May 13, 2011
Crews from the 302nd Airlift Wing are home at Peterson Air Force Base after a busy month of firefighting.
The reservists flew 81 missions to drop retardant ahead of flames that blackened tens of thousands of acres in Texas and Mexico.
The wing’s lumbering four-engined C-130 transport planes blasted the fires from altitudes of 250 feet while rattling through fire-caused turbulence at 120 knots — just 30 knots more than “stall speed,” the point when the plane stops flying and starts falling like a brick.
“The challenge is arriving on the fire and understanding in a short amount of time what the strategy may be, so you can place retardant on the right spot,” said Lt. Col. Robert Fairbanks, one of the pilots who flew missions.
The wing sent four C-130s equipped with special firefighting gear to Texas bases. The firefighting gear allows each plane to carry 3,000 gallons of retardant, which sprays out of the aircraft under pressure to create a man-made fire barrier a quarter-mile long and 60 feet wide. The crews dropped 243,000 gallons during the missions.
Fairbanks said flying low and slow in the 100-foot-long, 41-ton plane looks harder than it really is.
“Once you get on final, it’s pretty easy to maintain the altitude and the airspeed,” he said.
Volunteers from the 302nd were called to assist Mexican authorities on April 17 — the first time Air Force planes have helped battle fires south of the border.
The 302nd is one of handful of military units equipped for the firefighting mission and the only one in the Air Force reserve.
The 302nd crews stayed at the ready all winter, like an aerial version of a volunteer fire department. They left Peterson within hours of the first call for help and flew missions in northern Mexico on the same day they departed Colorado.
Fairbanks, who works full-time for the reserve unit, said it’s not hard to find volunteers for firefighting jobs.
“I think we all are very excited to go wherever we are needed,” said Fairbanks, who joined the unit in 2005.
In Texas, wildfires have scorched 446,000 acres since January, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The fires have done more damage in Mexico’s border provinces, where more than 1 million acres have burned this year.
Fairbanks said a gray haze covered much of west Texas as he flew over, and smoke billowed from burning chaparral.
“I remember our first flight down to the base getting ready to fight the fires in Mexico, the visibility was horrible,” he said.
The Texas fires have been contained and crews are mopping up the fires in Mexico.
The 302nd, meanwhile, is training for a summer season of battling flames in the tinder-dry west.
Fairbanks said his crew will be ready if it’s needed.
“We just really enjoy the mission,” he said.
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