At Naval Station Norfolk, a Different Kind of Bucket Line to Fight Fires

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An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter performs aerial firefighting training.
An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter performs aerial firefighting training exercises using a 1,300 gallon Bambi Bucket Sept. 3, 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Sawyer Connally)

They broke the Bambi Buckets out of storage a few weeks back, after seeing how Navy helicopters pitched in to battle California's wildfires. Now Norfolk-based helicopter pilots are practicing the careful art of flying the six-foot, collapsible fabric bucket to drop 11,000 pounds of water on roaring blazes.

Lugging that much water 30 feet below the cargo hook of one of the Navy's workhorse MH-53-Echo helicopters has a different feel than the more usual loads of heavy supplies pilots and aircrews are used to placing on the pitching decks of ships at sea, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Spencer of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron 12.

"When you drop it, you can feel it," Spencer said. A pilot has to be ready to compensate for the sudden lightening of load, he added.

After seeing what its helicopter can do out west, the Navy wanted to be ready to offer the same helping hand on the East Coast, Spencer said.

Learning to fight fire from the air means getting a feel for when and how to dump a concentrated load of water -- "like an 11,000 pound cylinder," as Spencer put it -- and how to fly if what's needed is to spread water over a wider area.

It means knowing how the heat from big fire creates turbulence, and how the blast of air from a big helicopter's 79-foot-across rotors can fan flames in dangerous ways.

But getting water to the right spot is a lot like what Squadron 12 pilots and air crews usually do, said Master Chief Lance Howarth, who has flow more than 100 hours with Spencer.

The two to four aircrew members who fly on an MH-53E have the challenging task of directing the aircraft's pilot and co-pilot to exactly the right spot at exactly the right altitude to safely deliver a heavy load.

"We use the same communication procedures" when the load is a Bambi Bucket as when it is cargo for a ship, said Howarth.

Squadron 12 is the Navy's only MH-53E Fleet Replacement Squadron. responsible for training pilots and air crew to handle a wide variety of missions, from minesweeping, to moving heavy loads to humanitarian assistance after disaster.

Helping out, in other words, is part of the mission.

"That's why we do what we do," he said.

This article is written by Dave Ress from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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