Page 28 - Georgia Forestry - Issue 4 - Fall 2019
P. 28

 The “Top Guns” of GFC’s Air Operations in front of a Thrush 510G.
The GFC’s Air Operations unit was estab- lished in 1949. Chatham came aboard 13 years ago and became chief in 2012. In addition to being a licensed commercial pilot for fixed wings and helicopters, he is a licensed aircraft mechanic, flew for corporate entities and the Georgia Department of Transportation, and teaches students how to fly.
Chatham is especially proud of his team’s capabilities and the fleet they utilize, which currently consists of one Bell 407 helicopter, 16 Cessna, one Super Decathlon and two Thrush 510G 182 fixed-wing aircraft. The Thrushes are Single-Engine Air Tankers (SEATs) that were added to the fleet last year through a welcomed initiative by the Georgia legislature. These aircraft were chosen after a careful assessment of their advantages for Georgia’s needs. Chatham said they were selected for a number of
In addition to Air Ops’ fire watch duties, the group is tasked with assisting on forest management assignments. These include surveys for insect and disease damage, which can destroy more timberland than wildfire; post-tornado and natural disaster damage; and general aerial assessments of timber and forest health. Aircraft also fly over Georgia’s watersheds and report any water-quality intrusions that may negatively impact nearby resources. Additionally, aircraft may be dispatched to assist other agencies with their missions, transport cargo or passengers, provide law enforcement support or fulfill the needs of aerial photographers.
Their Wings
 Supervisor Clay Chatham, “When there’s potential for fire, we’re flying.”
Chatham said patrol pilots cover all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Like birds of prey, they’re continuously scanning.
“Aircraft fly, looking for smoke. When spotted, they fly over it to determine if it’s a wildfire or control burn. If there don’t appear to be any fire breaks or containment, the fire is called in to our dispatch center,” from which ground crews can be sent to investigate. With the touch of a cockpit button, a loca- tion signal is sent to dispatch, which uses GPS to communicate details to the nearest ground resource.
Pilots facilitate the early detection and suppression of wildfires, creating a tactical advantage to firefighters on the ground by providing real-time informa- tion. This can decrease the average size of fires by accelerating the response time of firefighters.
“We help them assess and evaluate equipment needs,” said Chatham. “From the air, we can help them find the fire by tracking the location and giving them turn-by-turn directions.” That
GFC’s skilled pilots fly at low altitudes to disperse fire retardant on wildfires.
helps get resources to fires as quickly as possible. Importantly, air surveillance, or the “overwatch mission,” enhances safety on the ground.
Chatham said the pilots’ high view- point provides potential life-saving intelligence, known in the wildland fire- fighting community as LCES:
L - Lookouts — for all.
C - Communications — with dispatchers
and incident commanders.
E - Escape routes — for firefighters
and heavy equipment.
S - Safety zones — for all resources.

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