Photos and Video by Beth Hollerich
On a recent overcast Friday afternoon, firefighter Samuel Esper turned his firetruck onto a taxiway at Pittsburgh International Airport.
“We never do it like this, we’re always off to the side,” he told me, as he deftly maneuvered his vehicle into position.
Condor flight 2098 had just touched down on Runway 28 Center and was approaching Taxiway Delta. That’s where Esper, along with another firefighter in a second truck, waited for the Boeing 767 to turn the corner.
“Three…Two…One,” Esper counted down as the aircraft approached.
At that moment, the two firefighters turned on their hoses, sending plumes of water over the top of the plane in a ceremonial salute. As the aircraft passed, the pilot waved to Esper, thanking him for the friendly welcome.
A long-standing tradition of the aviation industry, a water salute occurs several times throughout the year at Pittsburgh International, and is a form of celebration. The Condor flight signaled the resumption of seasonal nonstop service between Pittsburgh and Frankfurt, Germany.
Also known as a “water cannon salute” or “wash down,” a salute typically consists of two firetrucks positioned on either side of an aircraft spraying water to form an arc over the plane.
Water salutes also are used to honor a retiring pilot or celebrate other occasions, said Pittsburgh International’s Deputy Fire Chief Tom Bonura.
“We’ve even done water salutes for the Penguins and Steelers after winning the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl,” he said.
For the firefighters at PIT, a wash down is a fairly simple task when compared to their other roles and responsibilities. But the weather, the wind and the size of the aircraft can play a part in crafting the perfect arch — and some salutes turn out better than others, Bonura said.
“Sometimes it will look great when we practice it beforehand,” he said. “And then when the aircraft actually comes through it ends up looking a little weak. Those are things beyond our control, but usually it goes off without a hitch.”
Rewarding the Best
Beyond celebrating various events, salutes have become a competition among airports worldwide. Industry publications such as Anna Aero, a website dedicated to airline news and analysis, even hold contests, recognizing airports that produce and photograph the perfect water arch.
Anna Aero’s “Arch of Triumph” competition, which is judged by a panel of the website’s staff, awards winners of the best water salute every week. Marc Watkins, an editor for Anna Aero, said the website accepted nearly 400 entries in 2017.
“The Arch of Triumph adds a fun competition element to a piece of marketing that airports were doing anyway,” said Watkins.
Pittsburgh International took home an Arch of Triumph award in 2015 for a photo of an inaugural flight salute, which captured a picturesque rainbow behind the plane.
Even though the arch wasn’t quite perfect, it was still memorable for Bonura and his team.
“The time we won an Anna Aero award definitely sticks in my mind, especially when I think about how that day actually unfolded,” he said, recalling how the streams of water just barely connected.
And while it may be fun to compete against other airports to produce the best arch, ultimately a water salute is a way of showing honor and respect, said Tim Llewellyn, a firefighter at Pittsburgh International.
“We are helping somebody celebrate something,” he said. “It’s a job that we do that means something to someone. We try to make it look good and we try to do a good job because there’s always a lot of smiles and a lot of ‘thank yous’ at the end of the day. That’s kind of nice, and it makes us feel good.”