KENAI — There’s a distinctive “whub, whub, whub” sound that signals the approach of a Bell helicopter. Whether the pilot is speeding at more than 120 miles an hour, or slowed and hovering six feet off the ground, it’s hard to mistake the sound.
“Anybody that was in Vietnam or anybody that was in a war knows that sound and usually it’s somebody coming to help them, so it’s a neat feeling,” said Ken Carlton, contract helicopter pilot for the Division of Forestry in Soldotna.
The Bell, more commonly known as a Huey, is parked in front of the Division of Forestry office in Soldotna where Carlton spends his summer — or fire season in Alaska, from April-August 31 — covering the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak as a helicopter pilot who flies firefighters and their equipment into remote areas that cannot be reached by traditional firefighting equipment.
He was sorely needed this summer which saw a spike in the fire activity in the area.
By mid-August, Forestry has responded to 76 wildland fires.
That’s the most since the late 1990s, said Howie Kent, fire management officer.
“It’s directly attributable to the weather,” he said. “Warm, dry weather.”
Carlton and five other pilots — stationed in McGrath, Galena, Fairbanks, Delta and Tok — are under contract with the Fresno, Calif.-based Rogers Helicopters Inc.
The 65-year-old Utah resident, calls himself a “high tech migrant worker.”
He’s quick with his hands, talks without taking a breath, pronounces it “Warshington” and is incredibly nimble with a rotary-wing aircraft.
On a recent fire in Kenai, near the airport, Carlton could be seen dropping his speed to a crawl and hovering less than 10 feet above the airport’s float plane lake to fill a bucket before taking off in an explosion of sound and movement and rushing toward the tree-line to drop the load of water.
Each ten-second trip started with a splash and ended with a cascade of water falling on the tree-line, as Carlton worked to control a fire so Kenai Firefighters and Forestry employees could move in and put it out.
Firefighters on scene said they had never seen someone fly so quickly, although Carlton was quick to shy away from the accolade.
“Most of the fire fighting helicopter pilots, by the time they get to this job, are quite experienced and that’s pretty much the norm,” he said. “In the nation, there’s probably, maybe 50 to 100 guys that can do that.”
By “that,” Carlton means, flying the iconic civilian Bell 212 model — or Tango Hotel as she is called at the Forest Services offices — of the Huey.
It’s an aircraft he has been flying since 1968, after he was drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam.
The adrenaline rush between fighting in a war and fighting a fire is similar, with one subtly important difference.
“I’m not getting shot at,” he said. “That’s the number one difference, but a lot of the same kind of things and that’s why I love it so much. You have a sense of a beginning and a middle and an end and a sense of accomplishment. You’re working as a team the whole team has to function closely.”
The team dynamic with fire fighting is something Carlton says keeps him in the business.
“All of that is very worthwhile, to take a group of diverse people, put them together as a team and then actually accomplish something like put out the fire.”
He is careful to point out that he is a pilot, not a firefighter.
“I have a guy in the front seat with me, or a gal, that’s sitting right next to me, who is an experienced firefighter and they make those kinds of calls. I can give them suggestions because I have seen a lot, but I’m not running the show,” he said. “What we’ll do is recon the fire and then we’ll put the firefighters on the fire, land them and they’ll hook up the bucket and we’ll support them. It all revolves around the firefighters fighting the fire. I can’t put it out by myself.”