Meet the Firefighter: Rotorcraft Pilot Larry Davis

OKEECHOBEE — Rotorcraft Pilot Larry Davis was born in Hamilton, Ohio but raised in Greenville, Tenn. and in West Palm Beach. He has two brothers and one sister and graduated from Twin Lakes High School in West Palm Beach in 1973. He enjoyed sports in school and his favorite was football.

Rotorcraft Pilot Larry Davis

His childhood hero was Mickey Mantle. After high school, he went to college in Due West, S.C. and majored in Business Administration, enjoying his accounting classes most of all, because his intention was to make a lot of money, and he wanted to know how to manage it. Making the baseball team was the his most memorable college moment.

Growing up, Mr. Davis said, “we were very poor, and my father worked several jobs to make ends meet. His dedication to our family and desire to give us a better life makes him my hero.” He described his dad as the biggest influence in his life.

Mr. Davis’ first job was as a gas station attendant pumping gas and cleaning up around the station, but the worst job he ever had was as a television and appliance salesperson.

He chose his career because it looked like a lot of fun, and he says, “it is!” He has worked in his current profession for 42 years, with 14 of those in Okeechobee. He said he wanted to be closer to his children and grandchildren who live in West Palm. He figured Okeechobee was a good compromise. It is close enough to see them often but still enjoy the things he loves such as hunting, fishing and remodeling homes. He and his wife have been married for 44 years, and they have two children.

Out of the Army, Larry worked for Florida Crystals as an Executive Transport Helicopter Pilot and flew crops assessing deficiencies. “I felt more like a taxi cab driver and longed for a career that made a difference.” Larry saw an advertisement with an aviation website for the Florida Forest Service, Rotorcraft Pilot and despite the noticeable pay decrease, he applied.

There were some obstacles to overcome, most notably was ensuring the right button was pressed to release the water instead of pressing the button to release the bucket. “The first couple of wildfires, I lost a few buckets and had to retrieve them from the water source I was dipping from. This earned me the nickname ‘bucket drop’.” Once I labeled the release button, I understood the importance of timing the release of the water, so I could be effective. Larry is the most photographed resource on the wildfire, even the local law enforcement pull out their camera to capture his helicopter in action.

For the last 14 years, Rotorcraft Pilot Larry Davis has suppressed over 400 wildfires utilizing a retired Vietnam combat helicopter, UH-1H (Huey) with a Bambi Bucket. The helicopter was retrofitted as a Super Huey for wildfire aerial suppression and utilizes a bucket that is suspended below the belly. The bucket holds up to 320-gallons of water per load and Larry typically delivers 30 loads per hour to cool down the flames slowing down its forward progression.

Firefighting is exciting, and he enjoys coordinating with firefighters on the ground. His job is to essentially cool off the wildfire to allow safer access for firefighters on the ground with bulldozers, engines and brush trucks. He is typically used at the edge of the fire to prevent expansion. If any smaller fires exist on the periphery, he coordinates with the Incident Commander to extinguish the new ignitions stopping the spread of wildfire. “It is a very rewarding career, I can’t tell you how many times I have saved horses trapped in a wood barn with hay on fire; I cooled off the area around the barn, so the animals could be freed. As the fire progressed, I have helped saved hundreds of homes and I even cooled down the fire as it approached towards firefighters,” he said.

He says there is a feeling of freedom when he is flying. He is grateful to the Army and his executive officer for providing him with the opportunity to enter flight school. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He was driving his XO near the airport and said to himself, “man that looks like fun” as the helicopters ascended. His XO leaned over said to him, “If you ever want to go to flight school, let me know.” He did, and the rest was history. Larry started out his Army career as a Specialist Tank Driver then became a Chief Warren Officer before entering the Army’s flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. He was later stationed at Fort Hood in Texas.

There are many obstacles to aerial wildfire suppression, birds, power lines, media helicopters, and most recently drones. Unauthorized drone flights create collision hazards to firefighting aircraft and can distract pilots who are operating in stressful and challenging conditions. If you own a drone, DO NOT fly near or over a wildfire. It’s against the law, and firefighting aircraft could be grounded, disrupting time-critical firefighting efforts. Your drone hobby is not worth another person’s life.

Melissa Yunas, wildfire mitigation specialist, contributed to this article.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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