ATHENS – Greece’s call for international help when wildfires swept parts of the country and islands in July also found an American Black Hawk helicopter team aiding the effort and recounting the stress and dangers.
In a feature, Army Times spoke with 1st Lt. Matthew Blejwas, 24, who – with others from the 3rd Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade — Marne Air — found themselves hovering over the fires to drop water.
The helicopter team included pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Casey and crew chief Sgt. Jordan McLellan, called on for help as they were finishing a joint training exercise with the Greek military, Romania the next stop.
“We were down there doing some high-altitude training and some air assaults,” alongside Greek pilots and special operations personnel, said Casey, combat deployments as an enlisted paratrooper in Alaska before becoming a pilot.
The warrant officer “had actually redeployed to Romania” as one of the unit’s first crews to depart the training, so when the call came, Casey’s crew loaded the unit’s firefighting buckets and gear and immediately flew back across the Aegean Sea to a Hellenic Air Force base near Volos, the report said.
The pilots characterized the flying as technically difficult but rewarding. The water buckets, which McLellan said were filled with ocean water, weighed around 6,000 pounds and dangled about 30 feet below the helicopter. The swaying buckets are impacted by the wind.
The pilots were unable to see the buckets below the aircraft, meaning that crew chiefs like McLellan were telling them where to go and what adjustments to make before the water was released.
“It was…really disconcerting at first being in the front and not being able to see what’s under the helicopter,” said Blejwas. “You’re completely relying on the crew chiefs in the back. It’s a really cool team effort when done right,” he said.
McLellan said despite the danger that helping was “a great experience” and also “a lot of stress,” with high winds swaying the buckets laden down with water that would splash out.
Casey was dispatched to fight a fire on the island of Chios, within sight of Turkey’s coast, that reportedly began after a traffic accident, his crew joining another seven helicopter teams from other countries.
The warrant officer identified the firefighting experience as a high point of the deployment and told the military news site about the changes he’s seen in Europe since his first Atlantic Resolve deployment in 2017.
“I didn’t train with a lot of NATO partners back then. It was a lot of rotations,” he said of working with American allies in the defense alliance.
“This time — it’s a very stark difference. I’ve trained with the Greeks, Bosnians, Romanians, Bulgarians (Italians) …it’s a lot more rewarding, fulfilling now,” he said of how it’s evolved.