Mendyke is serving his 8th fire season with the DNRC as a helicopter pilot, but his interest in flying began earlier. He recalls reading the book God Is My CoPilot, by Robert Lee Scott Jr., which chronicles the author’s true journey to becoming a pilot. Mendyke later enlisted in the Navy with the intention of becoming a jet pilot. During his first cruise overseas, however, he got the opportunity to take a flight in a helicopter and forever changed his mind about the type of aircraft he was meant to fly. He liked the fact that he could land a helicopter anywhere and soar along the tops of the trees. Since the Army has the most helicopters, Mendyke switched over to flying with them. His first fire season was in 1994 while serving in the National Guard.
Mendyke’s main job with the DNRC is being part of a “helitack,” which refers to helicopter-delivered fire resources. It is a system of using helicopters and their crews to perform aerial firefighting duties, primarily on wildfires. He explained that their purpose is basically to go out and try to extinguish a fire as quickly as possible.
“We take on a small fire and try to keep it small,” said Mendyke.
Besides fighting fires, Mendyke said that he also does support work for the DNRC and other jobs as assigned by the state government. There are also ample amounts of training sessions that Mendyke is required to participate in annually. He explained that the training is “highly perishable” and the crew needs to be doing it constantly to remain proficient at it.
When Mendyke and his crew first get word of a fire, they first inspect the helicopter and make sure it is ready to go. They fill out some initial paperwork and also begin planning for the type of area and fire they are going to. Finally they load up with the coordinates of where to go and head out. Up to five crew members may be on board for the flight, including a pilot, helicopter manager and crew manager. Upon getting to the fire, the crew does an overall assessment of it. They evaluate what directions the fire is currently traveling, what type of area it’s burning in, the outside temperature and wind speed/direction. Having a good awareness of the environment is key to putting out the fire in the fastest, safest and most efficient way possible.
Mendyke admitted that every fire is different. They can range from a small, manageable grass fire to a roaring blaze with heavy flames reaching 100 feet into the air. On fires like the latter, “you can feel the heat right through the chopper,” said Mendyke.
When combating fires, Mendyke explained that it is almost always water the helicopter drops. At times, fire-retardant foam is added to the water. The bucket Mendyke uses to drop water from his helicopter can hold 324 gallons of water at a time. The height that the chopper flies at when dropping the water depends on the fire itself and the conditions surrounding it; however, Mendyke said that they usually fly between 45-50 feet above the ground.
One might wonder how the helicopter crew is able to see where they are going in heavy smoke conditions. Mendyke admitted “sometimes you just can’t see.” He said the important thing they always keep in mind though is to do what’s safe for the crew. Sometimes this means waiting for the wind or other conditions to change. Other times, it is simply out of their hands.
“Sometimes the fire wins and you don’t get to have your way,” said Mendyke.
When it comes to fighting fires, Mendyke said that calls are ultimately made by crews on the ground.
“We just support what the ground crew does,” he said, adding that, whether in the air or on the ground, “experience counts for a lot.”
He explained that it’s important to work with people with varied experiences. When it comes time to making a call between going into a situation that’s “unsettling” versus one that is dangerous, you want experienced people there to help with that decision. And Mendyke stresses that, without their support people, particularly the mechanics, there would be no helicopters to fly. He said it is usually the pilots who get all the recognition, but it’s the mechanics working on the choppers from November through June who really make his job possible.
But all the experience and assistance in the world can’t always outsmart Mother Nature.
“You can’t always do what you want to do on a fire,” said Mendyke. Sometimes a fire jumps a road or crosses over into an area they were trying to prevent. When that happens “you have to step back and let the fire win a battle,” he said. “You have to respect the fire.”
Mendyke and his crew can’t always win against the flames, but at the end of the day his job is still rewarding. For Mendyke, getting to help save a family’s house is motivation enough to keep him doing what he does. He recalls flying over houses where people are standing in their yard wielding a garden house against flames that are a mere 30 feet away.
When he gets to go in and save the day, “that’s just a great feeling,” he said.