Maximum Power, Supreme Skill
by U.S. Army Sgt. Zachary Sheely, Colorado National Guard
October 28, 2018
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Phil Geraci left the
active-duty Army in January 2018. He said he joined the Colorado
National Guard (CONG) intending, and hoping, to use his skills as a
UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot in real-world operations.
“I wanted to serve. I wanted to keep flying,” Geraci said. “I knew
that the CONG had actual aviation missions, between firefighting and
search and rescue, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
opportunity to serve quickly arrived.
Geraci was part of
Joint Task Force Aviation, a response force package comprised of
helicopters, fire trucks, a forward air refueling point, and
Soldiers from the Colorado Army National Guard. This task force
acted as part of a larger CONG effort supporting local agencies
fighting the Spring Fire in Colorado’s Costilla and Huerfano
The Spring Fire burned nearly 110,000 acres and
ranks as the third largest wildfire in Colorado history.
Nearly 150 CONG Soldiers and Airmen were activated during the Spring
Fire from July 1-13, 2018. Participating units included: 2nd
Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation Regiment, 2nd Battalion,
238th General Support Aviation Regiment, and 140th Security Forces
Squadron, all from Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado; the
233rd Security Forces Squadron, from Greeley Air National Guard
Base, Greeley, Colorado; the High-Altitude Army National Guard
Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colorado; the 193rd Military
Police Battalion and 220th Military Police Company, both based in
Denver; the 188th Forward Support Company, from Pueblo, Colorado;
and, the 217th Space Company, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Two Colorado National Guard
(CONG) UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews with aircraft,
equipped with aerial water buckets, from the Chief Warrant
Officer 5 David R. Carter Army Aviation Support Facility
based at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado, depart
the Spring Fire helibase, in Fort Garland, Colo., to support
fire suppression efforts on July 6, 2018. The team arrived
and began operations on July 2, 2018. On order of the
Governor, the standing Joint Task Force - Centennial
commands and integrates CONG forces to support civil
authorities in assisting Colorado, or supported states,
during times of crisis and disaster, to save lives, prevent
suffering, and mitigate great property damage. (U.S. Air
National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Nicole Manzanares)
The Spring Fire ignited late June
in Costilla County, between Fort Garland and La Veta. The fire rapidly expanded due to the dry
conditions and winds in the high country. Local resources, already
stretched thin fighting other fires in the region, were quickly
exhausted. The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center requested
CONG resources via the State Emergency Operations Center to assist
the Incident Management Teams throughout the state with a standby
search and rescue helicopter. Requests from the affected counties
followed shortly after to support aerial firefighting, security, and
traffic control points.
“The CONG initially sent military
police Soldiers and security forces Airmen to support Huerfano
County by providing traffic control points and to assist local law
enforcement patrol and secure the evacuated areas,” U.S. Army Maj.
Troy Brown, who served as the military liaison to the Spring Fire
incident commander, said.
The need for CONG aviation assets
soon became apparent as national assets were being balanced between
fighting wildfires in Colorado and California. CONG aircraft
provided support during gap times.
“There were many fires
going on in the region,” said Carolyn Blatz, branch director of Air
Operations, Rocky Mountain Black Incident Management Team.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get civilian aircraft, and that’s where the
National Guard comes in. They are very helpful to us and vital to
filling that void.”
COARNG aircrews and two UH-60 Black Hawk
helicopters equipped with aerial water buckets arrived July 2, and
conducted firefighting operations through July 10.
Warrant Officer 3 Edwin Chapin, maintenance test pilot with 2-238th,
has participated in multiple firefighting operations in Colorado
“Once you’re called upon, there’s no greater
sense of pride and accomplishment,” Chapin said. “It does the heart,
mind, body and soul good to know that our training works in
Spring Fire expanded over more than 100,000 acres of dense,
high-elevation land in Southern Colorado’s Sangre De Cristo mountain
range, destroying more than 145 homes. National Guard aviation
assets provided two kinds of support – standby for search and rescue
and firefighting water drops. The aircrews dropped about 462 buckets
of water, spanning nearly 60 flight hours.
According to Chapin, the water dip site for the Spring Fire was
located at an elevation of approximately 9,100 feet. He said the
water drops occurred at elevations upward of 9,600 feet. Each water
bucket holds 500 hundred gallons and weighs approximately 4,000
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Todd Stansbury, commander, 2-135th
and Task Force-Aviation, said this poses numerous challenges for the
pilots and aircraft.
“With water drops, we’re typically
flying at high altitude with extreme weight,” said Stansbury. “Every
time we do a dip, we are at the maximum limit of our power. We are
using maximum power in a mountainous environment, which takes
supreme skill. This is probably some of the most dangerous and
challenging flying we do.”
Chapin explained the challenges of
flying in what he called “less-dense air.”
“As we came up
from a dip, if our rotor rotations dropped below 100 percent, we
dropped the water and tried again,” Chapin said. “It wasn’t uncommon
to see them drop to 95-96 percent, which is not what we want. So, we
immediately dropped the water and went back to try again.”
served in the active-duty Army for more than eight years, primarily
flying air assault missions. He said there are similarities between
the two missions that appear drastically different.
Afghanistan, they say, ‘the enemy might kill you, but the terrain
will kill you,’ if you’re not slow and methodical,” Geraci said.
“The terrain in Colorado is similar, so we try to be methodical, and
rely on our training and think through the operation because the
terrain here is unforgiving.”
Although new to the National
Guard firefighting mission, Geraci credited partnerships, training
and experience of his fellow pilots and crew in the success of the
mission and said he hopes he made a difference.
“I met a guy
at breakfast in Alamosa, big smile on his face and he asked us what
we were doing,” said Geraci. “He said he was going to find out that
day if his house was still there. It really hit me that we’re
affecting people’s lives and hopefully helping people keep their
A Unity Of Effort
The CONG is no stranger to supporting wildland firefighting
operations and places emphasis on improving and refining practices.
In 2010, the CONG aviation community began gathering for what has
become an annual wildland firefighting conference, held in April.
CONG pilots, crew and maintenance Soldiers, together with civil
and first-response agencies, learn more about each other’s
capabilities and communications. There is also practical
application, as the CONG pilots and crews practice dipping for and
dropping water, as called in by ground crews.
Stansbury, the CONG aviators have seen improvement in every aspect
of firefighting, due in large part to the conference and interagency
“Partnerships have been built over practical
application and necessity, but the training is where they are
refined and rejuvenated,” Stansbury said. “The intent is to train
the pilots to integrate in the firefighting structure. Fire and
smoke is missing, but everything else is there.”
to bolstering communication between civilian agencies, military
crews, and National Guard Soldiers have also gained an understanding
about fire itself.
“Now we know what fire behavior is,”
Chapin said. “We have direct communication with the responders on
the ground and we can talk the same language. We know the names,
sections, and positions of the fire, so when they tell us, ‘Hey, we
need you on the left flank. Start dropping at the heel and just tie
in toward the head,’ we know exactly what that means.”
“air boss,” Blatz’ job entails ensuring the right aircraft are on
the job and coordinating with the operations section to ensure that
they get what they need from the air assets. Blatz said the CONG and
civilian aircraft are extremely important to fighting fires.
“They can cool off the fire so that the firefighters can get lines
dug closer to the fire to slow it down and put it out,” Blatz said.
“The State of Colorado has done an excellent job integrating the
CONG and using their skills that are vital in fighting fires.”
Stansbury emphasized the breadth of the CONG’s efforts in
fighting the fires.
“It wasn’t just two helicopters,”
Stansbury said. “It was helicopters from the 2-135th fighting fires
and helicopters from HAATS providing stand-by search and rescue. It
was a unity of effort.”
“We also had our forward arming and
refueling unit providing ‘hot refuel,’ which improved our efficiency
and our safety. We are able to refuel our aircraft much closer to
the fire, and since we don’t have to shut down, we’re able to take
on some fuel and go.”
“It saves a ton of time and increases
because we don’t have to fill our tanks. We can take on
less fuel which means we now have more power with less weight, which
provides a greater safety margin when factoring in the water we were
carrying,” Stansbury said.
Citizen- Soldiers, Citizen-Airmen
CONG personnel deployed to the Spring Fire July 2-13. The
majority of these Soldiers and Airmen serve in a part-time role,
while also working full-time jobs inside and outside the military.
together toward a common goal,” Stansbury said. “Thank you to the
Soldiers and Airmen for stepping up, but also the families and
employers for being separated from their servicemembers.”
“There were a lot of Fourth of July celebrations that were without
members of the CONG because they stepped up to help the State of
Colorado,” Stansbury said.
Chapin said the professionalism
and willingness to help defines these CONG members as “true
Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen.”
“I spent 10 years on active
duty and have been in the National Guard just about ten years. The
professionalism is second to none, here. I am so thankful to be a
part of such a top-notch organization filled with true
“I have great faith in them. I’m proud to
serve with them,” Chapin said.
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