‘The Most Risky Flying': Air National Guard Pilots Face Danger While Aiding Fire Fight

Between 2000 and 2013, there were 298 wildland firefighter fatalities; about 26 percent of them were associated with aviation

You have probably seen the giant airplanes dropping red liquid on the wildfires, but what you may not know is that these airdrops are some of the most dangerous missions a pilot can fly.

NBC4 got an exclusive look into the Air National Guard and the dangers those pilots face.

"This is the most risky flying we will see just about anywhere including combat," said Colonel Brian Allen, an operations group commander for the Air National Guard. He has flown hundreds of combat missions and oversees all flight operations from the Port Hueneme Air Base.

"Some of our folks are former Navy pilots that have landed on aircraft carriers that have been pitching in the dark of night and they say that aerial firefighting is even more dangerous," Allen said.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, there were 298 wildland firefighter fatalities between 2000 and 2013. About 26 percent of them were associated with aviation. One of them was the only Air National Guard wildfire incident in the past 50 years.

"We have training standards and have changed the way we do business because of that," Allen said.

This crew did six drops in one day over the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. Captain Nathan Southwick was the co-pilot.

"We are doing everything we do in combat except we are doing it closer to the ground, in most cases we are doing it heavier and we have a lot more terrain to deal with," Southwick said.

Southwick is responsible for pulling the trigger on a precise target.

"You have 27,000 gallons of retardant coming from the airplane in just a matter of seconds," he said.

The back of the plane carries a huge pressurized tank. Two loadmasters control the parameters of the fluid depending on what's going on below.

"In my opinion it is the most dangerous thing you can do with a military aircraft asset," Southwick said.

Allen says one of his biggest fears is small drones. He also says since most of the pilots are in the Air Guard they couldn't do the job without the support of the commercial airlines they work for.

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