COLONIE, N.Y. – New York and Connecticut Army National Guard UH-60 aircrews and forest rangers with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation honed their helicopter wildfire-fighting skills in an exercise using the Mohawk River as a water source and target.
Four aircrews from the New York Army National Guard, based at the nearby Albany International Airport, and three from Connecticut qualified May 6 and 7.
The Soldiers are all assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment, with elements in both states.
The aircrews used a parking lot at the Colonie Town Park as their operations base. They deployed to fill 660-gallon collapsible buckets with water and disperse it on simulated fires over the river.
Over two days of training, the teams dropped 120 buckets of water into the Mohawk between I-87 and State Route 9.
The forest rangers trained alongside the Soldiers, practicing adjusting water drops from both inside the hovering Black Hawks and by radio from the ground.
“We did a few normal picks and drops, spot drops, as well as running a fire line,” said Capt. Forest Thrush, the battalion operations officer. “For new qualifications, we have to go over the buckets more in-depth, get some experience flying with the water and feeling what it’s like when you drop it.”
Helicopters make fighting wildfires easier and faster, said Lt. David Kallen, a forest ranger with the Rangers Division of Forest Protections Aviation Program.
Training with the Army Guard aircrews is incredibly valuable, he added.
Helicopters allow us as fire managers to expedite water delivery to the fire line, accessing locations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to get to,” Kallen said. “Being above the fire, they allow us to see the whole picture quickly.”
He said it was always amazing to be part of an aerial firefighting operation.
“You get a great satisfaction as you make a difference in the lives of the firefighters on the ground,” he said. “It is a great feeling to be able to get large amounts of water into those remote places.”
The Soldiers learned a lot from the rangers as well, Thrush said.
During classroom training on May 3, they learned how fires spread and how the rangers manage fires. They also learned how to integrate helicopters with fire teams on the ground.
“This was a big 'aha' moment for many of us who have worked real-world fires in the past,” Thrush said.
“Our procedures vary a little bit compared to what they’re used to, and there’s a lot of terminologies they use we have to get used to,” Thrush said. “We have to get used to working with them to develop that crew mix and synergy.
“One thing we learned is that our previous spot-drop techniques are often not a good course of action due to the way the rotor downwash can fan out the flames,” he said.
In addition to eight pilots, the New York Army National Guard certified 12 crew chiefs and the enlisted Soldier who deals with helicopter maintenance and plays a key role in discharging water during firefighting missions.
As part of the recertification, each crew has to conduct a pickup multiple times in various ways. This includes changes in speeds of pickup and reacting to a bucket not opening properly.
Flying with almost three tons of water hanging beneath the helicopter is a skill that takes annual practice to maintain proficiency, Thrush said.
Each spring, helicopter crews at the New York Army National Guard’s three flight facilities practice for the wildfire mission.
The most recent firefight involving New York Army National Guard helicopters was in July 2018. Two Black Hawks responded to a forest fire in Altona, dropping 126,000 gallons over three days.
In 2019, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Edward Lamont announced an agreement to allow agencies from the two states to work together more easily in case of emergencies like forest fires. As part of that agreement, Connecticut and New York Army National Guard helicopter crews have been conducting joint firefighting training annually.
Training with UH-60 crews from another state and the rangers makes for a better experience, Thrush said.
Connecticut Army National Guard Spc. James Dosantos, a crew chief who was going through the training for the first time, said it was great working with the New Yorkers.
“When we do interstate operations, it gives us a chance to show off logistically how we can work together, and we can coordinate well enough to get the training done effectively,” Dosantos said.