CAMP SMITH, N.Y. – Eight New York Army National Guard aviation Soldiers practiced the skills they need to fight brush fires with helicopters over the Hudson River outside Peekskill April 6.
The Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment, based at the Army Aviation Flight Facility at Ronkonkoma, practiced hovering above the river, picking up 660 gallons of water in collapsible buckets slung under the aircraft, and then dumping it on a simulated fire on nearby Iona Island.
The buckets can pick up water from anything they can fit into, from a swimming pool to the Hudson, said Capt. Richard Siracusano, the flight facility operations officer in Ronkonkoma.
"The biggest thing that we're doing here is testing the buckets to make sure that they're working and taking our new pilots through the hands-on training with the water buckets," explained Chief Warrant Officer 2 Brandon Reynolds, a pilot from Bravo Company.
Each spring, aircrews based at the three New York Army National Guard flight facilities in Rochester, Ronkonkoma and Latham practice using the buckets.
The training allows the pilots to qualify to fly firefighting missions and make sure the buckets function properly, Siracusano explained.
The state normally turns to New York State Police pilots and aircraft to conduct aerial firefighting missions. But the New York State Police helicopters are smaller and cannot carry as much water as the Army Guard UH-60 Black Hawks.
When larger fires break out, most recently in July 2018 at Flat Rock State Forest in Altona near Plattsburgh, the state turns to the New York Army National Guard for help.
Two UH-60 aircrews dropped 126,000 gallons of water on that 526-acre fire over three days.
Flying with more than two tons of water suspended beneath the helicopter takes practice, Siracusano said.
The aircrews spent one day training in the classroom and then graduated to the hands-on flying exercise at Camp Smith.
The crews used three helicopters, two UH-60M models and a UH-60L. The UH-60M is the latest version of the Black Hawk and incorporates an all-digital display cockpit, improved rotors, and a more powerful engine.
The training was the first use of the UH-60M. The aircraft began its initial fielding in New York in 2020.
The "glass" cockpit in the newer "Mike" model UH-60 seems to provide greater situational awareness to the pilot during operations, according to Siracusano.
The "Mike" displays moving digital maps, and wind speed and direction on the primary flight display and "height above terrain" digital maps, which let the pilot know where the aircraft is in relation to any rising or mountainous terrain, he said. This is valuable when operating in the Hudson Highlands area, like the team was on April 6.
Using three helicopters allows the crews to make sure that the bucket functions correctly with each aircraft, said staff Sgt. Matthew Cordaro, a Black Hawk crew chief.
One bucket did not work correctly when a solenoid failed and water would not release, so the Soldiers had to switch buckets for that helicopter.
"What we do is dangerous and difficult to begin with, so I think it is nice to be able to train on our jobs, solve problems, and just be able to keep practicing," he said.
This was the first time flying with a full bucket for Chief Warrant Officer 2 Aaron Pacholk, a Bravo Company pilot. He thought the day's training went well.
"After being taught by the instructor pilot, the rest was not a big deal, apart from a few challenges with the water and finding visual references to load the bucket, but other than that, it was pretty smooth," Pacholk said.
"I'm just proud of our unit's ability to adapt to all of these different types of training and figuring all these things out," Pacholk said.