MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – The California Air National Guard's 163d Attack Wing has steeled itself to the toughest domestic operations (DOMOPS) in its history, launching up to three MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) simultaneously in some of the nation's busiest, smokiest airspace to respond to wildfire crises.
After contributing Airmen to both COVID-19 and civil unrest missions earlier in the summer, the 163d took on wildfires in mid-August.
"At this point, we've flown over 24 different fires," said Maj. Lee Nichols, senior intelligence officer in the 163d 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.
The remotely piloted aircraft penetrated fierce firestorms to provide real-time full-motion video of the ground to first responders, mapping fire lines and providing damage assessments.
The culmination of wing efforts came on a night in early September when an MQ-9 tracking the Creek Fire near Fresno 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 people trapped in and around campgrounds, according to the California National Guard's Joint Operations Center.
"We had aircrew 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, 163d 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 163d 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 163d 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."
The three lines of operations across the state were spun up without complications due to two critical preparatory steps: a "groundbreaking exercise" conducted by the operations and maintenance groups last year, and the ever-expanding establishment of the wing's legal authority to fly anywhere its aircraft are needed.
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 said. "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 required diligent negotiations, the building of informal relationships, and cooperation to minimize bureaucratic delay and enable 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 (FAA), 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 said. "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) 163d Reconnaissance Wing pioneered the use of RPAs for firefighting in 2013 – amid 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 written approval of the secretary of defense.
Emergency Certificates of Authorization (eCOA) to fly RPAs for California DOMOPS were limited to "specific geographic locations, to specific fires Cal Fire is asking us to help out on," Jeppsen said. "… 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 163d's RPAs became more crucial in subsequent fire seasons, agencies controlling local and federal airspace gave the wing more leeway, typically establishing a fire season when the wing could fly with preapprovals in place.
"Master Sgt. Chad Jones, an integral part of current operations for many years, built phenomenal rapport with the different agencies, which include passing through Edwards Air Force Base's space for its [test center] special projects," Jeppsen said. "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 said. "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."
Weddington said many people contribute to the success of the flights.
"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," he said. "It is a total team effort just to launch one plane for domestic operations."
In 2018, the wing pushed the boundaries of RPA DOMOPS further by flying across a state line into Oregon to pursue the Klamathon and County fires, while also introducing hand-held devices that enabled first responders on the ground to 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.
"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."