By Sgt. 1st Class Robert Stephenson, NJDMAVA/PA
“Fixed wing aircraft at three o’clock,” squawked
the voice in my headset.
“Tally,” came the reply.
With those words, the pilot of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter acknowledged
the air¬plane just off his right side. Through the smoke and flame
of the forest fires raging below, visibil¬ity went from adequate
one minute to terrible the next as the chopper flew through the air
towing a “Bambi Bucket” which was suspended below. The bucket
held more than 660 pounds of water which could be dropped on any number
of a haphazard patchwork of fires that threatened homes located in the
Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The fire, which originally started within
the confines of the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Ocean County, threatened
to gobble up even more real estate.
Not only was the Blackhawk dodging the smoke and flames, but also a
number of other rotary and fixed wing aircraft which had con¬
verged on the area to lend assistance. A few of the aircraft were in
direct communication, but the majority of two-seater planes and helicopters
from the New Jersey State Forest Service were flying under Visual Flight
Rules, which meant that they would not have an air traffic controller
advising them of other aircraft, but would have to visually spot each
other as our Blackhawk just did. Every time we briefly entered a cloud
of smoke, there was always that feeling that we were not alone.
“Wow, did you feel that heat,” exclaimed Lt. Col. Daniel
Dreher, commander of the 1-150th Assault Helicopter Battal¬ion,
as he piloted our chopper through a particularly nasty plume of smoke
and fire. It wasn’t that long ago that the two pilots, Dreher,
and Chief Warrant Officer James Den Hartog, and Crew Chief 1st Sgt.
Jack Cipolla were flying the unfriendly skies over Tikrit, Iraq as part
of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. Smoke and fire were not unfamiliar to
any of them.
The Blackhawk was flying with its doors open so that the crew, which
was attached to harnesses, could lean out the doors to view the bucket,
which was suspended some 20 feet below the chopper. Each plume of smoke
carried with it superheated air which toasted the crew in addition to
affecting the lift of the chopper as it clawed through the thermals.
We had been in the air more than an hour, continually filling the bucket
and then looking for an area where the fire threatened a home or business.
Throughout our time in the air Den Hartog reminded us to keep our eyes
peeled for the other aircraft which were still in our vicinity. The
constant chatter of sightings here and there constantly filled my headset.
It wasn’t until midway through the mission that I realized that
Dreher’s home was possibly in the path of the fire. He was wondering
aloud if his family would have to evacuate any time soon, and whether
the next 660 pounds of water might just end up landing on his roof.
Just like the firefighters on the ground, National Guards¬man reside
within the communities they serve and are often dubbed the Hometown
Team. It was just a matter of time before a Guard member would be responding
to an emergency in his own back yard, just as several members of the
Jersey Guard had left their own swamped homes to report to their units
during the flood that had inundated a number of commu¬nities a month
Fortunately, from his vantage point in the right-hand seat of the Blackhawk,
Dreher was able to spot his house in the distance and was relieved to
see that the flames, although close, were not about to engulf his property
As our chopper continued to consume fuel, the pilots decided it was
time to return to the Warren Grove airfield. It was then that we heard
that a heavy weather front was moving in and rain was expected. Just
what the doctor ordered. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, Mother
Nature has the last word.