Saturday, June 09, 2012

Arizona Army National Guard aviators prepare for fire season

By Army Sgt. Lauren DeVita, 123rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

PHOENIX - The thumping drone of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters is heard long before the helicopters are seen. A versatile aircraft, it routinely carries troops, cargo or in another role, firefighting equipment. With huge buckets dangling below the helicopter, the aviators come in, one-by-one, dropping hundreds of gallons of water on areas of flame.
As a way to keep their skills in assisting with fighting large-scale wildfires up to date, Arizona Army National Guard helicopter pilots and crews recently spent time training with the equipment they would use.

“We are conducting our annual fire bucket training so that we are certified to fight fires within our state,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ken Twigg, an instructor pilot with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 285th Aviation Regiment, and one of the coordinators for this event. “This state is about 114,000 square miles, and a lot of that is rural setting, which poses a threat for wildfires. So, we want to make sure we are prepared to assist in the event there is a major fire disaster.”

Every year, Arizona is faced with the threat of wildfires during what is commonly known amongst Arizonans as fire season. Wildfires can easily displace residents from their homes and destroy both property and natural resources, which is why it is imperative to have all response agencies trained on common tasks.

“There is more to it than just flying around and grabbing buckets of water,” said Tom Tobin, the Air Tactical Group supervisor for the Arizona State Forestry Division, and a pilot for the Prescott National Forest. “We have a standard everyone must be able to meet so we can all be on the same page in the event of an emergency.”

The training is designed for aviators from the Arizona Guard to receive validation by the Forestry Division in order to provide aviation support in response to state wildfire emergencies. The aviators must show their capabilities to communicate with ground units while working effectively with their own flight crew to ensure successful water drops.

“We are the support element to the team on the ground, who coordinate and communicate with us on where to drop water,” Twigg said. “In turn, they use the water we drop to create mud, which helps stop the fire in its path and begin eliminating the threat.”

And training is vital to being an effective part of that team.

“A multi-million dollar aircraft will sit on the runway if [the crews] are ill-prepared, do not know the terminologies we use, nor have an understanding of the state operations for responding to a fire,” Tobin said. “Those differences can make or break how we function.”

This training also works as a conditioning tool for the aviation unit, which has seen more activation for deployments overseas then wildfire missions.

“As a National Guard unit we have been focusing on our wartime mission for a long time,” said Capt. Caleb Grandy, the commander of Company A. “We have been in and out of deployments for the past ten years, so this is preparing a lot of our guys, who have been in the wartime mindset, and get them back into our state mission.”

Although the pilots are in the driver’s seat, the crew receives just as much training – if not a little more.

“Our crew members are a huge asset and they are the eyes of the whole flight crew,” Grandy said. “They are timing drops and communicating with the pilots. They are the ones who get the buckets in the water and get the water dropped on the fire.”

What made this training even more of a challenge this year was the use of a buoy wall, a large portable container that holds water. Fire crews refer to the water-filled orange cylinder as a pumpkin tank.

“Using a buoy wall is difficult,” Twigg said. “It is like dropping a shot glass into a thimble. Since this would be the resource we will normally turn to because of the lack of natural water resources in this state, this is good training for us in the long run.”

During the training, Black hawk helicopter crews could be seen coming in, hovering over the pumpkin tank, attempting to drop and missing. They would repeat this until they could successfully get the bucket into the buoy wall. As the day went on, the Black hawk crews became more proficient in this water-retrieval method.

“The coordination with using the buoy wall is more challenging, so the more practice we can get, the better,” Grandy said.
The crews have to communicate with each other constantly in order to make this happen, Twigg said. “Over time during this practice, we develop a battle rhythm and the process becomes a smooth operation.”

Support from the Buckeye Fire Department and the State Forestry Division was provided on the ground. The personnel gave target spots for the air crews to drop, simulating how a fire response would initially function.

“The Buckeye FD and State Lands hot shot crews increased the reality of the exercise,” Twigg said. “They called out spots where we needed to drop, just like we would from a ground guide on a real fire, so we got to simulate actually fighting a fire.”

The reality of the training helped flight crews understand the challenges faced with fighting wildfires from the air and how to effectively communicate under pressure.

“Our air crews did a great job working together and conquered frustration, which was an excellent element to help give the crew a real-life feel on how to overcome stress while working together,” Grandy said.

Despite the frustrations, the Soldiers stood ready to assist should they be needed.

“Our guys are motivated and ready to serve their state,” Grandy said. “We have not had very many opportunities in the past to provide support to state emergencies so we hope to be utilized more often in the future.”