HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --
The 910th Airlift Wing launched its 2018 spray season March 5-16, 2018, at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) near Hill AFB, Utah. The unit operates the Department of Defense’s (DOD) only large area fixed-wing aerial spray capability to control undesirable vegetation, disease-carrying insects, pest insects, and to disperse oil spills in large bodies of water.
More than 60 Reserve Citizen Airmen from several of the 910th’s squadrons including the 757th Airlift Squadron, 910th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 910th Airlift Wing Staff, 910th Communications Squadron, 910th Maintenance Squadron, 910th Medical Squadron and 910th Operational Support Squadron came together to accomplish flying 24 sorties to treat more than 1500 acres of target areas on the range with herbicide over the two-week mission.
According to its fact sheet, the UTTR is a Department of Defense (DoD) Major Range and Test Facility Base, located in north-western Utah and eastern Nevada within the Great Salt Lake desert, approximately 70 miles west of Salt Lake City. It provides a location for operational test and evaluation of weapons requiring a large safety footprint. The range is comprised of seven target complexes that provide nearly 400 air-to-ground targets. It is heavily used in training fighter pilots and bombers, historically averaging more than 14,600 sorties per year. One of the few times this critical training comes to a halt is when a species of plant, known as Halogeton, threatens to overrun the range target areas.
Halogeton is an invasive weed that grows on the range and can potentially become a fire hazard as well as a danger to Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) personnel who, when needed, remove unexploded ordinance from the range, said Lt. Col. Donald Teig, a medical entomologist from the wing’s 757th Airlift Squadron.
“It’s hard to find a little cluster bomb the size of a baseball underneath those things. That’s why the EOD guys love us,” said Teig.
Teig, a Traditional Reservist, also serves the Air Force as a civilian at Tindell AFB, Florida in the civil engineer center. There, he is the pest management subject matter expert for the Air Force and is responsible for writing the service’s aerial spray plan, allowing him to be completely involved in the process from the beginning to end.
According to Teig, herbicides are a type of pesticide. Aerial spray mission entomologists like Teig are certified pesticide applicators. They direct these missions from the ground to ensure that the pesticide is being applied safely, effectively and within weather specifications. According to the 910th’s entomologists, the wing only uses materials registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which are dispersed in a highly controlled application using a Modular Aerial Spray System carried aboard the wing’s specially-modified C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft.
“This is one of the most unique missions we do every year and a very important mission for the UTTR,” said Teig. “The range controllers have to make sure that these targets remain clear of unexploded ordinance (UXOs) and of vegetation, so they don’t cause wildfires out here and to keep it a safe environment to work in.”
This aerial spray mission is critical to controlling invasive weeds at the UTTR, but also in providing invaluable training for 910th Reserve Citizen Airmen, both on the ground and in the air.
Capt. Luke Stouffer, a 757th AS C-130 pilot, said that one of the biggest challenges for pilots during spray missions is the low altitude they need to fly to effectively complete the mission.
“You don’t have much room to work with the wing tips,” said Stouffer. “You have to be cautious of how you’re maneuvering the aircraft when you’re that low, so you don’t hit the ground.
Stouffer accepted a full-time Air Reserve Technician (ART) position at YARS in August of last year. Previously, he was a civilian pilot for a charter company.
“It’s a complete change of perspective,” said Stouffer. “It takes a lot of team work to ensure we’re doing this mission safely. There’s a lot more call outs than on a usual tac (tactical) mission where we’re flying at 500 feet. We make sure that there’s great communication going on inside the aircraft and that all the team members know what the plan is.”
There are lots of moving parts and the 910th brings a diverse group to this mission, all of whom require specialized training, said Major Steven Stroney, the 910th’s Chief of Aerial Spray. Recurring missions like this allow the 910th to logistically prepare for emergency response missions like the ones conducted during the relief efforts following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav. Most recently, the 910th conducted emergency aerial spray operations over 2.7 million acres in eastern Texas for mosquito control in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in September 2017.
Stroney said that the need for the UTTR spray mission is just as strong as the requirements. Years ago, before the 910th took up this mission, the affected areas of the range would experience a down time of two to three months while tractors did what they could against the invasive weeds.
“Now, we do it in two weeks,” said Stroney. “Not only does it help the range folks and EOD personnel out there, but it opens the range up for the fighters and bombers that utilize it throughout the year.”
Stroney also said there is a significant cost savings associated with using aerial spray to perform weed control on the range.
The UTTR aerial spray mission saves the U.S. government $1.5 million annually, or $39 million, since the 910th took over the mission in 1992, according to the 910th Aerial Spray Mission Fact Sheet.
UTTR is one of several locations where the 910th conducts recurring aerial spray missions. Throughout 2018, the 910th is also scheduled to conduct aerial spray operations for the purposes of insect or invasive plant species control at eight DoD installations in the states of Idaho, North Dakota, South Carolina and Virginia.