Pilot and author, Robert Grant, paid tribute to the essential, but largely unknown, work of aerial detection pilots. This is an excerpt from the article, published in 1990.
One unique group rarely receives recognition for its role in preventing the loss of Ontario’s natural resources. Every warm day, aerial detection pilots of Bearskin Air leave airports in Geraldton or Thunder Bay in small twin-engined airplanes. Alone, they patrol the forests searching for ‘smokes’ which could mark the beginning of acre-eating holocausts if firefighters do not reach them quickly.
…OMNR [Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources] does not provide observers to accompany the pilots. However…… they can be called in as extra pairs of eyes during peak fire periods. Map reading and precise fire reporting become absolutely necessary and mistakes are not permitted. Topography, distance from water, nearest landable lake, fire size, wind direction, etc., are important factors considered on patrols.
Patrol airplanes begin with full fuel and little else on board except the pilot and a thick packet of topographical maps. Passengers rarely ride and if they do, few last more than one trip because of ‘vomitus marinus,’ ie airsickness. To the uninitiated, Northern Ontario’s landscape becomes monotonous as it rolls by hour after hour. [Pilots] Walker and Clark, however, appreciate the solitude.
Detection flights take place at 2000 to 5000 feet altitudes depending on restrictions to visibility and turbulence. Most last slightly over two hours and no landings are made. Frequently, fires, hundreds of miles away, cause lowered ceilings in drifting smoke. Map reading skills must be sharp.
When Clark or Walker spot suspicious ‘traffic,’ they immediately use a plastic grid overlay to plot its location. Once they transmit information to fire facilities in Thunder Bay, they sometimes descend to low level to study the terrain closely. Forest cover or lack of roads dictate the type of fire fighting equipment dispatched. Wrong choices can be costly.
Sometimes, Bearskin pilots discover more than one smoke. At season’s peak, extra flights are not unusual. At the end of a full work day, pilots with bloodshot eyes welcome the dark so they can keep their feet firmly on the ground until morning. Aerial detection translates to hard work in turbulence, hot days and high winds.
Aerial detection stands out as one of the most important tasks entrusted to Northern Ontario’s aviation industry. Unnoticed above the forests, Clark, Walker and other detection pilots across the province rarely receive media attention. They should, for without them, our natural resources could be in deadly peril.