MATHER, Calif. — As of the early morning of Sept. 6, the Rim Fire in California’s Yosemite National Park had burned a total of 246,350 acres, making it the third largest wildfire in the State’s history. At the fire’s most ferocious peak, more than 15 rotary-wing aircraft from the California National Guard were participating in water drops and aerial firefighter transportation. Flying in less than optimal conditions through thick smoke, close to flames taller than the area’s famous sequoias, the CNG successfully assisted in the 80 percent containment of what seemed to be an unconquerable wildfire.
UH-60 Black Hawks, HH-60 Pave Hawks, and CH-47 Chinooks participated in the wildfire efforts. To ensure safe and successful flight operations, it was crucial to keep those helicopters in the best working condition possible and continuously available for use. The aviation maintenance crew from Company F, 2nd Battalion, 135th General Support Aviation Battalion, stationed at Mather Army Air Flight Facility near Sacramento, Calif., worked countless hours to guarantee each aircraft was mission ready.
“With such a high priority natural disaster, our maintenance operations and number of mechanics on-site increased significantly,” said Staff Sgt. Angela Brennan from Fox Company. “We work in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The increase in work-load required Fox Company to recruit volunteer mechanics from other units to assist their normal full-time technician staff, resulting in at least 40 aviation mechanics working at any given time. The maintenance mandatory for safe upkeep of the aircraft is recorded and scheduled to efficiently track and allow timely flights.
“Daily maintenance checks are required after each individual flight, no matter what,” said Sgt. Kurt Krause, a full-time aviation mechanic and crew chief for Fox Company.
Between the time the California National Guard joined the Rim Fire fight on Aug. 16 through Sept. 6, Fox Company performed 328 daily maintenance checks. They were also required to inspect aircraft that had accumulated a lot of flight hours since their last inspection. During this period Fox Company conducted 10 40-hour inspections, and two 120-hour inspections. In addition to mandatory maintenance, there were numerous unscheduled repairs.
“Aircraft would return with landing gear damage, transmission damage, engine leaks, GPS issues, altimeter issues, and countless trouble-shooting issues,” added Brennan.
Although the California National Guard’s aerial firefighting efforts had stopped by September 3, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters remained on rotation in Fresno, Calif., supporting remaining firefighting agencies as a medical evacuation crew. As a military unit, Fox Company has capabilities civilian agencies don’t have as a medevac unit.
“Our night vision goggles are a huge asset no one else has in the air,” said Sgt. David Calderon, an aviation mechanic and crew chief in Fox Company. If a firefighter goes down at night and needs to be medically evacuated, we can go where no one else can. As long as our medics are in the fight, we’re in the fight.”
Even though the Rim Fire had been contained to a controllable size and a majority of the CNG’s participating aircrafts returned to their home stations, the work of an aviation mechanic in Fox Company is never complete.
“We’ll continue working on these helicopters for a good while,” Krause said. “There is always something that will need to be repaired or replaced to keep them running in good condition.”