Conair pilot John Grech at the controls of the twin-engine bird-dog plane he flies to help guide the aircraft that are attacking wildfires. Mark Brett/Western News

Orchestrating the mid-air fire attack

Bird-dog pilots critical in fire-attack sequence

As a bird-dog pilot John Grech’s role in helping orchestrate the mid-air ballet of the aerial fire attack teams is a critical component of success but more importantly, safety.

He, along with the B.C. Wildfire Service air attack officer beside him work as the command and control plane for the multi-aircraft battle of wildfires in B.C.

“I have to assess all the hazards— they’re (airtankers) big, they’re heavy and they have a full load of retardant, so there has to be a very precise way to get them in and, just as important, I have to assess how do I get them out of there, what if they lose an engine? Where would they go? How would they be able to climb out of this mountainous terrain without killing themselves?” said Grech, who is in his first year on the job with Conair Aerial Firefighting. “But there is still an element of danger.We can’t move the mountains, but I’ve flown in many different elements of aviation in my career, but I’ve found this to be the most challenging and the most rewarding.”

That experience includes military and similar bird-dog work in Ontario and operating his own air service in Malta.

At the controls of the powerful, twin-engine plane, Grech must first fly the route the tankers will take to drop the retardant, as well, he will sometimes lead them in through the smoke or follow as the need dictates.

“We may have five tankers coming in and we have to provide air traffic control for them, find them different altitudes,” said Grech. “I have to manage the air space to make sure there is no conflict or to cause an air-to-air collision. It’s being an air traffic controller while you’re flying the airplane.

“It’s a lot of pressure, lots of adrenaline, but it’s just part of the job and I love it.”

Veteran Conair pilot Grahame Wilson, who now flies the airtankers spent five years as a bird-dog pilot himself and knows how critical having someone like Grech doing the job is.

“I am looking out at what’s going on but I need his guidance to point out things that I might not see,” he said. “We are a two-pilot airplane and on the fire my attention is mostly outside, watching what the bird-dog is doing and listening and understanding what he’s telling me.”

Just Posted

IRM reports small sulphuric acid leak at Waneta reload

IRM states a small volume of less than one cup and three dime-sized drips were leaked from carrier

New farmers in Columbia Basin supported by land matching program

New and young farmers in the Basin are receiving support and services from a dedicated land matcher

Columbia Basin Trust offering business accelerator program

Trust seeking motivated companies for customized support and mentorship program

Trail military exercises provide crucial training

Exercise Sapper Crucible: ‘The nuts and bolts of what a soldier is’

VIDEO: SPCA ushers in new era with Castlegar facility

$2.69-million project had ribbon cutting on Friday

Environment Canada confirms Ottawa area hit by two tornadoes Friday

At one point more than 200,000 hydro customers were blacked out

Trump drains oxygen from Trudeau foreign policy with PM, Freeland bound for UN

A lot has changed since the Liberals came to power in Canada in 2015

B.C. man fined $15,000, barred from trading securities for fraud

Larry Keith Davis used money from an investor to pay personal bills

Family, friends of B.C murder victim want killer sent back to max security facility

Group wants convicted murderer Walter Ramsay sent back to a maximum security facility

B.C. VIEWS: Looking under the hood of ICBC’s war on crashes

Is our accident rate really soaring, or is it inefficiency?

B.C. tent city residents have three weeks to clear out: Supreme Court

Fire risk, criminal activity in neighbourhood cited as reasons for judgment

Coaches, players on Alberta university rugby team buckle up for the Broncos

16 people died when Humboldt Broncos bus collided with a semi-truck in rural Saskatchewan

The Vatican ‘owes God an apology,’ activist says in letter to Pope Francis

Letter came after a report on sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children in six Pennsylvania dioceses

Most Read