Bill Moody orchestrates aerial strategy

Bill Moody. Photo submitted by Bill Moody

Bill Moody. Photo submitted by Bill Moody

By Ann McCreary

Circling the pillars of smoke billowing upward from a wildfire is a small plane. Inside, Bill Moody of Twisp is the air tactical supervisor for the fire, orchestrating the aircraft fighting the fire and providing strategies and tactics to crews fighting the fire on the ground from his airborne perspective.

Moody, 75, has worked as an air tactical supervisor on fires around the nation for 35 years. It’s a job that entails being an air traffic controller, a strategist, and having the stomach to ride in a small, bucking aircraft for up to eight hours at a stretch.

Moody’s career in firefighting includes 33 years as a smokejumper at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base, which he supervised from 1972-1989.  His 615 jumps was a record for many years. Since retiring, he has provided consulting on wildfires around the world.

Last week Moody was in Cheney, working on the Watermelon Fire. Before that, he was in Tonasket, working on the Bug Road Fire.

As air attack supervisor, Moody’s primary job is to help determine what aircraft are needed to fight the fire and coordinate their movements to ensure safety and most effective use of resources. He rides with a pilot, usually in a twin-engine plane.

“I do a size-up when I arrive, circle [the fire], make an evaluation,” Moody explained in a recent interview.

“In the early stages of the fire I talk with the ground to discuss strategies and tactics — what kind of air tankers, helicopters” are needed.

Decisions on how to fight a fire are based on “understanding fire behavior, the terrain, winds, condition of fuels, location of the fire relative to terrain features,” Moody said.

He discusses all these factors with the key people at the base of operations on the ground. “I pass on my observations, concerns,” Moody said.

As firefighting moves into full swing and aircraft are called to the scene, Moody becomes a flying air traffic controller. “Any aircraft has to report to me. I’ll make assignments as far as altitudes, flight patterns,” he said.

A flight traffic area is established around the fire, and any aircraft — such as tankers carrying retardant, helicopters with water buckets or planes delivering smokejumpers — must make contact with Moody before coming any closer than seven miles from the center of the fire.


Safety protocols

“The key thing is safety,” Moody said. “There’s a protocol for air space between aircraft,” usually 500 to 1,000 feet. Moody makes sure the approaching aircraft are aware of the position of his plane and others in the area.

“I give them my approval to enter the airspace and the altitude to enter,” Moody said.

In communicating with fire managers on the ground and the aircraft, Moody is often monitoring four to six radio frequencies. The air attack plane flies only during daylight, Moody said.

Large fires can create their own weather systems and as Moody and the pilot circle a fire, they fly through smoke and turbulence.

“There is a lot of turbulence near where the flames are. It can get very, very extreme. In some areas where it is too turbulent, or the smoke is too thick, we can’t work in there until the conditions change,” Moody said.

Moody said he’s occasionally “had a lot of concern, but never had anything really critical” happen while flying air attack.

“A couple of times I had air tankers coming in that didn’t see me and we had to make a quick correction to get out of their path,” he said. “One [tanker] I had warned of my position and he must have forgotten.”

During another flight Moody’s plane lost all electronics and communications. The pilot headed to an airport in Omak to land.

“We were just in the process of hand cranking the [landing] gear down … and told the airport to have a response ready” when the electronics kicked in again and the landing gear came down, Moody said.

He has trained four smokejumpers from the North Cascades Smokejumper Base to work air attack. Trainees ride in a seat behind him, until they are ready to change positions.

“The jumper program is an excellent way to recruit people to do the position,” Moody said.