Nickerson crop duster aided Highlands fire battle

Photo by Travis Morisse
Photo by Travis Morisse

By John Green
Hutchinson News – March 13, 2017


Nickerson crop duster Bill Garrison allowed that his activities this week “were a little more involved than my normal line of work,” a line of work itself, he confesses, “most people think is crazy.”


The pilot of nearly 40 years, and crop duster for 24, used his company plane to help battle the Highlands wildfire, dumping more than 20,000 gallons of water on the blaze, 500 gallons at time.


In all, Garrison, owner of Ag Air Service, flew his bright yellow single-engine Air Tractor 301 in the operation for more than 11 hours, at times in synch with a pair of military Black Hawk helicopters, and others after the choppers were grounded by flying time limits or darkness.


“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Garrison, 56, of the challenge. “It’s all very calculated.”


Having assisted in the Burrton area wildfire last year and a fire at the Hutchinson Municipal Airport several years ago, Garrison said he contacted Nickerson Fire Chief Bobbie White Sunday afternoon to see if he could assist.


“He told me ‘come on, bring what you have,’” Garrison said. “That’s how I got involved.”


He flew the single-seat low-wing monoplane about five hours on Sunday, dropping 16 loads of water until it became too dark and it was difficult to see powerlines he was swooping over.


“On Monday the Black Hawks showed up, so I sat on the ground all day until the Black Hawks had run out of duty time for the flight crews,” Garrison said. “Then, when it flared up again, they called me to start dumping water on it again.”


Because of the high winds he was forced to fly into – the same winds whipping the fire out of control – he had to fly as close to the ground as possible, or the wind would blow the water off the fire, he said.


“At times, I had fire above the aircraft,” Garrison said. “We were pushing the upper limits with the wind Monday night.”


Besides the gusting winds, fires create their own swirling drafts, making for a bumpy ride.


“It was very turbulent,” Garrison admitted.


Add to that, noted Hutchinson Airport Manager Pieter Miller, the difficulty of handling a plane when it suddenly loses its water weight virtually at once.


“I’m pretty sure when they’re crop dusting their not dumping all the chemical at one time,” Miller said. “Imagine your aircraft suddenly 1,500 pounds lighter. I imagine it’s pretty challenging.”


A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, so a 500 gallon run is 4,000 pounds, which is emptied in 8 to 10 seconds, Garrison said, causing the plane to want to climb.


The prior firefighting experience was helpful, Garrison said, “in learning how to tell what a fire is doing or where it’s going.”


He also learned “you don’t put out backfires (which firefighters light). That’s pretty significant.”


The first day he had no radio communication, so he had to fly over to see where firefighters were working. At times, he said, “I’d dive down over the truck and knock down the line of fire so they could get in with their trucks.”


“Another factor is staying out of the smoke until you line up on the fire line,” he said.


“I heard reports from the Rice County guys it was pretty effective in areas where they were,” Garrison said. “On Tuesday, when flying with the helicopters, the ground observers were saying it was pretty effective too.”


On Tuesday he was assigned to fly in unison with the Black Hawks, “to put out hotspots and make sure it didn’t get out of control if the wind switched again,” Garrison said.


Over 4½ hours, he said, he made another 21 water drops.


By then, he and a pair of volunteers, Gordon Cole of Wells Aircraft and Larry Bruzda, had set up a routine.


Bruzda, a retired fire chief of 32 years who knows “a little bit about fire hydrants,” Bruzda said, drove down from Salina and manned a hydrant on the airport grounds, while Cole would connect the hose to the tank on Garrison’s plane.


“It would take 3 minutes, 45 seconds to 4 minutes to put in 500 gallons,” Bruzda said.


The airport tower, watching the operation closely, would usually clear Garrison for takeoff as soon as he began to taxi, and authorize his landing when he was visibly inbound.


“The tower did a superb job,” Bruzda said. “Depending on how far he went from the airport, some turnarounds were as short as 8 minutes. Others might take up to 15 minutes. We got a lot of water dumped in short order.”


Garrison credited Wells Aircraft for keeping the plane fueled.


While his response to the fire was unique, Garrison doesn’t believe it should be.


“There were a lot of crop dusters who wanted to come, but they were not given the opportunity,” he said. “I think with proper training and support there’s a lot of crop dusters out there to provide the same type of service I did, and I believe we’d be effective. Other states have; it’s a resource that should be called on more often.”


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