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W.Va. Guard helicopter crews train to fight wildland fires

By Edwin Wriston | West Virginia National Guard | Oct. 11, 2019

KINGWOOD, W.Va. – Three West Virginia Army National Guard aircrews with Company C, 1st Battalion, 150th Aviation Regiment (1-150th Assault Battalion), completed helicopter bucket training at Camp Dawson Oct. 10.

The training comes at a critical moment when West Virginia is experiencing drought throughout the state.

"One of the greatest benefits of the National Guard is that our men and women are constantly training to be able to respond to any incident that our state may face," said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. "Just this week alone, we have readied a large group of Soldiers for wildland fire response, which is a skill we typically don't have to train for in West Virginia. With our Wheeling unit leading the charge on this aerial firefighting training as well, we are better prepared as a state to respond to an incident, should it arise."

The training consisted of more than 20 iterations for the pilots and crew chiefs, who learned how to fill the bucket from a natural water source while in the air. Pilots honed their skills on the proper techniques for dispersing the water over a fire.

"This training allows us to conduct precise water drops in mountainous areas of the state that ground-based firefighters might otherwise not be able to access due to difficult or dangerous terrain," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Sam Boggs, UH-60 helicopter pilot. "By working closely with Division of Forestry and volunteer fire departments, we can put massive amounts of water exactly where needed to quickly bring fires under control."

The buckets hold 550 gallons – roughly 4,400 pounds – of water per scoop.

"Crew coordination during aerial firefighting operations is critical and involves constant communication between the entire flight crew," Boggs said. "The pilots line up the drop zone and fly no more than 50 knots speed and no less than 50 feet off the ground in order to make the water release ... most effective.

"Once lined up and hovering above the fire and smoke in position for the drop, it is the crew chiefs who give a countdown to the pilots and actually release the water from the bucket," he said. "We then fly to a water source, hover no more than 20 feet above the water while the ... bucket refills, then repeat the cycle until the fire is out or at least controlled."

West Virginia Army National Guard aircrew members completed similar training in 2011 for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, but have never needed to utilize the skill in a state of emergency in West Virginia. Now, crews will be certified to respond to wildland fires throughout the state in coordination with civilian authorities.

The 1-150th Assault Battalion in Wheeling, West Virginia, operates the UH-60 L and M model Black Hawk helicopters. The battalion provides general aviation support in West Virginia in times of emergency and specializes in personnel movement, sling load, rappel, fast rope insertion/extraction, helocast, paradrop and hoist operations.