How Do They Do It?

Southwest Area Crewmembers unload gear at the DNR McGrath Fire Base Ramp during this summer's fire season. (Photo by Mike McMillan – DNR)

by the Alaska Division of Forestry

A Closer Look At The Fixed-Wing Ramp and Fuelers in McGrath.

Fixed-wing aircraft is invaluable when firefighters mobilize and demobilize to and from incidents across Southwest Alaska. Helicopters pluck firefighters and their gear from improved helispots on remote fires, flying them to the nearest airstrip. Then they’re picked up by a single-prop Caravan — an eight-person passenger and cargo plane heavily utilized as logistical aircraft across Alaska.

At the height of fire season in mid-July, three Caravans were assigned to the DNR McGrath Fire Base to shuttle crews and equipment to and from assignments wherever helicopters were impractical. Caravans are also used as aerial reconnaissance and detection aircraft. Smokejumper planes including twin-prop Casas and Dorniers also join the fixed-wing fleet when the McGrath Fire Base supports smokejumper operational and paracargo re-supply missions.

Pilots depend upon ramp parking tenders and fuelers to keep them moving people and their gear safely across the state, to and from fire assignments. When a pilot contacts dispatch with their time estimated en route (ETE) to landing, the dispatcher radios the ramp parking tender by hand-held radio, giving important information about type of aircraft and identifying the plane’s “tail number.” If the pilot requests fuel, the dispatcher calls a fueler — an independent contractor — and relays the message.

Keeping the ramp free of unnecessary personnel is just one important duty of the ramp manager and parking tenders. When a plane taxis toward the ramp, parking tenders use orange batons to help pilots park their planes in the right place. This position requires a training task book to be fully qualified. The McGrath Fire Base ramp currently has two parking tenders who report to Ramp Manager Camille Magnuson. Ron Chisholm and Magnuson are emergency firefighters (EFF) from McGrath, and Bryon Thompson came from Utah to support the operation.

Once the pilot shuts down the engine(s) and the plane’s propellor(s) come to a stop, the fueler parks the 2,500-gallon fuel truck near the front of the aircraft. Static charges build up in a plane’s fuselage during flight, so the fueler connects a thin steel cable stretching from the fuel truck battery to the cable spool to a hard point on the plane’s wing. This initial connection between the plane and fuel truck — away from any open fuel source — serves as a “grounding” before the hose’s metal fuel nozzle touches the plane’s open fuel port.

Contracted fueler Roberto Mejia says most pilots leave the job of refueling their planes to him. “But sometimes they help me out, and it’s better when the two of us work together.” On busy days, Mejia estimates they use about 1,500 to 1,700 gallons of Jet-A fuel to fill planes — and helicopters at helibase — each day.

Once the fueler disconnects the fuel hose, the plane can be loaded with cargo and boarded by passengers, but not before everything is weighed and manifested. This includes passenger names, weights, gear and equipment weights. The plane’s fuel load weight is input by the pilot, factoring the plane’s allowable or maximum weight capacity for safe flight. Air temperature also plays a role in this calculation — the hotter the air, the less density it has, allowing for less weight to be carried by the aircraft.

Magnuson and her crew say they enjoy their jobs. She especially likes meeting the many people who pass through the McGrath Fire Base Ramp. “I like hearing about where they are coming from, and where they’re going,” she said.