This is a CessnaŽ Skymaster 337, stationed at Oshkosh, with DNR pilot Mike Callahan at the controls. It is often used for waterfowl surveys over Lake Michigan. Unlike many small DNR planes, it has retractable landing gear.
A centennial year for DNR aviation
A time to celebrate DNR pilots who serve critical, life–saving roles.
Story and photos by Ed Culhane
The small airplane, one of 11 operated by the Department of Natural Resources, lifts so easily off the runway at Wittman Field that for a moment it seems weightless, unfettered by gravity.
Any plane in the world can take off from this 8,000–foot runway at Oshkosh. We need only a small fraction of this concrete. With favorable conditions — good weather, a light load — DNR pilot Mike Callahan can lift this CessnaŽ Skymaster off a patch of asphalt 500 feet long.
To the control tower, he is Skymaster 337SS, or in international aviation lingo, "Skymaster 337 Sierra Sierra." Callahan banks to the west and switches to another of the three radios aboard, tuned to a DNR dispatch center 120 miles to the southwest in Dodgeville.
We are flying one of nine standard fire detection routes around the state.
"Dodgeville dispatch, this is Dodgeville east patrol. In service," Callahan reports in the terse, laconic language of pilots.
From then on, as long as we are airborne, we belong to fire dispatch.
It's been 100 years since pioneering aviator Jack Vilas of Chicago, spending the summer in his beloved Northwoods, offered to fly daily patrols above the sprawling forests of Vilas County and look for wildfires, the first time this had been done anywhere. Vilas' historic flights were authorized by the Wisconsin State Board of Forestry, a forerunner of the Department of Natural Resources.
And now, a century later, DNR pilots across the state are doing the very same thing — only with better technology.
Oddly enough, in this centennial year of DNR aviation, few people know much at all about DNR's aeronautics team or the work done by its 10 full–time and eight part–time, limited–term pilots.
Few know about the critical, life–saving roles these pilots play in fighting wildfires. Fewer still know the full range of varied and important missions these pilots complete, sometimes in difficult circumstances, for the agency and for the people of Wisconsin.
DNR pilots are used regularly to search for missing persons. On short notice, a DNR pilot will fly in the middle of the night at low altitude, in a plane equipped with a forward–looking, infrared sensor, searching for the heat signal of a lost hunter, or a lost child.
They conduct forest health surveys, covering vast tracts of timber with quick efficiency, locating infestations such as the ravaged foliage left by gypsy moths.
DNR pilots fly 50 feet above the tree tops to locate active eagle nests, or osprey nests, and they return to count the fledging young. They use their radios to track wolves, elk, American martens, bears, endangered whooping cranes and even turtles fitted with transmitters. They've tracked badgers at night when these nocturnal diggers climb out of their hidey holes.
They fly specific, long–established, low altitude transects each year to count ducks and other migrating waterfowl in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a specialty of pilot Larry Waskow. DNR pilots even track fish from the air. In the Winnebago system and elsewhere, sturgeon are broadcasting.
In the 1990s, when ozone alerts were common and people with breathing disorders were told to stay indoors, DNR pilots ferried bulky analytic devices and air quality specialists up and down the coast of Lake Michigan. They landed on the lake ice in planes fitted with skis where they augered through the ice, taking water samples at various depths, providing scientists with the clues they needed to begin fixing the problem.
Pilots conduct wildlife damage assessments. They work regularly with DNR wardens, providing aerial support for a variety of law enforcement efforts. They document the severity and extent of environmental violations or tornados. They provide DNR specialists with aerial photography and video. They take wildlife biologists and other land managers above the deck for a unique and useful perspective on their work.
DNR pilot Luke Wuest, who flies out of Oshkosh, says one of his favorite flights is when he takes DNR scientists into the sky for the first time to give them a bird's–eye, panoramic view of the natural resources work they are doing.
He also admits to enjoying the excitement of responding to wildfires.
"I like the challenge of being ahead of the fire, giving our people on the ground good intelligence so they can do their job safely," he says. "We are their lookouts. They have to have a way to get away from the fire and into a safety zone if something blows up on them."
Bev Paulan, who flies out of Eau Claire, is committed and competent on fire patrol, as are all DNR pilots, but she prefers working with wild animals and birds. Before joining DNR, she flew for Operation Migration, assisting with recovery of the endangered whooping crane. In late March she was airborne — in Skylane 182 November Romeo —happy as a kid on Christmas morning, searching for this lovely, elegant bird.
Unlike a waterfowl survey, which involves transects and formulas to extrapolate population numbers, she was searching for individual birds and when interviewed, she had just found 30 of them. She flies over known, ground–level nesting sites, circling at low altitude in maneuvers that would make many people nauseous.
She is unabashed in her love of wolves, of bear and elk, of all things wild and untamed. She's searched for "missing" prairie chickens, when their radio signals were no longer evident to biologists on the ground, and scoured the landscape for sharp–tailed grouse being reintroduced into Taylor County.
"I've seen the coolest stuff," she says. "One early morning flight, I was tracking a female wolf across the landscape trying to get a glimpse of her when she moved up a rise and into the open, surrounded by a litter of pups that were nuzzling her. I've seen them hunting as a pack, on a kill.
"Pilots in 2015 are no different than pilots were a hundred years ago. All of us love this job."
But it's not just any kind of flying she's talking about.
Pilot Leo Bunderson, out of Eau Claire, had done a great deal of flying before joining the department, as is always the case — the agency does not hire amateurs. But much of that time was piloting corporate jets, cruising along at 30,000 or 40,000 feet with nothing to look at but blue sky and little to do in flight but check instruments.
Several flew jets for passenger airlines. Several have been flight instructors.
Some DNR pilots, including Callahan and Wuest, speak of less–than–invigorating corporate flight.
Their backgrounds are varied. Before he flew a passenger jet for Midwest Airlines, Callahan flew Cobra attack helicopters for the U.S. Army in Germany and a 4–engine C130 Hercules for the U. S. Coast Guard. Phil Miller, based at Siren in Burnett County, flew in Africa. Joe Sprenger, also a Siren pilot, was a bush pilot in Alaska.
They all share one thing — the desire to be a natural resources pilot.
"It's a niche," Miller says. "To be a natural resources pilot, you are motivated by other things than flying."
DNR pilots are granted a Federal Aviation Administration exemption allowing them to fly at low altitudes. This is tricky work, and it must be done safely. When aviators join the DNR they are already seriously good pilots.
"Our hiring requirements are high," explains chief pilot John Jorgensen.
Pilots are trained by the department not to fly but to do conservation work, to support wildfire teams on the ground, to track wildlife, to assess various ecological conditions from the air, to assist wardens and managers of state properties and to perform public service.
While pilots serve the entire department, they belong first and foremost to forestry, and they train constantly to become more skilled at "fire attack."
In the department, the big wildfires, the ones that take days to fight, are called "project fires" and each is given a name. One of these, the Cottonville Fire, started on May 5, 2005, in northern Adams County. The flames spread through grass and then jumped to the top of a nearby pine plantation where it became a "crown fire," racing overhead, driven by the wind, dropping burning embers in its wake and igniting structures below.
DNR foresters responded with more than 200 personnel and more than 66 pieces of equipment, including 38 tractor plows that dug furrows, creating a firebreak of black dirt on either flank of the advancing fire.
DNR pilots were in the air, one of them directing air tankers that dropped foaming mixes of water and fire retardant chemicals on the blaze.
During fire season, the state contracts for two single–engine air tankers, called SEATs, and positions them in areas of high danger. These tankers land and refill after each drop. When necessary, Wisconsin foresters have called for CL–215 water bombers, or "scoopers," from Minnesota — flying boats that skim across a lake or river to refill — or more powerful CL–415 scoopers from Ontario.
After all such events, a thorough debriefing is conducted, months of pouring over the details to find out what could have been done better.
"The most important thing we do is the initial size–up information we give the firefighters, the precise information they need to form their plans and an appropriate response," Jorgensen says. "The airplane is just a tool we use to get us there."
Size–up for DNR pilots has become a serious discipline. Pilots are trained to relay a prescribed set of information points quickly, clearly and succinctly.
The pilot, arriving above a wildfire, determines its GPS coordinates, estimates the acres involved, describes fire behavior, locates threatened people and structures, identifies fuel changes, as when grasslands turn to brush, locates and identifies fire barriers such as roads and streams, and identifies hazards such as power lines, fuel tanks or major gas lines. The buried gas lines are hazardous because of the tractor plows employed by foresters. To puncture one in the vicinity of a wildfire could be disastrous.
"This standardization has been a major development for us," Jorgensen says.
In another change, a DNR plane would no longer be considered an "area resource." There are five DNR hangars around the state — at Madison, Eau Claire, Siren, Rhinelander and Oshkosh — each with two pilots and two planes, except Oshkosh which currently has three aircraft. But pilots can find themselves stationed on any given day at any public airfield in the state, some of which are unmanned, little more than a strip of concrete and some outbuildings.
"We now look at the plane as a statewide resource," Jorgensen says. "Any plane can go anywhere."
All this came into play on May 14, 2013, when a spark from a piece of logging equipment, working in Douglas County, started what would become the largest wildfire to hit Wisconsin in 33 years — the Germann Road Fire.
Bunderson, out of Eau Claire, was stationed at Hayward when he got the call. As soon as he lifted off, he saw the giant smoke plume to the northwest.
"It was huge. I knew it had to be the one."
His initial size–up reported a fire of 5 acres, burning toward the northeast, consuming pine and slash with red pine plantations stretching out for miles. Then the wind shifted, a dire occurrence because the head of the fire became wide.
"What was long and skinny all of a sudden becomes huge, and if you have people on the line they can be in harm's way," Jorgensen says.
Incident Commander Larry Glodoski had to relocate the command post, directing the firefight on the run. Two hours later, 3,000 acres were burning.
Two other pilots were assisting at two other fires, each within 30 miles, and the SEATs were already in use. Command called for two CL–215 water bombers from Minnesota. These always come with a small, fast plane that flies ahead of the big tankers, leading them in so tanker crews can concentrate on precision water drops. Then, as the two SEATs became available they were dispatched to Germann Road.
All of them were directed by Bunderson, who assigned altitudes, in 500–foot steps, for staging. One by one, they'd approach behind the flames, a half mile to a mile apart, descending to 50 to 100 feet above the trees before dropping their loads.
"I just kept stacking people," Bunderson recalls. "I had six planes to coordinate."
By then, Miller was overhead in a second DNR plane and Bunderson put him up on top, in the intelligence role, to transmit big picture information to the command post below and to the DNR command center in Madison that was directing statewide resources to the blaze.
Bunderson concentrated on the hot eastern flank, where DNR ground crews in dozers were struggling with swampy terrain and homes were threatened.
"We just kept hammering the right flank with the drops," he says. "We were trying to knock down the fire ahead of the dozers."
The tankers left at sunset, but Bunderson and Miller kept flying in the dark to support firefighters working into the night.
Miller was back in the air on day two. So was DNR pilot Dave Dodge, also out of Siren. Callahan and Wuest flew in from Oshkosh in a plane equipped with an infrared sensor to locate hot spots in the burned over areas.
While it would take days to extinguish every hot spot and every burning ember, DNR crews and municipal firefighters had the upper hand by the morning of day two, and the largest wildfire in decades was contained, which is to say "encircled," by 9 p.m., less than 32 hours after the first spark. It had burned a swath 10 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, consuming 7,442 acres.
It was, by all accounts, an amazing effort.
"We fight all fires in Wisconsin with a quick initial attack," Jorgensen says, a strategy aided by the state's extensive network of well–maintained rural roads, a heritage of the dairy industry.
This is why the hundreds of wildfires DNR fights each year are generally kept small and damage is limited.
In recent years, DNR flight hours have fallen significantly as costs have risen and budgets have tightened. Forestry officials are trying to reverse this trend, seeking cost savings where they can and exploring collaboration with other agencies.
And in this centennial year of DNR aviation, department leaders are planning to celebrate and promote the aeronautics program and highlight the many services its pilots can perform.
But it is unlikely you will see pilots blowing any horns. Theirs is a quiet confidence, tending toward reticence. They are far more interested in technology and science than in acclaim. If they are unsung heroes of conservation, it is in part because they like it that way.
Mostly, they just want to fly.
Ed Culhane is a DNR public affairs manager.