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Colorado Springs hosts hopping tanker base as airmen rush to combat flames

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - July 11, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

The 302nd Airlift Wing based at Peterson Air Force Base is running firefighting missions out of a temporary air tanker base at the Colorado Springs Airport. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Firefighting airmen from three states have the advantage of a new, temporary air tanker base in Colorado Springs as they continue to tame wildfires raging across the Rockies.

The tanker base, a partnership between the Colorado Springs Airport, Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base, has allowed military and commercial firefighting planes to get a rapid retardant fill-up that is just minutes by air from fires across Colorado and Wyoming.

The Air Force, including Peterson’s 302nd Airlift Wing, has used the facility 57 times over the past 10 days as they work to slow fires, including the nearly 108,000-acre Spring Creek fire outside of La Veta and Fort Garland.

“We did seven sorties in one day with one airplane,” said the 302nd’s Lt. Col. Brad Ross, who is overseeing the Air Force firefighting.

With more than 225,000 acres across Colorado blackened or burning, having a handy tanker base couldn’t have come at a better time. Large tankers used to venture to Arizona or New Mexico to top off with retardant, adding hours to Colorado firefighting missions and costing millions in fuel, said William Cline, who manages the Colorado Springs base for the U.S. Forest Service.

“We really didn’t have the capacity to do this kind of volume,” Cline said.

Reloading air tankers, especially the hulking four-engine C-130s, requires something that Colorado Springs has in vast supply: acres of concrete aprons. The Army and Air Force offered space at an airport facility used for the wartime deployment of Fort Carson soldiers, providing enough room to reload several firefighting planes at a time.

“We get more sorties out,” Cline said.

Having a base so close to the flames also cuts pilot fatigue for airmen such as Maj. Erik Brown, who came to Colorado Springs with his Nevada National Guard unit to help fight the fires here.

Fighting fires from the air is nerve-racking work. Brown, a veteran C-130 pilot who has flown in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan, said even those missions don’t compare with fire battles.

“The amount of situational awareness that’s required, that’s a lot to get your head around,” he said.

Pilots normally equate danger with high-speed, neck-snapping turns. But in firefighting, terror is low and slow.

The C-130s rumble in about half a football field above the flames at 120 knots — just over the massive transport’s stall speed.

If the plane stalls, it becomes a 145,000-pound brick, and the low speed leaves no margin for mistakes.

The C-130’s six-member crew must perform a precise ballet to get the retardant ahead of the fires.

“You’ve got six people working together to get one system ready,” Brown said.

A successful mission drops a line of retardant that’s 100 feet wide and a quarter-mile long to slow the advance of raging fires.

Ross said pilots also have battled the caprices of Colorado’s roiling weather.

“There were some days when they were pretty bumpy,” he said of the turbulence that buffets the firefighting flights.

As firefighters on the ground have gained a better hold on Colorado’s biggest blazes, the pace at the new Colorado Springs tanker base has slowed.

But they need a break. The Forest Service says it has dispensed more than 6 million pounds of retardant slurry at the base over the past couple of weeks to military and civilian firefighting planes.

That’s enough retardant to lay a 100-foot-wide stripe of the stuff from Colorado Springs to Denver.

“It’s been very successful,” Cline said.

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette