Published: May 14, 2014
Four-engine C-130s will fly low over the mountains south of Pikes Peak for the next week as airmen with a Peterson Air Force Base wing prepare for another summer of fighting wildfires.
The 302nd Airlift Wing will have two aircraft and several crews ready to battle flames on short notice after the training, even as commanders ponder how proposed Air Force cuts could impact that mission in 2015.
"It's going to be a challenge," said Col. Courtney Arnold, the wing's commander.
The wing, which now has 12 aircraft and 1,500 airmen, has gained fame in Colorado for dropping retardant to slow the spread of fires, including the Black Forest and Waldo Canyon fires. The Air Force wants to pare 200 airmen and four planes from the wing as part of a wider Pentagon plan to cut $900 billion in spending over a decade.
"When you go to eight planes, you could have to limit yourself," Arnold said.
Congress and U.S. Northern Command boss Gen. Chuck Jacoby have asked the Air Force to study whether the cut to the 302nd would hurt firefighting.
The wing is working to determine what impact, if any, the cut would have.
It's a matter of whether other missions will overstretch the downsized wing when it is needed for firefighting. The 302nd's primary mission is to haul passengers and cargo.
The firefighting mission has a higher profile but occupies only a fraction of the wing's flying time.
In 2013, the wing flew 187 retardant-dropping missions, requiring 118 hours in the air.
The actual retardant drops represent a portion of the firefighting work, which also requires using cargo planes to haul supplies and maintenance crews to support two firefighting planes.
No timeline has been given for when the Air Force will respond to questions about the impact of the 302nd cuts.
Demand for Air Force aerial firefighting planes has grown in recent years due to drought in the west and a lack of civilian planes to battle flames.
"They've been using us a lot more," said Chief Master Sgt. Dave Carey, who has flown the firefighting missions since the 302nd was given the job in 1991. "I love it."
Most airmen in the 302nd are reservists who serve part-time. But there's been no shortage of volunteers willing to give up weeks of civilian work to fight fire from the sky.
"Being a part of that is important," said Tech. Sgt. Justin Thompson, who is training for his first season of firefighting.
Thompson said his family worries about the danger involved.
"My wife doesn't like it," he said.
Fighting fires means taking the lumbering C-130s through roiling air at slow speeds and at low altitudes - 100 feet and 120 mph.
The lines of retardant don't douse flames, but form a barrier to slow their movement, allowing firefighters on the ground to gain momentum.
The danger isn't a deterrent for airmen.
"I've always wanted to do this," said Senior Airman Seth Thomas.