Working on Fire is dedicated to saving lives and protecting the environment through wildland firefighting. But at the same time, WOF strives towards restoring dignity, and enabling and uplifting young South Africans. WOF accomplishes this by offering training programmes, which open doors to a myriad of careers.
Numerous WOF Programme participants, who started off as basic firefighters, used the opportunity as a platform to launch from. Some have become Crew Leaders, moved up in WOF management, joined other forces like the South African Police Service or started their own businesses.
In order to open up doors into the aviation industry, while contributing to the safety of its aerial firefighting operations, WOF successfully implements Helitack and Flying Crewmen programmes. Managing Director for Working on Fire, Trevor Abrahams explains that Working on Fire wants to create a platform for firefighters to further their careers in the aviation industry.”
“We believe that the skills and experience they gain while training to become, and working as helitack crew members and later flying crewmen, will enable them to someday become either aviation engineers or even pilots.”
“These men and women are selected based on leadership skills, job performance and passion for aviation,” says Carel van der Merwe, Head of Kishugu Aviation Training Organisation (ATO), who conducts this specialised training. “They undergo rigorous and in-depth training, especially the flying crewmen, to ensure that they are equipped and can competently perform their jobs.”
A helitack team consists of six firefighters: one Helitack Crew Leader (previously known as Helicopter Safety Leaders) and five crew members. They serve as first responders to wildfires. The helitack team is led by a helitack crew leader.
He or she is responsible for ensuring that the team and all their equipment embarks and disembarks the aircraft safely.
The helicopter will drop the helitack team off at the fire line, to start fighting the fire on ground level, and then proceed to the closest water source to fill its Bambi Bucket. When the fire trucks with the ground resources arrive on the scene, the firefighting teams will join the helitack team in battling the flames. Helitack crewmembers are recruited from among the WOF Type 1 crew leaders.
Once part of the crew, a participant may be trained to become a helitack crew leader. “Helitack teams are an integral part of the helicopter resource,” says Mike Assad, National Manager for Working on Fire Aviation.
“These are well trained and very fit firefighters who, over the years, have impressed landowners with their work ethic and bravery.”
Working on Fire’s firefighting pilots often fly in confined spaces, mountainous terrain and in between tall trees, which poses a huge risk to the pilot and possible damage to the aircraft – especially with regards to the tail rotor.
To address these risks and enhance safety during Working on Fire aerial firefighting operations, a helicopter flying crewmen training programme was implemented in 2014.
A flying crewman, initially called Helicopter Personal Assistants (HPAs), is trained to assist the pilot with routine tasks, such as pre-flight checks and ensuring safe approaches to landing zones. He or she serves as an extra pair of eyes when flying with a Huey pilot. Candidates for this training programme were all first helitack crew leaders, and in the absence of a helitack crew leader, the flying crewman (having acquired those skills and knowledge) can also manage the helitack team.
“I am proud of being a flying crewman. I help to make sure that our helicopter is ready for each mission,” Steven Shabangu, Working on Fire Helicopter Flying Crewman.