SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, –
When U.S. Army Sgt. Kelly Steckler first heard about the fire during the afternoon of March 4, he didn't quite believe it.
"We were out at the aircraft doing maintenance and were told there was a fire and we needed to get ready for firefighting operations," said Steckler. "At first I didn't think it was serious, but then I quickly realized this was the real deal."
Steckler, a standardization instructor and crew chief assigned to Alpha Company, 1-228th Aviation Regiment, quickly made his way to a briefing room where planning was underway for a real-world Bambi bucket operation to combat a fire that was threatening local Honduran villages.
"We got a call that the Hondurans were frantically requesting our assistance to put out a fire that was rapidly approaching the main highway between Comayagua and Tegucigalpa and was threatening some towns," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. E.J. Irvin, 1-228th Aviation Regiment Commander. "The fire was growing, and it was spreading much faster than it could be contained."
Running a Bambi bucket operation, during which aircrews use a collapsible bucket to pick up water and drop it on a fire, is nothing new for the aircrews of the 1-228th, and within an hour a UH-60 Blackhawk had already dropped two full buckets, more than 900 gallons of water, on the blaze.
But then, a new element of risk was added to the mission: It got dark.
"No one in the unit was qualified to fly Bambi bucket operations using night vision goggles (NVGs)," said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Justin Roland, a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot assigned to Alpha Company, 1-228th Aviation Regiment. "So when it got too dark we had to put the helicopter down in a landing zone. The other aircrew arrived and we began the process of qualifying to fly the mission under goggles."
To accomplish this, pilots and crew members had to "self-start" and qualify on the spot to fly the mission.
"When no one is qualified, we can take a standardization instructor and instructor pilots and essentially qualify ourselves," said Steckler. "We get out there and we do the task and we see what works, what doesn't work, and then create the standard for accomplishing that task on the fly. At this time, we were doing a real mission on top of self-starting, so things were pretty intense."
Once the pilot and crew chiefs had qualified for the night flying task, the mission resumed, now with the aircrews assuming the heightened risk of flying under NVGs while maneuvering with the full Bambi bucket attached to the helicopter.
"When full, that bucket holds about 4,000 pounds of water," said Irvin, who was flying the second aircraft at the scene of the fire. "It's a challenge when you are getting water from the lake, because even in daylight there are no references to hover when you are over the water. That is compounded at night because there are no references and it's extremely dark. So we were flying in the dark with low illumination, over water, and on the verge of maximum power pulling the water from the lake."
But these weren't the only dangers the aircrews were facing when battling the blaze.
"Flying under goggles with the brightness of the fire is a difficult task," said Roland. "The intensity of that light can shut down the NVGs. We had to think about how we were going to approach the fire to make sure we weren't blinding ourselves when we went in."
To mitigate this risk, Irvin said the pilots approached the mission from the east to the west in order to get more black reference and not come straight into the high intensity light.
Following this plan of attack, the two Blackhawks made continuous trips back and forth to a nearby lake, flying through the darkness and dropping more than 10,000 gallons of water onto the raging flames below. Finally, after almost four hours of nonstop aerial firefighting, the fire was extinguished and the helicopters were able to return to base.
Steckler said being a part of an operation that went above and beyond in helping those in need was a special experience.
"Knowing that we have this capability, and being able to reach out and help like we did, it just serves to strengthen the great relationship we have with Honduras," said Steckler.
"One of the reasons I wanted to be here was to be a part of real-world missions to help people," said Roland. "Once you get that call and you are able to help out people in need, it's an incredible feeling that I really can't even put into words."
For his part, Irvin said he is extremely proud of how his regiment responded to the challenge at hand and overcame challenges and risks in order to help the people of Honduras.
"They asked for our help and we had the ability to respond and provide that help. Anything we can do, anything we can give, we are going to do it. In this instance, it's a good feeling to know that we were able to help someone, potentially save someone's home, maybe saved their town, and stopped a fire that could have gotten out of control very quickly. It's something very special."