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“Bambi” comes to the rescue
Story and photo by Sgt 1st Class Robert Stephenson, NJDMAVA/PA
TAG at Operation Jump Start

“Fixed wing aircraft at three o’clock,” squawked the voice in my headset.

“Tally,” came the reply.

With those words, the pilot of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter acknowledged the air¬plane just off his right side. Through the smoke and flame of the forest fires raging below, visibil¬ity went from adequate one minute to terrible the next as the chopper flew through the air towing a “Bambi Bucket” which was suspended below. The bucket held more than 660 pounds of water which could be dropped on any number of a haphazard patchwork of fires that threatened homes located in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The fire, which originally started within the confines of the Warren Grove Gunnery Range in Ocean County, threatened to gobble up even more real estate.
Not only was the Blackhawk dodging the smoke and flames, but also a number of other rotary and fixed wing aircraft which had con¬
verged on the area to lend assistance. A few of the aircraft were in direct communication, but the majority of two-seater planes and helicopters from the New Jersey State Forest Service were flying under Visual Flight Rules, which meant that they would not have an air traffic controller advising them of other aircraft, but would have to visually spot each other as our Blackhawk just did. Every time we briefly entered a cloud of smoke, there was always that feeling that we were not alone.

“Wow, did you feel that heat,” exclaimed Lt. Col. Daniel Dreher, commander of the 1-150th Assault Helicopter Battal¬ion, as he piloted our chopper through a particularly nasty plume of smoke and fire. It wasn’t that long ago that the two pilots, Dreher, and Chief Warrant Officer James Den Hartog, and Crew Chief 1st Sgt. Jack Cipolla were flying the unfriendly skies over Tikrit, Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. Smoke and fire were not unfamiliar to any of them.

The Blackhawk was flying with its doors open so that the crew, which was attached to harnesses, could lean out the doors to view the bucket, which was suspended some 20 feet below the chopper. Each plume of smoke carried with it superheated air which toasted the crew in addition to affecting the lift of the chopper as it clawed through the thermals.

We had been in the air more than an hour, continually filling the bucket and then looking for an area where the fire threatened a home or business. Throughout our time in the air Den Hartog reminded us to keep our eyes peeled for the other aircraft which were still in our vicinity. The constant chatter of sightings here and there constantly filled my headset.

Sgt. Simon D. Debran, onboard a UH-60 Blackhawk with a Bambi bucket full of water on the way to deliver its payload. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Robert Stephenson, NJDMAVA/PA.

It wasn’t until midway through the mission that I realized that Dreher’s home was possibly in the path of the fire. He was wondering aloud if his family would have to evacuate any time soon, and whether the next 660 pounds of water might just end up landing on his roof.

Just like the firefighters on the ground, National Guards¬man reside within the communities they serve and are often dubbed the Hometown Team. It was just a matter of time before a Guard member would be responding to an emergency in his own back yard, just as several members of the Jersey Guard had left their own swamped homes to report to their units during the flood that had inundated a number of commu¬nities a month earlier.

Fortunately, from his vantage point in the right-hand seat of the Blackhawk, Dreher was able to spot his house in the distance and was relieved to see that the flames, although close, were not about to engulf his property just yet.

As our chopper continued to consume fuel, the pilots decided it was time to return to the Warren Grove airfield. It was then that we heard that a heavy weather front was moving in and rain was expected. Just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, Mother Nature has the last word.

Table of Contents
Volume 33 Number 2 Staff / Information
(c) 2006 NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs