Ray Brindle, vice-president of operations for Texas-based remote sensing company Arrae, is part of a small team of pilots and sensor operators who have become high-tech first responders in the post 9/11 world. He explains how he found his way to a full-time flying job, three careers from the start.

What is your role as a first responder?

I'm a contract pilot working for the Environmental Protection Agency'sAspect programme, which stands for Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology. Based in Texas, we operate one Rockwell Commander 680 integrated with a suite of infrared sensors to remotely detect the chemical composition of fires and spills, as well as a radiological instrument designed to measure gamma rays.

The information collected by the instrument operator in the back of the aircraft can be sent to response teams in as little as 5min after a pass through a satellite datalink to help guide first responders, who may need to evacuate the public, or later from the ground after we land.

Ray Brindle

What's a typical mission like?

There is no typical mission. We have four full-time contract pilots and three standby pilots who, along with a team of operators, are on-call 24/7/365 and will fly in almost any weather to any of the lower 48 states in the USA. Since going operational in 2001, we've been dispatched on more than 100 missions, including hurricanes, floods, chemical fires, refinery explosions, inaugurations, and even just-in-case efforts like the Dalai Lama's visit to Philadelphia last July. The EPA requires us to be airborne within 1h of receiving a "go" order.

When and how did you first begin flying?

I grew up an air force brat as my dad flew for the Strategic Air Command. I had my first flight when I was eight and earned my licence in 1968 while at Iowa State University in the ROTC programme and have flown for fun ever since. My first career was in information technology with Johnson & Johnson. I took early retirement in 1998 and started working for a "dot com" company until the bubble burst in 2000. I was semi-retired again and flying for fun, when in 2002, a local Texas company asked me if I had my multi-engine rating and asked me if I wanted to go on a trip. That flight turned out to be the precursor of the job I now have with Arrae.

What's the most challenging mission you've flown?

Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. We arrived there the day after the storm - there are no words to describe it.

There was no air traffic control, there was no radar, there was nowhere to get fuel. We immediately started flying to "targets of opportunity", locations where there might be possible chemical spills or fires, including in the Gulf of Mexico, where in one case we found fire from a submerged broken oil derrick. If it was intense, dark and ugly, we went in and took data.

We'd fly for 4h then land in Lake Charles, Louisiana and send data. We'd fly over huge barges upside down in Delta; we'd see towns on map that no longer existed. Later, the stench and odour became overpowering. We flew missions for 42 days, swapping out crews about every 10 days.

What's the best part of your job?

It's different every day; we never know where we are going or what we're responding to. We can be called out 02:00 and have to be airborne within an hour. That makes for challenging piloting since every location is different. We have to decide in real time what flight profile is best to get data and get it down to the ground as fast as possible. We try to fly every mission because there's someone down there that needs us.



Source: Flight International