As if hardened by fire, the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing, March Air Reserve Base, Calif., has steeled itself to the toughest domestic operations tasking in its history.
Launching the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft from its southern California base, and navigating some of the nation’s busiest and smokiest airspace, the wing has flown up to three MQ-9s simultaneously, for the first time ever, in response to one of the state’s worst wildfire crises.
After having contributed Airmen to both COVID-19-related and civil unrest missions earlier in the summer, the 163rd took on wildfires mid-August, flying continuously since. “At this point, we’ve flown over 24 different fires,” said Maj. Lee Nichols, senior intelligence officer in the 163rd Operations Group. “That’s meant doubling our support of any year in the past.”
The wing was first activated to assist the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) on the now practically contained LNU Lightning Complex fires ravaging forests northeast of San Francisco. By mid-September, the wing had flown the length of the state, launched over 70 sorties, and crossed the 1,000-mission hours mark, racking up more than 600 hours on station, when the MQ-9s’ combat-built intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors were penetrating fierce firestorms to provide real-time full motion video of the ground to first responders, mapping fire lines, and proving damage assessments.
The culmination of wing efforts came on a night in early September, when an MQ-9 tracking the Creek Fire near Fresno, Calif., spotted landing sites for Army National Guard Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters, setting the stage for the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade’s dramatic rescue of 396 citizens trapped in and around campgrounds, according to the California National Guard’s Joint Operations Center.
“We had air crew members with family and friends at those lakes, and told them to get out of there,” said Capt. Eric Jeppsen, 196th Attack Squadron chief of current operations. “The infrared capability cut through the smoke. We’re thousands of feet above a fire so fierce it was generating its own weather, in this case, causing thunderstorms. Our role was helping intel determine where the helicopters needed to go.”
“It’s important that we’ve got three lines flying now,” said Maj. Josh Weddington, commander, 163rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “At one point, we were doing two fire-mapping missions providing intelligence and surveillance to incident commanders on site, while performing damage assessment with the third sortie. At any point, we could be mixing these missions between fire mapping and/or flying over fires to help the incident commanders marshal their forces on the ground to extinguish the fires.”
Pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence officers have flown in from Reaper units in eight states as distant as New York to bolster the 163rd crews’ jump to 24/7 operations. “The guest help has been hugely instrumental to surging to three lines,” said Jeppsen, a combat pilot with the wing’s expeditionary unit who’s been taking the stick for fire missions when necessary. “The timing has been difficult.”
“Our primary mission at the 163rd is to conduct Formal Training Unit operations,” said Weddington. “Even though we’d like to say that we’re built for 24/7 operations, we’re not staffed like an active-duty base.
When you throw DOMOPS in the mix, and we go 24 hours, we have to get very creative with our manpower scheduling.”
“It is not as if you can throw any 8- or 9-man team at an aircraft and you’re fine,” Weddington continued. “You have to task people who are signed off, qualified and skilled to do the very particular jobs that are required for launching and recovering aircraft. You can’t swap out Peter for Paul. It has to be Peter doing his job, and Paul doing his.”
A testament to the “train as we fight” tenet of the wing, the three lines of operations across the state were spun up without complications due to two critical preparatory steps that seem to have anticipated the crisis to come: a “groundbreaking exercise” conducted by the Operations and Maintenance groups last year, according to Weddington; and the ever-expanding establishment of the wing’s legal authority to fly anywhere its aircraft are needed, clearing the way for unprecedented “dynamic tasking,” according to Jeppsen.
The prescient Ops and Maintenance exercise “was a pilot program to see if it’s doable, and what the impact would be, from the operational risk management perspective,” Weddington recalls. “We knew we were eventually going to have to exercise this option. So, we tried everything from launching from different spots, to improve our launch and recovery efficiency, to moving to three-line operations, to see how we could surge, and what effect that would have on the Formal Training Unit,” the wing’s priority, as the heart of its national school for training RPA pilots and sensor operators.
The ability to navigate at will throughout the state also required diligent negotiations, the building of informal relationships, and extraordinary cooperation that could minimize bureaucratic delay and provide for a timely response. “We started to work all the mission-planning products and what is ultimately a rigorous process of coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration, all of the air control centers on the west coast—L.A., Oakland, Seattle Center, and northern and southern California TRACON [Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities],” Jeppsen explained. “We have military liaisons at these centers, so we began reaching out to them, telling them what we would like, what we’re thinking, where we’ve got to go. They help coordinate with the centers to help determine the best routing and altitude so that we don’t disrupt commercial air traffic flow, or at least minimize the impact.”
When the (then)163rd Reconnaissance Wing pioneered the use of RPAs for firefighting in 2013—amidst concurrent battles abroad in the Global War on Terrorism—the initial sortie of an MQ-1 Predator in the domestic airspace involved days of negotiations with the FAA and air-traffic controllers, and required the written approval of the Secretary of Defense. Then, Jeppsen recalls, the Emergency Certificates of Authorization to fly RPAs for California DOMOPS were limited to “specific geographic locations, to specific fires Cal Fire is asking us to help out on…We’d work it out with the FAA to say, ‘We want to fly from March Air Reserve Base, via this routing, to get to this very specific point, and loiter within x-amount of miles to support fire operations there.’ It’s easy to do a cookie-cutter launch under those conditions.”
As the support of the 163rd’s RPAs became more crucial in subsequent fire seasons, the local and federal airspace-controlling agencies gave the wing more and more leeway, typically establishing a fire season, months in which the wing would be expected to fly with pre-approvals in place. “[Sensor Operator] Master Sgt. Chad Jones, an integral part of current operations for many years, built phenomenal rapport with the different agencies,” Jeppsen says, “which include passing through Edwards Air Force Base’s space for its [test center] special projects. Those relationships opened a lot of doors.”
By 2018, the wing had procured the first eCOA to fly anywhere in northern California. And when a fire in southern California’s Apple Valley flared early this month, the perfect storm of 2020 had finally gathered.
Responding to a Cal Fire request for 163d overwatch, “Jones went for broke and just asked for authority to fly the entire state. We have the dynamic tasking ability to operate anywhere in the state and at any time, once we were airborne.”
The dynamic tasking capability “is paying huge dividends, especially in the ad hoc tasking for Grizzly Line 3, at night,” Jeppsen insists. “It goes anywhere it is needed, north or south, or both. Sometimes we’re scouting the fires at night to gather pertinent information for the next morning.”
“When an aircraft takes off, it may look like it’s only Maintenance and Ops who make it happen,” said Weddington. “But there are so many people who are working and executing at the highest level to get these planes over target. We have incredible support from the Logistics and Readiness Squadron, Mission Support Group, Headquarters, and more getting the teams everything from lodging, supplies, equipment, and fuel to fly. It is a total team effort just to launch one plane for Domestic Operations.”
The wing’s development and maturation of RPAs for firefighting has been creative and unceasing. In 2018, the wing pushed the boundaries of RPA DOMOPS further by flying across a state line into Oregon in pursuit of the Klamathon and County fires, while also introducing Android Tactical Awareness Kits, hand-held devices with which first responders on the ground could gain situational awareness and direct the video feed of the RPA overhead. Hovering over the Ranch Fire of the Mendocino Complex blaze that year, then the largest in the state’s recorded history, the MQ-9’s ability to provide a live picture of inaccessible terrain triggered a desperate, last-minute evacuation, and likely saved lives.
The continual advance of the 163rd’s innovation has not been lost on the agency it has more frequently been tasked to serve during state emergencies. “Over the years, as the fire seasons have gotten worse, we are relying more and more on the military for the technology that they already have in place,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, Cal Fire public information officer. “The great working relationship with the National Guard has made using their assets easier every season.”
Of the torrid ops tempo of 2020, Nichols simply commented: “It’s an honor to answer the call of our state leadership and contribute to the safety and wellbeing of our fellow citizens.”
“Whenever you show proof of concept that you can do something, you’re going to be asked to do it the next time,” Weddington concluded. “You have to make sure you have the programs in place to continue doing that while balancing your other missions. It has been a perfect storm, in that everything is going bad at the same time, but it is also a testament to how strong our team is. We’re in the fight and we’re going to keep working hard, which is the Grizzly way.”
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