A Visit to the Helibase

Nothing like starting the day with some heavy metal.

When my friend Tristan posted a Facebook update mentioning that he was working fires out of a helibase in Leavenworth, it was all I needed to plan a play day up in the mountains. I told him I’d come at 7:30, before he started work, for a brief visit. Then I picked out a hiking destination nearby, texted a few friends, and made a hiking date.

Alyse and I pulled into the field at 7:30 sharp on Sunday morning. I saw Tristan’s helicopter, a bright yellow Croman Sikorsky S-61, parked in the field with some other very heavy metal. There were no cars near it.

Malcolm & Friends
Malcolm and friends at the Leavenworth, WA helibase.

I drove up to the base trailer and got out, leaving the Jeep’s engine running.

“I’m looking for Tristan,” I told a woman there, including his last name in my comment. “He flies the yellow one.”

“Oh, yeah, Tristan. He’s not here yet.”

A man nearby took interest. “You can’t be on my deck,” he said.

I assumed he meant flight deck. He was being kind but firm. “I’m a helicopter pilot,” I said. “I just want to say hello to my friend Tristan. I haven’t seen him in two years.”

“I really can’t have you on my deck when it’s active,” he said, softening a bit. “You can drive over there and wait for him, but you need to be out when we start flying.”

I thanked him and we headed over, down a path in the grass field with a Do Not Enter sign prominently displayed. I parked by a portable toilet and we got out, leaving Penny behind in the Jeep. I texted Tristan. A moment later, he called me to tell me he was one minute out.

S-61 Outfitted for Firefighting
The Sikorsky S-61 my friend Tristan is flying on a firefighting job in Washington. Note the tandem tanker truck his company uses to haul around jet fuel.

He drove up as I was taking my camera out of my day pack. We shared a big hug, I introduced him to Alyse, and he introduced me to the helicopter’s captain, Sean. We chatted for a few minutes about my old Ducati 900 SS CR, which he’d bought from me in the spring of 2013 at a smoking good price. He’d stripped it down and sold off lots of the parts, in the process of turning it into a real cafe racer.

He gave us a tour of the helicopter that included a walk inside, which had been stripped bare to keep the ship light. It smelled of oil and grease and JetA. The cockpit instrumentation was remarkably simple. There were N-numbers scribbled on a Plexiglas window on Tristan’s side with a dry erase marker.

We climbed down and walked around the side. Tristan told us how it flew — more squirrelly than an R22, he said — and mentioned a few interesting flight and maintenance characteristics. Sean went for the morning briefing and told Tristan he could stay behind. The rest of the crew started working on the preflight, pulling off the blade tie-downs and adding hydraulic fluid to a port near the rotor hub. Tristan showed us the two buckets they use — not at the same time, of course — and described how they dip in a small creek near the fire.

Here’s another view of Tristan’s ship. Note the Bambi bucket on the ground in front of it.

We talked about his job as the second in command and the things he’s responsible for doing. We talked about what it’s like to fly fires in his position. We talked about the work hours and the challenges and the parts that make it easy and hard. Tristan had lots to say. Like me, he always does.

Note to Non-Pilots:

A fire helibase can be a very dangerous place to visit — which is why nonessential personnel are normally not allowed on “the deck.” The base commander very kindly allowed me a short visit with my friend, but don’t expect him to do the same for you.

Fortunately, this helibase has a nice observer area where you can come visit and watch the helicopters come and go. If you come, obey all signage and the instructions of base personnel and remain within the civilian area.

After about 20 minutes, I figured I’d taken up enough of his time. Besides, the sun was climbing ever higher into the hazy, smoke-filled sky and I was anxious to get down into the Icicle River Gorge where the air would be cleaner and the only sound would be water rushing over rocks. So we said our goodbyes, shared another big hug, and left.

Later, after the hike, we drove past the helibase again. Although the Sky-Crane and Army Chinook were there, Tristan’s ride wasn’t. I didn’t stop.

I’d still like to fly some heavy metal someday. I’d like to see what it’s like to have all that helicopter behind me up in the air. And while I’m not sure I’d be a quick study learning to sling a bucket under a long line, I’m pretty sure I’d catch on and do a decent job. But I doubt that any of that is in my future. Instead, I’ll watch my pilot friends move through utility pilot careers and wonder what it’s really like to be in their shoes.

Or seat.

Good luck, Tristan! Fly safe!

What do you think?