C-130 Reserve Aerial Firefighting Teams Fly During Second Busiest Forest Fire Season> Air Force Reserve Command> News Article
The 302nd Airlift Wing flew three C-130 aircraft this year from McClellan Refueling Base in Sacramento County, Calif., Performing a unique firefighting aerial mission within the air force reserve.
Since its first activation on July 20, the 302 AW has worked with other military aircraft from the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152 AW, Wyoming ANG’s 153 AW, and California ANG’s 146 AW to drop millions of gallons of flame retardants supporting the efforts fire suppression in California.
On August 25, the eight C-130 aerial firefighting planes were activated for the first time since 2012. The planes are fitted with a modular airborne firefighting system of the United States Forest Service loaded into the cargo bay without require structural modifications to the airframe, allowing crews to drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant in less than five seconds over a quarter-mile expanse of land.
As of September 12, 2021, the combined efforts of these units have resulted in the delivery of 23 million pounds of flame retardants through 925 drops on a variety of fires since ANG assistance was first requested on June 26. . season in the 48 years of MAFFS history. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the host unit of McClellan Air Tanker Base, also broke personal bests this year by mixing and delivering 6.5 million gallons of flame retardants for military aircraft and civilians fighting fires.
“All we do is support the work the aircrews are doing on the ground,” said Lt. Col. Brad Ross, commander of the 302nd Operations Group. “With a few rare exceptions, fire retardant drops cannot extinguish a fire on their own, but slow down the fire and strengthen the lines laid by firefighters, providing a better opportunity to contain the fire. “
Ross said firefighting efforts have focused on the Dixie, Caldor, Antelope, River Complex, Monument, French and several other small fires. Every fire presents its own challenge, whether it’s variations in terrain, visibility issues, or keeping other aircraft separate during larger fires. While there are well-established procedures that prepare crews for these challenges, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“Flying MAFFS is the most tactical and difficult flight we fly outside of deployed combat zones,” said Master Sgt. Michael Davenport, loadmaster of 731 Airlift Squadron. “Flying low in the mountains over ridges and through valleys for delayed drops 150-200 feet above ground level while accommodating weather and fire conditions requires the best, most experienced crews. that a squadron can offer. “
Davenport said the most important part of MAFFS is maintaining situational awareness. Each crew member should be aware of everything that is going on around them as they fly to and from fires. Everyone listens to radio calls, monitors speeds and altitudes, monitors aircraft and MAFFS systems while communicating with each other every step of the way. Situational awareness and protection from tunnel vision are essential for flying in general, but much more important for hovering over forest fires, Davenport said.
The number of drops on a given day depends on a wide variety of factors. During calm breezy days, it is possible for the smoke to linger and have a significant impact on visibility during flight, limiting the crew’s ability to release. They also don’t fly before sunrise or after sunset, as that adds an extra layer of risk to an already difficult mission. When the conditions are right, it is possible for a crew to make 15 drops in a single day.
Everyone should be ready to go within minutes in case a launch order is requested, and crews are often on hold until sunset. Each drop involves a coordinated effort between flight attendants, maintenance crews, CAL FIRE ground staff and the US Forest Service to ensure the process runs as smoothly and safely as possible, the moment it is. the aircraft starts up until the fire retardant is discharged.
“We are all extremely proud to be part of the MAFFS mission,” Davenport said. “Each year we see firsthand what kind of destruction wildfires can cause, so it’s an honor to be part of a larger effort to stop them and keep people safe.”
At one point in the season, all eight military planes were in the air at the same time, working together to fight the Dixie fire over its eastern and western areas. Ross said it can be difficult to maneuver many planes at once during the cargo pits as they descend to fill their MAFFS tanks.
“The time commitments of our on-site maintenance and operations personnel are significant,” said Ross. “Our stated mission is to supply two planes and crews, but now we are supplying three and doing so with great success. Our C-130s have maintained a remarkable mission capability rate due to the hard work and dedication of the 302nd Maintenance Group, and securing a large number of people and equipment to support the operation does not without the help of almost every unit of the 302nd Mission Support Group.
Ross said the number of drops would not be possible without the considerable efforts of the 302 MXG team committed to keeping the aircraft in flight. Of the three planes that the 302 AW provided to firefighting efforts, only one has broken down so far due to maintenance issues that were quickly resolved. Another plane was down for a major inspection that takes a week during normal operations, but the team was finished in just four days. Maintainers provided a 100% aircraft engagement rate for two months, which Ross said was unheard of.
Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, 302 AW air firefighting chief, said C-130 aircrews work alongside other planes such as large and very large federally activated tankers, Air Force RC-26 infrared imaging platforms, helicopters, aerial supervision and water scooper aircraft. They also work with California State S-2 trackers and OV-10 broncos, helicopters, and various other manned and unmanned aircraft. Planes from as far away as Australia have joined in efforts to extinguish the fires this year.
“This required careful coordination between wing leadership, our ANG partner wings and the National Interagency Fire Center, to ensure that we were able to meet the demands of the firefighting effort this year. year, ”Pantusa said. “Our MAFFS team never ceases to amaze me, with many of our operations, maintenance and logistics teams setting out with an overwhelming motivation to do this job well. “
Only experienced aircrews are eligible to become qualified to perform the dangerous aerial firefighting mission, Pantusa said. They are selected from 731 AS crews and require several years of flying experience in a variety of deployed and domestic operations before reaching the initial MAFFS qualification threshold. Once they meet the requirement, they are trained at an annual training event hosted by the US Forest Service. All MAFFS certified crews follow this training every year.
The 302 AW has 10 MAFFS certified crews ready to support the mission with three currently in flight, exchanged weekly.
In the 1970s, Congress created the MAFFS program to assist the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Typically, when all other civilian tankers are activated but further assistance is required, the US Forest Service, through the National Interagency Fire Center, may request assistance from the MAFFS flying units of the US Air Force.
MAFFS is a mission that emphasizes inter-agency cooperation. The 302 AW is a federal force belonging to the Department of Defense, but works in concert with the NIFC and the US Forest Service. The NIFC serves as the focal point for the coordination of national resource mobilization for forest fires. When it is determined that the MAFFS will be used, the NIFC through US Northern Command requests DOD and US Air Force resources.
Pantusa said wildfire conditions in 2021 are at high levels across much of the western United States, and all types of resources have been activated to support the national effort.
Military aerial firefighting efforts are expected to continue until the end of October.