Monday, October 03, 2011

Cirrus SR20 and the Bastrop fire

My friend Charlie has a Cirrus SR-20. It is very nice; very few hours on the airframe and is in lovely condition. So when he asked if I'd like to go for a flight in it, of course I jumped at the chance. Here is the aircraft, seen here at Georgetown:

We first flew about three or four days after the big fire in Bastrop got started. This is probably the biggest and most ferocious of the many wildfires there have been in Texas this summer. It is so dry here, everything is like a tinderbox, and it doesn't take much for fires to get going.

There was a TFR (temporary flight restriction) around the fire zone. Partly because there was so much smoke, you wouldn't have wanted to fly in there anyway, and partly to let the fire bomber aircraft get on with their work. We flew up from the south and there was just a wall of smoke. It was actually quite indistinct; hard to see where the horizon really started, but it was definitely there. Remember, the fire has already been burning for several days by this point.

We did fly over several isolated burnt patches of forest where smaller fires had broken out and been contained, although there were some parts still smouldering. Black scorched fields stopped at roads, with green on the other side of the road.

Not being able to see much, we turned away for Lockhart and flew around there a bit. Charlie had given me control about ten minutes into the flight, so I was able to really try out the Cirrus, which was great.

It has a side stick which was different to other planes I have flown. Takes a little getting used to, since your hand is at a natural tilt when you're flying straight and level. It's also a good idea to make sure your seat is in the right position, so your arm sits on the rest properly and you can reach the stick.

The aeroplane handles nicely; it will do what you ask of it, although it is a bit heavy on the controls. You have to ask it in a definite manner. It also loves to climb; one sniff of a thermal and it's going up. Let's just say that my altitude hold was not entirely pretty on that flight.

There's lots of glass in this aircraft. Charlie has two GPS modules that each feed into a big glass screen for navigation. He can switch between them as needed, so you can set one up for point A, have the autopilot take you there while setting the second GPS for point B, then you can switch over. Following the nice friendly pink line is kind of cheating though. I both look forward to and dread the day they try to teach me real navigation; I am so spoilt looking at GPS equipped panels!

We flew over a point that Charlie calls 'Purple Chicken Water'. This is some kind of chicken farm with a big reservoir next to it. Charlie looked up why the water is so pink-purple in colour and apparently it comes from something in chicken poo. Nice! Anyway, it's a good landmark from the air.

I practised some circles and turns before we headed back in to San Marcos. Charlie had me fly the whole approach and took back control only a couple of hundred feet from the runway. That was fun.

Roll on three weeks later, and Charlie invited me to fly again. Yay! By this time, the fire is mostly out and the TFR is lifted. So we could fly up to Bastrop at 3000ft and do some aerial rubbernecking of the fire site.

We flew to the start point of the fire, with the intention of working our way down the line. Here's the ignition point, in the picture below. They say it was caused by a spark from trees hitting the power lines. You might have to click the image to enlarge it, but you can see the lines there.

The winds blew south that day, so the fire spread that way too. You can see it followed the road initially, before getting into that expanse of trees. Then it really took hold. This next picture is from the top end, looking down at the huge swathe of destruction.

Further down, the fire split into two. Perhaps the water bombers did that, or the terrain, but who knows. There are still the odd place or two in which things are still smouldering away; there were several columns of smoke.

Here you can see the ferocity of the fire; look at the size of the cars, and the width of Highway 79; the fire jumped right over it. There are diggers clearing the land here now; the smoke here is dust being blown from their work.

As we flew further south, we came upon more communities. This is where I began to feel quite guilty, looking down at where so many people lost their homes. 1500 houses were taken by the flames. There are so many concrete slabs that are completely burnt out, nothing but a small pile of debris and ash surrounding them. The folks down there are probably sick of aircraft hanging around, although maybe if we'd been carrying a water bucket...

The fire is so fickle about which houses it takes and which it leaves. I have no idea why the house in the bottom right of this next image survived. Everything around it is black and gone.

There are signs of rebuilding though; one guy has already framed up his new house right on top of the slab that was burnt. I guess he got his insurance claim in quick, as he was running from the fire...

There were a lot of horror stories in the news about this fire, and I can certainly see why. This link ( has pictures of the firefighters in action during the blaze, and the people and animals they were trying to rescue. I count myself very lucky to not have been near this, and I hope we get some RAIN soon.