CORTLANDT MANOR, N.Y. – UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews from the New York and Connecticut Army National Guard spent May 19 honing the skills needed to turn a helicopter into a firefighting machine at the New York National Guard’s Camp Smith Training Site.
Twelve Soldiers flew three UH-60s to practice scooping up, flying and dumping 2.8 tons of water onto a simulated fire using the Hudson River as both a water source and a target.
The purpose of water bucket training is to coordinate, train and recertify pilots between New York and Connecticut to assist with fighting wildfires. Helicopter crews that may be needed to fight fires have to train with the buckets each spring.
“The most important thing about this mission is building relationships between states and in the future, if we are called upon to work together, we are able to work together seamlessly,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Peter Haack, a New York Army National Guard pilot from Southold.
The joint exercise was the result of a 2019 Emergency Management Interstate Compact between New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Edward Lamont.
“Connecticut is our neighbor to the east, and there are many issues we are dealing with that are enhanced when we work cooperatively,” Cuomo said.
The states agreed to conduct an exercise to test their response to a brush fire that crosses state lines.
The last time New York deployed National Guard helicopters on a firefighting mission was in July 2018. Two New York Army National Guard UH-60 helicopters were called to a forest fire in Flat Rock State Forest in Altona, where the aircrews dropped 126,000 gallons of water on the 526-acre fire over three days.
To fight fires, helicopters sling the orange collapsible bucket underneath the UH-60.
The 660-gallon bucket weighs over 250 pounds with no water. It takes at least two people to open the bucket for operational use.
The bucket is attached to a cargo hook on the aircraft and then an electrical connection is made to operate the bucket. A switch is engaged to open the bladder of the bucket and dispense the water over a designated area.
For this training exercise, the Black Hawks followed a route over the Hudson River, just below the Bear Mountain Bridge, with the bucket slung below the aircraft. The bucket was lowered into the river, filled up, and the water was dispensed at the target location.
This equipment is used to put out wildfires and structure fires, and to set up additional water sources, Haack said.
The training exercise was especially valuable because many of the Connecticut aviators are in the same unit as the New Yorkers, the 3rd Battalion 142nd Aviation, Haack explained.
The battalion’s Charlie Company is part of the Connecticut Army National Guard.
“They are our sister company. So, we get to achieve commonality working between the units, face time and partnership between both units,” Haack said.
Members of the New York Guard fly together on a regular basis and are aware of their strengths and weaknesses Haack said.
Now, that they are able to partner with Connecticut, they are able to learn their differences and work toward becoming a more efficient, cohesive unit, he added.
Connecticut Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Behuniak, a member of Detachment 2, Company C, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment, was one of the pilots conducting the fire bucket training for the first time.
Behuniak, a facility instructor pilot based at Bradley International Airport, said that because a full bucket can weigh between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds, the pilot needs a heightened sense of awareness and must coordinate with all members of the crew.
“I just want to do the best job that I can. It is a new mission I have never done,” Behuniak said.
The goal, Behuniak said, is to be able to respond within four hours to a fire in the northeast.
“This enhanced response time and training really helps everyone out. You have qualified crews on both sides of the border,” Behuniak said.
“When it comes to it, we take a really deep self-pride in being able to help everyone out, our neighbors, our friends, our loved ones,” Behuniak said.