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Arizona Guard Trains to Fight Fires

Soldiers prepare for the 2015 wildland firefighting season with Black Hawks and Bambi Buckets
Soldiers from A Company, 2/285th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Arizona Army National Guard, conduct wildland firefighting training using a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and a Bambi Bucket on Dec. 12, 2014. Photo by SSG Brian Barbour
Soldiers from A Company, 2/285th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Arizona Army National Guard, conduct wildland firefighting training using a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and a Bambi Bucket on Dec. 12, 2014. Photo by SSG Brian Barbour

QUEEN CREEK, AZ Rotor blades from an Arizona National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter cut swiftly through the air, blending a whooshing sound with the roar of the engine—a signal to wildland firefighters on the ground that relief is coming.

The helicopter descends to 50 feet, hovering above slow-flowing canal water. Rotor downwash forces a mist from the surface. The moisture is pushed up and away from the helicopter, then swirls inward upon itself, creating a rainbow of color as the sun’s rays reflect and refract off the floating water droplets.

Crew chiefs on board sit in the open doors, their tan boots dangling outside. They lean outward, carefully watching an orange Bambi Bucket sway beneath them, attached to the helicopter’s belly by a steel cable. The bucket lands in the water, its orange fabric hitting the surface with a smack. A crew chief communicates with the pilots, letting them know the bucket’s position. 

The helicopter belongs to A Company, 2/285th Assault Helicopter Battalion (AHB), from Phoenix, and the crew aboard is practicing for next year’s wildland firefighting season at Rittenhouse Army Heliport in Queen Creek, AZ.

The two-day training, held Dec. 11–12, includes a day of classroom education followed by a training flight. The instruction focuses on properly setting up and using the Bambi Bucket, a collapsible container designed for a helicopter to pick up water without landing and drop it on fires from the air. The training is a regular requirement for the Guard members, who must maintain their wildland firefighting skills.

“This training is very important,” says Chief Warrant Officer 4 Timothy Graves, a Black Hawk pilot and aviation survivability officer from Detachment 1, C Company, 5/159th Air Ambulance. “[It’s] important because if our assets are needed to help on a large fire, we have the crews and equipment to save lives and save structures.”

The 2/285th AHB does this training once or twice a year, says Graves.

In 2013, Guard aviation crews put that training to the test when they were called upon to assist in fighting the French Gulch, a fire that consumed more than 830 acres of forest.

"The flight crews [are] always excited, and we want to fight wildfires,” says Graves. “It’s very important to us to do something in our community. While we are trained and ready to deploy overseas, we get a different satisfaction when we get to use our skills and equipment to help our own communities.”

For pilots, learning to operate the aircraft with a heavy external load is one of the more difficult parts of the training, he says. It takes practice to get really good at it.

“We rely on the crew to time the drop,” says Graves. “We align the bucket where we want it, and the crew releases it with a hand-held trigger.”

Sergeant Dominic Rigo, a crew chief with A Company, 2/285th AHB, has the job of releasing the water at just the right moment. He says the training and mission can be difficult in the beginning.

“It comes down to the crew learning how to work together,” he says. “The more experienced the crew, the easier that is.”

The bucket, sitting on the surface of the water, teeters back and forth in the waves, refusing to tip over. The helicopter pilot maneuvers the aircraft forward causing the bucket to topple, allowing water to spill inside. It sinks, and the orange rim disappears below the water’s surface. The steel cable tightens as the aircraft begins to ascend.

Bulging with 530 gallons of water, the bucket climbs upward trailing under the helicopter, which now heads to a drop zone about 800 meters away from the landing strip. 

The helicopter closes in on its target, from 300 feet above. Crew chiefs watch the terrain pass under them, waiting for the drop zone to come in range. Perfect timing is critical as the crew chief pushes an electronic trigger and the bucket’s bottom opens, showering everything underneath.

“Wildland firefighting isn’t the main mission of the 2/285th AHB, but this is one of the services the unit provides for the state,” says Rigo. “This is one of the missions we train for. It’s one of those things we’re expected to know how to do, so when the time comes, we can render that aid to the state.”