The 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base prepared Tuesday for its 24th summer battling flames.
The wing is sending a pair of its C-130 transport planes and crews to Boise, Idaho, this week to hone their aerial firefighting skills. The planes carry a system that can shoot out nearly 154 tons of retardant slurry to fence in wildfires so crews on the ground can snuff them out.
The reserve unit's part-time airmen say its one of the military's most challenging and rewarding jobs.
"Wildfires are never happy," said Staff Sgt. Michael Davenport, a load master on one of the planes. "But I want to be part of the crew to put them out."
It's also a job that has kept airmen coming back to the 302nd. Most of the pilots and crew members involved in battling flames for the wing have been doing it for a decade or more.
"You keep seeing the same guys," said Lt. Col. Rich Pantusa, a pilot who has more than a dozen years of aerial firefighting under his belt.
It's not an easy job, though. Dropping retardant ahead of wildfires means flying a heavily laden plane just over the treetops through fire-roiled air.
The four-engined, 100-foot-long planes roar over the flames at 200 feet and just above stall speed - about 120 mph. The retardant is released from the plane to form a fireline that's 20 yards wide and up to a quarter-mile long.
Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Flight said the roller coaster ride is an unforgettable experience.
"This is probably the most sought-after experience you can get in a C-130," he said.
So far, the wing is hopeful it won't have to do much firefighting in Colorado skies this summer. Pantusa said long-term forecasts show a below-average risk for wildfires in the Rockies, thanks to ample winter snow.
But the wing, which has battled flames from Alaska to Mexico, is on alert for blazes elsewhere.
Flight, who's got 14 years of firefighting experience, said the crews will be ready and eager to answer the call.
"It's a lot of fun to be part of the mission," he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240