302nd airmen say 2011 was busiest firefighting season

302nd airmen say 2011 was busiest firefighting season

18 January 2012

published by www.gazette.com

USA — Peterson Air Force Base’s aerial firefighters are gearing up for another season battling flames.

The airmen of the 302nd Airlift Wing are hoping they won’t have a fight on their hands in 2012 that rivals the conflagrations that blackened vast tracts of Texas and the desert southwest during 2011, the busiest firefighting year in the wing’s history.

“We were deployed for almost 90 days (in 2011),” said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, who oversees the Air Force Reserve’s aerial firefighting program. “A typical year will see us deployed for 15 days.”

Airmen with the 302nd use a firefighting system that’s loaded aboard their C-130 transport planes to hem in wildfires with retardant dropped from the sky. The lumbering, four-engine C-130 is well-suited to the mission, which requires crews to swoop in low and slow through the roiling air above the flames.

In 2011, the wing fought fires in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho and, for the first time, in northern Mexico.

The Texas fires were the worst, with more than 3,000 separate blazes burning more than 2.7 million acres.

“The wind conditions in Texas were extreme,” Condit said. “That made for difficult fire activity, and it made for difficult flying.”

Fire missions are some of the most challenging that pilots of transport planes encounter.

The 100-foot-long, 41-ton planes blasted the fires from altitudes of 250 feet while rattling through fire-caused turbulence at 120 knots — just 30 knots above “stall speed,” the point when the plane stops flying and starts falling like a brick.

This year, the wing used a new firefighting system in the back of the plane that allowed for a quicker turnaround on the ground and more retardant-dropping sorties over the flames.

The wing’s firefighting crews are made up of reservists who take leave from civilian jobs, often in the airline industry, to take on the missions.

The 302nd is called in only when fires are at their worst and civilian resources have been exhausted.

The dramatic missions, which included pilots fighting to save homes in Texas, made the volunteer crews even more eager to get in the air, Condit said.

“That’s one of the things you’ll find with aviators — the tougher the challenge, the more enjoyable the mission,” Condit said.

Locals will get a chance to watch the wing’s firefighters at work this year — in a good way.

The 302nd’s crews normally head out of state to hone their firefighting skills in the winter and early spring. In 2012, they’ll practice in the high country of southern Colorado, dropping water on imaginary blazes.

“We have excellent terrain to train in,” Condit said.


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