Here's what it's like to drop 11,000 pounds of water on a raging inferno

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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.

An MH-60S Seahawk assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85, dumps water from a full 420-gallon extinguishing trough onto of one of the many areas in San Diego County suffering from an ongoing wildfire. The blaze has already forced more than 250,000 people from their homes.

An MH-60S Seahawk assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85, dumps water from a full 420-gallon extinguishing trough onto of one of the many areas in San Diego County suffering from an ongoing wildfire. The blaze has already forced more than 250,000 people from their homes. (U.S. Navy photo/Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Fahey)

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.

An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, assigned to the "Sea Dragons" of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 12, performs aerial firefighting training exercises using a 1,300 gallon Bambi Bucket Sept. 3, 2020. The HL-5000 Bambi Bucket is a portable and flexible tool designed to facilitate helicopter aerial firefighting and is capable of holding 11,000 pounds of water. This is the first time in history that Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons have conducted aerial firefighting.

An MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter, assigned to the "Sea Dragons" of Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadron (HM) 12, performs aerial firefighting training exercises using a 1,300 gallon Bambi Bucket Sept. 3, 2020. The HL-5000 Bambi Bucket is a portable and flexible tool designed to facilitate helicopter aerial firefighting and is capable of holding 11,000 pounds of water. This is the first time in history that Helicopter Mine Countermeasures Squadrons have conducted aerial firefighting.

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.

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