 droned overhead, only a few hundred feet up, diving into the fire!
So here’s how it works: The CL-415 is a twin-engine turboprop airplane, about as long as a commuter turboprop but a lot heavier and wider stronger looking, thusly built to carry 13,500 pounds of water to a forest fire and jettison the water on the fire, hopefully putting it out. The plane has a scoop underneath the fuselage, and the plane skims the lake or Ocean at about 60 or 70 knots, scooping up water into it’s water tanks. Once full (after maybe 30 seconds or so of running along the water), the pilot brings in full power and climbs up from the nearest Ocean or lake and heads over to the fire and jettisons the water. He can repeat this all day long, stopping only occasionally for fuel. On this day, the Ocean and forest fire were very close (only about 3 miles) so he could make lots of runs between the water and the fire. What was really amazing is that the water bomber in X-Plane is a CL-415 IN ITALIAN COLORS AS DONE BY CRISTIANO MAGGI! The plane flying overhead was EXACTLY like the one in X-Plane, right down to the red wingtips and big “PROTEZIONE CIVILE” on the tail! With the airplane overhead being an EXACT REPLICA of what is in the sim! (or is it the other way around?) and the mountains rising up to our left with the smoke pouring from the fire, it was EXACTLY like X-Plane, only lots bigger! It was like being a little ant inside of X-Plane!
The CL-415 banked and disappeared around a peak, though, so we could not see it drop it’s water… DUH-OH! I screamed to Sergio that we should get off the highway and find a smaller road to get us to the top of the mountain to see the actual water-drops in progress. Everyone in the car grumbled, but I insisted, so off we went at the next exit and up through the winding mountain roads off of the highway. We sped through villages where the road was only one lane wide, for traffic in BOTH directions (!) so that when we would almost run into someone one of us would have to back up. We sped past a huge old railroad bridge spanning a deep valley. We sped around winding roads up through the forest until we finally reached the highest point the road would go… but the mountain still towered above us a few hundred feet or so so we could not see the action on the other side, where the fires were! No matter: the air was warm but very dry, so out we went and I ran up the mountain away from the minivan, leaving Sergio and Lori to wait in the van, and Ben to follow more slowly behind me as I sprinted up some sort of access trail that was there for phone line access or something like that, not hiking I think. A quarter mile later and 200 feet higher I emerged at a clearing on the peak… the view was PERFECT! I was on top of a mountain, with a valley and more mountains spread out before me. The mountain to the North (about a half a mile) had a number of fires burning on it, casting out the white smoke. It was like a stage that was laid out, with my position being the perfect viewing location.
Sure enough, within a few minutes, I heard the approaching drone of the turboprop engines and props from the direction of the Ocean… the Bombardier was approaching me, about 1000 feet above me, and now descending right towards me! I had a perfect front-view of the craft as it dive-bombed me, dropping into a traffic pattern over the fire that had me as the aiming-point for the end of the downwind leg. The Bombardier passed about 100 feet over me, the ailerons moving visibly as the pilot worked the controls, the “9” marking on the wing indicating that this is the 9th plane in their fleet (Cristiano marked his plane #19 in X-Plane, but that was the only difference I could see). After passing directly overhead, the pilot dropped down in a steeply-descending left turn and passed right over the fire (maybe 100 feet), jettisoning has 13,500 pounds of water in about 2 seconds. The water was basically a white spray, with “globs” of it leading the way, trailing spray behind it, like a few dozen comets had just been released from within the plane. After the steep 30 degree descent and release, the plane pulled up hard and headed back to he Ocean for more water… he had about a 10-minute cycle time, I’d say, and I watched as he worked maybe 2 approaches. Then, on the third, he came in at a different angle to bracket the fire at a different angle… this resulted in his heading straight at me as he approached the fire on his FINAL approach, and climbig up to level with my little mountain-peak after he had dropped his water. Since the mountain slope was maybe 45 degrees, he passed only about a 100 yards to my left, at EXACTLY my altitude, still having enough air underneath him thanks to the steep slope of the mountain. As he passed right beside me I could look right into the cockpit window, but the glare from the sun kept me from making out the pilot. I gave him a huge grin and a big thumbs-up though, which I am sure he enjoyed. Soon, he had surrounded the fire with wet areas of grass, and did not come back, even though the fire was still burning! I waited, and eventually the fires died out of their own accord… the pilot had not put out the fires, but simply SURROUNDED them with water… and then went along on to the next mission, leaving the fires still burning, but knowing they would consume themselves soon since they were surrounded! Obviously, he was right.