Four aircrews from the New York Army National Guard, based at the nearby Albany International Airport, and three from Connecticut qualified in May 2021. The soldiers are all assigned to the third 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 then 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, practising 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’,” explained 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.”
Learning to integrate helicopters with teams on ground
During a session of classroom training on 3 May, they learned about 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 terminology they use we have to get used to. We have to get used to working them to develop that crew mix and synergy.”
Certifying 12 crew chiefs
In addition to eight pilots, the New York Army National Guard certified 12 crew chiefs, the enlisted soldier who deals with helicopter maintenance and plays a key role in discharging water during firefighting missions. As part of the re-certification, each crew has to conduct a pick-up 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 must be trained annually to maintain proficiency, Thrush said. The Army National Guard uses the Bambi brand water buckets, which weigh 2.8 tons when filled with water.
Connecticut Army National Guard 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 co-ordinate well enough to get training done effectively,” Dosantos said.
Meanwhile, Columbia Helicopters and Aurora Flight Sciences are currently exploring the integration of an enhanced pilot situational awareness degraded visual environment flight capability to be used for aerial fire suppression.