Facing a firestorm season said to be one of the worst in decades, with scientists forecasting temps to soar above those recorded, ever, Amy Miller set about fulfilling her self-made destiny – pilot, firefighter, and rescuer. She’s one of Australia’s secret weapons, and the best part is, she’s doing exactly what inspired her to fly helicopters from the beginning.
“I’ve got footage burnt into my brain from way back – which I must’ve seen on the news – of a helicopter putting water out on a bushfire. That’s the only thing I can call on as an adult because I didn’t have the desire to fly as a kid. And I didn’t know how I was going to get there but, inspired by that, I was definitely fighting fires as an end game. There was no doubt about it.”
“Even by the time I went for my trial flight, I’d never been in a helicopter before. I remember the instructor looked a little surprised and probably thought I wasn’t serious about becoming a pilot.”
“…But I really hadn’t. I’d never been in a helicopter before, so it was purely seeing what you can do with one that had made me think, ‘I want to be able to do that and help people.’ That’s what has stayed with me – ‘til now, I’m doing it. And absolutely loving it.”
Operating fourteen firefighting aircraft across Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT, with the capability to deploy to other states at a moment’s notice, Microflite’s signature sleek, red and gold firefighting platforms make up seventy percent of the Melbourne-based company. Amy soon found her place and began to establish herself, first-off benefitting from aerial fire training with an industry giant.
Training across the board was primarily disconcerting because it’s hard to imagine or recreate scenes anything like the fires to which pilots may eventually be exposed. Fortunately, Amy was schooled by an excellent instructor with varied experience gained across countless, notorious Victorian summers himself. He described hypothetical situations in great detail and took role-playing seriously, and she couldn’t believe it when, a few months later, some of those exact scenarios unfolded in front of her on her very first day in the field.
Amy’s first position post-fire training was Aerial Intelligence Gathering (AIG). Deployed when and where the fires flare up, Microflite operates aircraft equipped with sophisticated and cutting edge surveillance turrets capable of color and infrared filming, real-time linking and integrated mapping technologies.
“Essentially, we were their eyes in the sky. The teams on the ground there became dependent on us; every time we flew we were live-streaming, and they had a row of chairs in the Incident Control Centre watching our every move.”
With so many uses – everything from shark spotting to search and rescue – Amy and the Microflite team have learned to use it well, proving themselves invaluable during the infamous fires that recently decimated Australia’s south-east coast.
Now in her third season, Amy pilots Air Attack. Orchestrating the airspace around the fire, in addition to direct communications with the Emergency Control Centre and ground fire fighting crews, Amy and her team work to maintain separation between firefighting aircraft, which could include everything from Helitacks to Birddogs, lead planes to LATs (Large Air Tankers). Efficiency and safety are paramount, and fighting fires from the air requires strategic planning and accuracy. Busy in the cockpit goes without saying, but, as she maintains, “When it all works well, it’s so satisfying… Victoria has learned a lot from tragedies like Black Saturday, and, as a team and as a state, we’re better for it.”
Fighting fires in VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) is relatively easy to picture – perhaps you’re positioned upwind with good visibility, the flames pushed away from you by prevailing winds across predominately uninhabited Australian bushland. The scale might be big, but it’s an image the average person can wrap their head around.
It’s less comfortable to imagine peering out of the cockpit into oppressive, blackened skies, a glowing ridgeline instead of a horizon, and giant pillars of smoke towering on either side as you dart in and out with the shifting winds. Suffocating, searing heat. The regular afternoon column collapses, commonly referred to as witching hour, threatening to bury everything you’re fighting for and forcing you back to safety at low level. The fires this year were something else. They were the latter, and it was scary.
“When we’re flying in and around a column like that, we have to be mindful that it isn’t going to jeopardize our refueling options. We had a case last summer where the fire next to us had built and taken off, and, by the time we got close to finishing our fuel cycle, it had collapsed over our refueling base. This fire had created its own storm cell. It was raining, and it had its own lightning. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
The fires this year certainly got Australia’s attention.
When she’s reflecting on the destruction, Amy’s voice drops. She’s softly spoken, but also strong and determined. Good in a crisis, she says that often the effects of the event don’t hit her right away, so she can be the strength for the team sometimes. It usually hits her later on. There’s nothing that can prepare you for what you see and how you’re going to feel, but the more she does it, the stronger her resolve gets. It’s all about proper, safe procedures, teamwork, and a reason why.
“It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. The more you do it, the more psychological stuff you’re exposed to, which you can’t really prepare for. Being first on the scene… seeing houses burnt down, forests burnt down… That side of the firefighting – that’s not fun. But when you walk down the street, and everybody in the town recognizes you and thanks you, or shouts out of a car to tell you that the firefighters in the sky saved their house – that side of it, especially for me this year, has been very overwhelming and rewarding. Some of those places in New South Wales and Victoria were living and breathing the fires. They were all around us.”
Australia always was, and always will be, a country shaped by fire. But, with experience in the use of advanced technologies, and preventative practices – like aerial drip-torch and incendiary dropping for fuel reduction and fire prevention, and passionate fighters like Amy Miller in our skies, there will always be hope – for those of us on the ground and in the air.
First published in HeliOps Magazine – Issue 125 (Kia Kaha Media) in ‘A Greater View’, a column profiling women in the heli industry