By Tech. Sgt. Peter Dean
302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — From April 20 through April 23, area residents of southern Colorado, especially those in the remote mountainous areas near the Pike San Isabel National Forest may have received a spectacular view of the underbelly of a U.S. Air Force Reserve C-130 equipped with a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System.
In preparation for the upcoming 2012 wildland firefighting season, the U.S. Forest Service and Reservists from the 302nd Airlift Wing held their annual Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems re-certification and training, April 20 through April 23 here. The training, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and jointly conducted by the Air Force Reserve and U.S. Forest Service, included 12 hours of ground and classroom training and 35, C-130 MAFFS training missions.
The MAFFS certification missions left Peterson Air Force Base nearly every hour during daylight hours heading west to the Pike San Isabel National Forest. With each generated mission, another aircrew received highly specialized, critical training in sighting and flying with a U.S. Forest Service lead aircraft, flying at the required low altitudes to make the drops effective and dropping water on a specific simulated target. And, upon return of the aircraft, U.S. Forest Service crews received practice in the quick turn of reloading the MAFFS units with water.
During this year’s certification, 12 Air Force Reserve aircrew members received initial certification and 48 previously certified received refresher MAFFS training. Because of the extreme challenges presented by flying slow, low and heavy, only the most experienced C-130 aircrews train for this mission.
“These are really experienced pilots, many with thousands of flying hours. But this isn’t the typical mission they’ve flown throughout their careers. They really need to practice and re-certify every year,” said Lt. Col. David Condit, Air Force Reserve chief of aerial firefighting and 731st Airlift Squadron C-130 instructor and evaluator navigator.
In past years, the U.S Forest Service led MAFFS training was performed in a central location, with each of the four countrywide MAFFS units, three being Air National Guard and one Air Force Reserve traveling for training and re-certification.
“Usually we have an annual briefing that brings all four of the MAFFS units in the United States together. This year we are doing ‘mini’ MAFFS, to save money. We are doing the training at a local level,” said Lynn Ballard, senior military liaison, U.S. Forest Service.
According to U.S. Forest Service statistics, annually, on average there are 78,000 fires throughout the United States, burning approximately 6.5 million acres.
“Air tankers including MAFFS II play a significant role in suppressing 95 percent of wildland fires in the initial attack stage. There is a very low percentage of wild fires that get to the large stage,” said Ballard.
Ground crews comprised U.S. Forest Service personnel ensure the portable U.S. Forest Service MAFFS unit, that is capable of holding 3,000 gallons of retardant [only water is used during training] is fully operational and ready to go when the trigger is squeezed.
Then, once all systems are set to go, the C-130s taxi down the runway with their 42,000 pound payload for the aircrew to deliver the retardant on the target. Once on site, the MAFFS equipped C-130, flying just above stall speed and a mere 150 feet above the ground is led into the drop zone by a U.S. Forest Service lead plane and directed where to drop the fire retardant, usually forming a fire line or barrier.
“Annual MAFFS training allows us to stay mission ready and hit the target at the right time, ensuring our drop is very effective,” said Lt. Col. Robert Fairbanks, MAFFS instructor pilot and chief of aircrew standardization and evaluation, 302nd Operations Group.
“This year’s training couldn’t have gone any better, it was some of the best training we’ve ever had,” said Condit.
According to Ballard, MAFFS is one of many tools used by the U.S. Forest Service to suppress wildland fires. The U.S. Forest Service commander on the ground assesses many factors and makes the determination whether to utilize ground crews, bulldozers, commercial tankers or MAFFS or a combination of some or all to combat and suppress the wildfire.
The military authority for the MAFFS program was created in the early 1970’s to support wildland firefighting through an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. Today, the military aircraft are requested by the National Interagency Fire Center and activated through the U.S. Northern Command, based on an agreement with the Department of Defense. The MAFFS program, now in its 40th season has had zero fatal accidents.