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"Hey, Kelly, we got one more run before nightfall!"
Kelly Trayhern was just climbing out of her Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter at the Cottonwood airport when Joe, her mechanic, came running across the tarmac toward her.
"We've made nine drops today," she protested, jumping to the ground and glaring at Joe. She shouldn't be mad. It wasn't his fault. As she glanced over her shoulder toward the north, and Sedona, she saw plumes of grayish-black smoke darkening the Arizona sky. The fire, which had started in Brin's Mesa only a quarter of a mile from the well-known tourist enclave, had been her focus for the past two days. Her job didn't have set hours, but even she needed some rest. The fire had other ideas.
With a shrug of his shoulders, Joe said, "We just got the call from the Forest Service director. They have a hot spot blowing up on them because of the change of wind direction. It's heading down toward Sedona. A lot of homes will burn if they don't stop it. They're evacuating as we speak." He searched her face. "Want me to fill the tanker?"
Kelly winced. "Yeah, go for it. I'm hitting the head."
There were several recreational vehicles within the roped-off area where her crew operated. Even with the obvious challenges, Kelly took pride in her work for Bates International, a well-known fire suppression company. Preparation and readiness were crucial. She didn't have much time, so she picked up her pace, trotting toward the blue-and-white RV. First, go to the bathroom, then glug down a pint of water. She had a few minutes to relax while Joe and her other mechanic, Bob, put twenty-six hundred gallons of water into the tank directly behind the cockpit of the buglike helicopter.
Fighting fatigue, Kelly opened the door and quickly ran up the carpeted steps. No one was in the RV, which was reserved for her and her copilot, YoYo. The mechanics had a second RV. They had been flying dawn to dusk. Nine flights was a lot. It took about forty minutes to turn a Skycrane mission around and get back to the fire to dump another batch of water.
After finishing in the head, Kelly walked out into the kitchen area, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a small bottle of cold water. Twisting off the cap, she drank deeply. After wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she sat down to examine a group of topographical maps of the Brin's Fire area. Frowning, she searched for the location of this last-minute drop.
"Hey," YoYo called as he opened the door, "Frank, our Forest Service advisor, just said we are going into very dangerous territory."
Her copilot, a twenty-eight-year-old from Day-tona, Florida, leaped into the RV, grinning as he sat down across from her. YoYo was married and had two kids. He'd come out of the U.S. Army to join the fire service, after flying Apache helicopters over in Afghanistan. She and YoYo were a team and worked well together.
"Show me," Kelly said, taking another sip of water.
YoYo turned the map around and punched his index finger at a spot with a lot of contour lines. "Right here. A hotshot crew in there will get trapped if we can't drop a suppression load on top of them. It's their only escape."
"Damn," Kelly muttered, studying the steep ascent of the canyon walls in the area. "That's tough flying even under good conditions."
"I know," YoYo murmured worriedly. He stood up, grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and sat back down. Giving her a searching look, he asked, "You okay? You're looking real tired. Got dark circles under your eyes."
Kelly shrugged it off. "Nothing I can't handle."
"You didn't sleep well last night."
With a twist of her mouth, Kelly gave him a chagrined look. "When do I ever sleep well, YoYo?"
"Yeah, not since Afghanistan," he said sympathetically.
"I'll be okay," she told him gruffly. YoYo knew what combat duty was like. While flying the Apache in that country he'd gotten into plenty of scrapes. She had flown CH-47s there for the Marine Corps. That was two years ago, and still at night her dreams were filled with the reason why she'd left the military for the civilian world.
Lifting her hands, Kelly made sure her hair was still caught up in a ponytail. She had to wear a helmet and her shoulder-length red locks sometimes got in the way. Tugging on the rubber band, she anchored them firmly against her neck and down the back of her dark green flight suit.
"You want me to fly this load and you play copilot?" YoYo asked.
It wasn't unusual for them to switch off every other load. YoYo, whose real name was Cody Stark, had been in fire suppression for a year and was a damn good helicopter pilot. And she trusted him with her life. He was steady and reliable, unlike most of the men in her life. "No I'll take it."
Still concerned, he glanced out the window of the RV. "Looks like Joe is getting the water pumped into our helo. He's got the tanker up alongside it now."
Kelly smiled and nodded. "He'll get us out of here as fast as he can. They know the drill." She studied the sky, which was turning a muddy red color from sunset. Normally, they never flew in half-light conditions because their helo wasn't equipped with radar. After dropping nine loads, everyone in the crew was dog tired, Kelly knew. All she wanted to do was go to her motel, fill the large bathtub with hot water and sink into it, shaking off the nerve-racking tension that inhabited her.
She didn't want to acknowledge that tonight she'd take a sleeping pill; otherwise, she'd never get to sleep. Flying the Skycrane into steep, rugged canyons where the winds were quixotic at the best of times, not to mention during a violent forest fire, she had to be alert, her hands steady. After two nights of nightmares, she was feeling raw internally. Why wouldn't the memories of those two days in Afghanistan go away? Why the hell wouldn't they leave her alone?
Kelly had her answer: the ten-man Special Forces team she'd ferried into a hot spot. The engine of her helo had been shot out by Taliban, and she'd made a crash landing on the side of a barren mountain. She and her copilot had ended up grabbing rifles to fight off wave after wave of the enemy, who were determined to kill them all.
Rubbing her eyes, Kelly sat back and tried to shake off the memories, but it didn't work. They were there, always there. When her group had finally been rescued, she and two Special Forces men were the only ones left alive. Before another CH-47 had picked them up, and two other Special Forces teams arrived, Kelly had thought she was going to die, like everyone around her. But she had lived.
Pushing strands of hair off her brow, she frowned. So they'd awarded her and the other two men silver stars. So what? She was just glad to have survived.
Because of her hand wound, the military wouldn't let her fly anymore. They'd cited nerve damage. Angered, she had left the Marine Corps, but hungered for more service missions. She found them in fighting forest fires across North America in her Skycrane helicopter. Bates International had given her a flight test, and were not worried about the minimal nerve damage in her left hand. They felt, rightly, that she could fly for them. It had been a marriage made in heaven for Kelly, and she'd more than proved they could count on her. She had a spotless flight record.
As she flexed her left hand, the one that had taken a bullet from the Taliban, she felt it cramping up on her. That wasn't unusual at this time of day, after twelve hours of flying in rugged mountain conditions. She eased the cramp by running her fingers across her left palm. Glancing up, she noticed YoYo studying her, his dark brown eyes filled with worry.
"Just a cramp. Nothing much, so stop giving me that moon-eyed look," she growled.
"I can take this last load, Kelly."
With a snort and a twisted grin, she said, "You didn't sleep well last night, either. I heard you screaming through the walls of the motel." They had rooms right next to one another.
YoYo forced a laugh. "Oh, and never mind it was your screams that woke me up around 3:00 a.m. That's the pot calling the kettle black."
Kelly felt very close to her copilot. He'd been fired at and shot down in Afghanistan, as she had. There was an unspoken camaraderie between them because they'd been in the military, experienced the worst of combatand survived. They were protective of one another and their secrets created by war.
"Yeah," she groused good-naturedly, "you're right." Looking out, she noted, "Joe's giving us the high sign. Come on, pardner. One more drop and then we can haul our sorry asses back to the motel."
With a groan, YoYo stood up and rubbed his jaw, covered now by a five o'clock shadow. "Yeah. I dunno about you, but I'm taking a sleeping pill tonight. I can't keep this up, and this Brin's Mesa Fire is gonna go on for a few more days."
"I agree." Kelly opened the door and stepped down onto the tarmac. Joe was driving the water tanker away from the ungainly, ugly Skycrane. It was painted a bright red-orange to stand out for Forest Service spotters below, calling in directions for where they should drop the water. The second mechanic, Bob Johnson, did a quick walk-around check of the Skycrane. The U.S. Forest Service man who regularly came on their flights, Paul Warfield, had already climbed into the cockpit and settled into the jump seat at the back.
As she glanced around, Kelly grew worried. The wind was blowing hard one minute, changing direction the next. This made flying dangerous, especially in an unforgiving canyon with steep, jagged walls. There was no room to maneuver, no room to make a mistake. This drop would be a challenge, but someone had to do the job. Giving Bob, who was in his forties, a nod of thanks, Kelly hoisted herself up to the rear of the Plexiglas bubble and eased through the narrow cockpit door.
"Ready for one last drop?" Paul asked as she slid by him.
"No choice," Kelly answered. The U.S. Forest Service advisor would be in touch with the ground spotter, helping to coordinate the drop. It was one more element of safety in the perilous world of air tanker crews who fought wildfires. Tonight, they were going to need Paul's eyes and ears.
"I know," he muttered, strapping in. "Where we're going, Kelly, is very dangerous. I've been in radio contact with the spotter. She says winds are erratic in the mesa."
Settling into her seat, Kelly nodded. She picked up her white helmet and put it on. After tightening the strap beneath her chin, she pulled the radio microphone into place, less than an inch from her lips, and flipped on the switch. This would keep her in contact with Paul throughout the noisy trip.
"Nothing new there, Paul. All drops are dangerous in this fire."
As YoYo came in and shut the rear door, Paul spread the topo map across his lap. "I wish we didn't have to drop this load," he said to no one in particular, studying the contours with drawn brows. He reminded Kelly of a lean wolf with his sharp features and gray-black hair.
YoYo began running down the preflight list with Kelly. They worked together seamlessly, going through the necessary checks on the helo. In no time, they were ready to get the Skycrane airborne. Kelly turned to make sure Paul had his helmet on, and YoYo gave her a thumbs-up. They were ready to go.
The engine growled to life. Within moments, Kelly felt the familiar vibration as the rear rotor on the tail spun in synchronization with the main blades.
The Skycrane always reminded her of a big, unwieldy praying mantis. The front was box-shaped, with rounded Plexiglas windows. The water was carried in a tank right behind them, with the rest of the bird thin and long. Though ungainly looking, the Sikorsky could drop the most water of any helicopter, which made a life-and-death difference to the crews fighting below. Because of this, Kelly loved the homely helicopter more than any other.
As she watched YoYo flip switches and check instruments, reaching with knowing ease around his station, her stomach tightened. Usually, she wasn't frightened like this. Maybe it was the lack of sleep for the past two nights, or that so many drops today had frayed her already taut nerves. Grimacing, she kept her hands firmly around the cyclic and collective, which controlled the chopper's flight. Moving the rudders, she coaxed the trundling, heavily loaded craft toward the center of the tarmac as YoYo called the tower for permission to take off. Kelly heard the conversations, thanks to the speakers in her helmet, but her focus was now on flying.
Within a few minutes, they were lifting off from the small regional airport for the tenth time that day. The helo shook as it gained altitude. They continued upward steadily, climbing to two thousand feet. In the distance, about eight miles to the north, thick plumes of roiling dark smoke snaked upward in columns against the fading red of sunset. Kelly didn't like it.
A hotshot crew was trapped, the fire closing in from all sides, she reminded herself. If they could dump a load of water in just the right place, it would create a safety corridor for the crew to escape. Ten lives were in jeopardy. Just as they had been in the Tora Bora cave region of the White Mountains of Afghanistan. This time, it wasn't the Taliban coming to kill these courageous fighters, it was fire. No less a threat, Kelly thought, as she felt the comforting vibration of the Skycrane reverberating through her.