HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Air Force Reserve F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Paul "Buster" Delmonte flies several types of aircraft as part of his full-time civilian job, but instead of dropping bombs he delivers an entirely different kind of weapon. Delmonte, the 466th Fighter Squadron commander, is an aerial firefighter and aviation safety manager with the U.S. Forest Service. Between May and October each year, he flies above fiery mountain ranges to drop smokejumpers and direct the delivery of fire retardant.
He's currently in Durango, Colo. with more than 1,400 forest service personnel to extinguish the West Fork Complex Fire, which as of today has consumed more than 83,000 acres. He's also working alongside Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aircrews deployed there with specially equipped C-130s that are dropping thousands of gallons of retardant on the blazing wilderness area.
Just like flying in a combat zone, conditions above wildfires are often rough and the drop zones are always challenging.
"Typically, we drop the smokejumpers over tight clearings in the forest canopy," Delmonte said. "It takes about 30 minutes to empty the plane and it can be challenging to maneuver through narrow canyons while steering clear of trees and other obstacles." "If the fire is big, often times smoke combined with the angle of the sun will make it extremely difficult to see," he added.
When transporting smokejumpers, Delmonte flies either a DHC-6 or DC3-TP aircraft. Both are known for their ability to fly at slow speeds and in tight circles. The smokejumpers jump from the aircraft, parachuting into rugged terrain to reach areas that are hard to access by road.
When fire retardant is the weapon of choice, Delmonte flies as "lead plane" in a Beech King Air, a smaller, highly maneuverable aircraft. His role is to orchestrate the location and timing for large forest service tankers to drop the retardant, foam or water. "We have a smoke generator onboard - similar to airshow aircraft - so we can mark the start point and designate the best course for the tankers," Delmonte said. "Piloting the lead plane is much like being an F-16 FAC-A (forward air control - airborne). I get the objectives and priorities from the ground incident commander and then go to work sequencing other aircraft over the target." The forest service can send Delmonte anywhere in the U.S., but he typically covers hot spots in the western U.S. like New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and California where wildfires are most common in the hot, dry summer months. During a busy season, a lead plane pilot can assist in putting out as many as 60 fires, he said. So far this year, he's been called to New Mexico, California, Idaho and Colorado.
But with weather reports calling for a record-setting heat wave across the western U.S. this weekend, things are likely just warming up.
"I expect I'll get busier real soon, as July and August are typically our biggest months," he said.