Historic Helicopter Battles Blaze

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For many Vietnam-era Marines, the bureau number 156674 holds special meaning. It's the official number identifying one of the last helicopters to lift off from the U.S. Embassy during the 1975 fall and evacuation of Saigon.

But this week, the aircraft is providing hopes of a new deliverance as the now civilian-owned CH53D Fire Stallion fights the February Fire burning 12 miles north of Payson.

The helicopter, owned and operated by Heavy Lift Helicopters, is the first civilian-operated CH53D.

"The company has been working at getting these helicopters for a long time," said assistant crew chief Ryan Zierman. "We currently own two of them, but hope to have a whole fleet."

The second Fire Stallion is currently having internal tanks installed, eliminating the drag of the water bucket while in flight.

Zierman, who named the helicopter "Invidia Classis," Latin for Envy of the Fleet, said the helicopter is reliable, fast and strong.

"What's unique about this helicopter is that it can carry 2,000 gallons internal at 170 knots, which is roughly 190 miles an hour," Zierman said. "That gives us the advantage of getting to the fire fast and getting water onto the fire soon after we're called. Like today, we were called and two hours and 45 minutes later -- from Apple Valley Calif. -- we were on this fire, dropping water 2,000 gallons at a time.

"One of the reasons we're here is 95 percent of the employees at Heavy Lift Helicopters are former military and they're used to serving their country and their local communities. There are people's homes out there, and together with the Forest Service we want to get this fire contained before it puts any of those homes at threat."

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Assistant crew chief Ryan Zierman served in Iraq as a Marine before signing on with Heavy Lift Helicopters. See the video on payson.com featuring an interview with Zierman.

Fitting for its role in U.S. history, the 88-foot, 23,500-pound helicopter is painted the company colors of red, white and blue.

Payson area residents who drive by the airport, or keep their eyes on the skies, might catch a glance of bureau number -- or as Marines call it, BUNO number -- 156674.

"A lot of guys who served in the Marines will know that BUNO number," said crew chief Jack Still, who is a retired U.S. Marine Corps master sergeant. "It transported a lot of soldiers for a lot of years."

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