SALEM, Ore. -- Oregon Army National Guard Soldiers of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, answered the call to help their state following Governor Kate Brown's emergency declaration order. The governor's declaration enabled the Oregon National Guard to be activated in support of the Oregon Department of Forestry as needed to assist with wild land firefighting efforts across the state.
A group of aviation and support personnel from the Pendleton-based unit reported to Salem's McNary Airfield on August 4, 2017, just two days following the declaration, to provide helicopter bucket water drops using their newer F-Model CH-47 Chinook helicopters. They were initially assigned to the Whitewater Fire, near Detroit, Oregon, before later transitioning to the Chetco Bar Fire to the south, near Brookings, Oregon.
The unit typically begins completing both its refresher and qualification course just before fire season, in mid-spring. It's during this time that the troops get the buckets prepped and pulled out of storage. Re-certifications are typically conducted first, before new personnel become qualified.
"Where else can you go where you get to do this? I have the coolest job in the world," said Sgt. Jeremy Maddox, a flight engineer instructor with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment. "One morning I'm at my home station, and later that afternoon I'm 500 miles away, supporting a state mission and dropping buckets of water. I get a lot of satisfaction doing these state missions."
In order to qualify, Soldiers in the aviation unit must participate and become proficient during three separate, one-hour test flights consisting of multiple water bucket drops. The unit typically uses a site next to the Columbia River, where they are able to conduct bucket dips and drop the water on predetermined locations.
"The Columbia is wide open, plenty deep enough for our 2,000-gallon bucket. Tons of room, no obstacles, like tall trees or altitude," said Maddox.
Hours of prep time go into each flight, whether for training or real-world missions.
"Every morning we have to come out and do our daily pre-flight checks on the aircraft, it takes about an hour and a half, to two hours. We have to open up the entire aircraft and look at everything," said Maddox.
He said the pilots then inspect the aircraft following their pre-flight briefings, looking over everything for additional verification.
The unit began responding to the Whitewater Fire while the Oregon Department of Forestry was still in the process of securing a land-use agreement for Davis helibase. For the first few days, flight crews were initially departing from Salem's McNary Field and having to transport their Bambi buckets loaded inside their CH-47 Chinooks to and from the helibase each day. Once Davis helibase was secured, the crews could keep their buckets in place and would only have to do preflight and attach the buckets before beginning their mission.
The crews waited on standby for Air Attack personnel assigned to the fire to call the Oregon Department of Forestry aviation representative, who would then give the Soldiers the go-ahead to respond. On the fire, all instructions as to where to pull water from and where to drop water were taken via radio.
"Those Air Attack guys have been doing this often for 20 to 30 years to get to this level, they know the big picture ... we can't put the fire out completely, but what we can do is help control it, and keep it from spreading certain directions," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 David Brannen, an instructor pilot with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment.
Brannen first started working fires as a liaison in 2001 before transitioning to flying in 2002 and ultimately becoming a pilot-in-command in 2003.
"It's good to interface with other agencies, even though we work with them a lot, sometimes there are some misconceptions on what our challenges or capabilities are," he said. "I think they are always surprised on how much we rely on the guys in the back."
The crew members in the back (flight engineers and crew chiefs) guide the pilots to the dip site, lining up the bucket, and clear the aircraft to move down, while simultaneously watching the rotors.
"There is a lot of helicopter on the Chinooks back here (behind the flight deck or cockpit), that the pilots can't see," said Maddox. "Our job is to paint a picture for them, a mental picture they can't see, so they know and feel comfortable with what we're going into. It takes a lot of trust in the back-seaters from the pilots. It's a team effort. Without one, the job can't be accomplished."
Power is also one of the most difficult aspects when it comes to maneuvering and dropping buckets. Maddox said the power required to lift the buckets to that altitude requires them to regulate the amount of water in their buckets. Sometimes they have to "burp" the bucket, meaning allow some of the water to be dispensed to reduce the overall weight, to ensure the pilots have the necessary power to be able to climb out of certain areas.
"I've never flown a fire with an F-Model (CH-47 Chinook) and it's a little bit heavier with the extra equipment," said Brannen. "When I flew the D-Model, we were running several thousand pounds lighter to start with, coupled with high temperatures, our biggest challenge is power management. We are hauling as much water as we are able."
Ford said he welcomes the excitement that comes with the firefighting mission,. "This is just a lot of fun. With the federal mission we are mainly moving people and stuff around, it's from here to there. Take it, set it down, and return to base," he said. "But here it's much more challenging. We run a great risk in this, if there's an up-draft of heat, or a down-draft, we have to be able to be 'Johnny-on-the-spot' to keep us in the air. There's a lot more challenge in it, risk versus reward. It's super rewarding when we are combating open flame all day long."
Brannen agreed. "I enjoy this probably a little more than a deployment -- it's our own backyard, our own state."
The Pendleton unit also has a history of "keeping it in the family" with multiple family members like the Radkes, Fords and others that have served both past and present.
"I've never seen a unit that has so many brothers and sisters that operate together. We are truly a family," Ford said.
The three CH-47 Chinooks assigned to state-active duty have accounted for more than 1.2 million gallons of the total 1.3 million gallons of water dropped as of late Sept. Two Chinook's are currently still assigned to the Chetco Bar Fire and are based to the northeast, in Grants Pass, Oregon.