Fire Flight

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Awesome beauty in Armageddon


The effort to pedal to the top of Mt. St. Helena two days in a row paid big dividends on Sunday, Sept 5th . The Geyser fire had been burning for thirty six hours and was rampaging along the Maacama mountain range just north of Mt. St. Helena. Saturday offered some ripe picking’s for photos. Austin and I watched riveted by the fury and immensity of the fires that raged below. At 4000 feet we had balcony seats for the action fifteen hundred feet below us. The fire was about five miles away.

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Austin watches flames leaping into the sky

Late Sunday afternoon, Cirrus, Austin and I made the trek back up to the north peak. The wind had shifted 180 degrees from the previous day. This was a blessing. Much of the fire burned back on itself and out. However there was still significant activity in many of the rugged valleys and hills. As we pedaled up the five miles of dirt road to the summit, we noticed much aircraft activity. We were on the backside of the action for most of the climb. There was not a great deal of daylight left. We knew the air operations cease around sunset. When we finally reached the peak we immediately noticed two S-2’s, a Sikorsky Skycrane and a Huey. Within minutes of being at the peak we noticed a P-3 smoking straight towards us from reloading at Santa Rosa, about seven miles away and four thousand feet below. The sight of watching that massive machine motoring hard towards us was thrilling. He flew past at a reasonable distance, but we could see that he saw us. He headed north for one of many circuits around the conflagration.

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P-3 Orion thunders overhead

Meanwhile the P-3’s were orbiting the scene, each time coming closer until Bob Valette, the pilot of 86 saw us. Each time he had flown overhead. I had hoped for a pass in front of us to capture the ruggedly beautiful workhorse in front of the phenomenally awesome sunset. A sunset enhanced by the carnage occurring in some of our favorite mountain biking areas. On his last pass we saw him approaching from the distance. We started to hear the whine of the turbines. He stayed lower this time. For what seemed like one of those moments frozen in time, those turbines spun past us with the fury and power of a mighty celestial warrior. We had no option in that moment but to cheer at the top of our lungs, both hands up, acknowledging this fantastic sight and experience. The noise of the turbines at close range, the amazing sky-scape in the background and the beauty of modern aviation on a truly heroic mission lit the fires of our imagination. A mission so well served by these ex-military aircraft.

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S-2 circles the inferno

As I look back on my exposure to aviation, a few moments stand in stark contrast to the thousands of normal, routine hours of flight. Perhaps the first peak experience came through the pesky nature of my big brother at the time, who was an Air Guard pilot and took every chance to break the rules and strafe his farm. It was rare that he was on a mission that allowed any departure from the plan, but one day I was on his farm, located on a ridge top. I heard a jet and knew instinctively it was him. I couldn’t see the fighter in the Pennsylvania haze, but I heard him turning to approach the farm. Then he emerged from the soup in a steep back and smoking’. I watched him through a hundred degrees of turn, then rolled level in a shallow descent towards his rural airstrip. One hundred yards away, he lit the burner. The resulting thundering roar blow over me like an ocean wave, smelling of kerosene. Another incident a couple of weeks ago caught me off guard. My friend Mark and I went to the Sonoma County Air Show. I been to lots of air shows. Part of me says: “Boring.” There was the usual aerobatic stuff that gives one a stiff neck, lots of displays and some pretty cool war birds. The P-51 is a perennial favorite. It’s swift, sweet sound and appealing curves make it impossible to ignore. I’ve seen many, but I’ve never seen one in formation with an F-15. The sight of these magnificent machines representing the best of aviation technology 50 years apart was so impressive and moving, it froze me in my tracks. The F-15 is a huge airplane. It dwarfed it’s little, distant cousin from the era of W.W.II.

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Eric, Austin and Cirrus, special edition ride

It was a lucky day for the bikin’ fools. Any ride to the top of St. Helena is special. The drama of the fire added to the elixir of adventure. The aircraft underscored this unique day in our pedaling lives. We’ll return to the routine, sometimes boring activity knowing that someday in the future another special treat will come our way.