By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It’s a waiting game.
Under the hot, dry 90-plus degree weather in the afternoon of July 5, Tech. Sgt. Dave Stevens, 302nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, was sitting underneath a tent just off the side of the flightline staring at two C-130 Hercules aircraft.
These C-130s are special; they are equipped with the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, which is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide.
“It’s feast or famine,” he said. “Either you’re busy or sitting around waiting for a mission.”
He considered this a slow day as the crews waited for a launch order, but a slow day was deserved after the controlled chaos on the fightline just a few days earlier.
Stevens is an Air Force Reservist supporting the effort to control wildland fires in the Rocky Mountain region and western United States.
June 26 was busy day for Stevens. The firefighting effort increased June 26 when the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., grew to approximately 17,800 acres, destroyed 346 homes and displaced more than 30,000 people.
He didn’t spend much time under the tent that day. The word busy is an understatement. C-130 after C-130 cycled through the “MAFFS pits” with five to six maintainers performing maintenance on each C-130. On average, maintenance and retardant reloading was completed in 15-20 minutes before re-launching. During one of the operation’ s busiest times, there were eight MAFFS C-130s supporting the firefighting mission across the Rocky Mountain area.
Nearly every year this scene plays out somewhere in the U.S., but this year was unique because MAFFS crews could see the destructive fire in the foothills on the west side of Colorado Springs from the flightline.
“When they were fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, they would take off, and we would get the next aircraft ready. By the time we were done, the next one comes again. They were rotating quickly,” Stevens said, describing his busiest days.
Maintainers with the 302nd AMXS and Maintenance Squadron maintain the aircraft to ensure mission readiness, to include MAFFS missions. This includes basic servicing, repair and inspections, as well as scheduling specialists to examine navigation systems, instruments, electrical, fuels or hydraulics.
“It is my job to see that whatever needs to get done is completed,” Stevens said.
Though the aircraft contains the MAFFS, maintaining it is no different than a standard equipped C-130.
“You still have the same systems,” Stevens said. “The MAFFS unit itself is the firefighting unit inside the C-130. Other than helping install it, we don’t do that much with it. There are [U.S. Forest Service] MAFFS mechanics who maintain that system.”
While the aircraft are being maintained, the MAFFS command staff and aircrews await launch orders. When the 731st Expeditionary Airlift Squadron receives a launch order, its leadership notifies the Air Expeditionary Group commander in Boise, Idaho, for situational awareness. The aircrew members receive the launch orders as well as information they will need for their flight, such as the location for the retardant drop and the weather conditions.
As maintainers ensure the aircraft are ready to fly, U.S. Forest Service contractors load the MAFFS with the retardant used to suppress the fire.
“Once the MAFFS-equipped C-130s leave our station, we may not see them until the end of the night,” said Maj. Michael Delaney, 731st EAS commander. “We give them the initial launch orders then, they receive direction from the dispatch along their way.”
In the air, the aircraft can be redirected to another fire, sent back without dropping their retardant, spend time in the air loitering waiting for a target, or land at another MAFFS tanker base.
Typically, the MAFFS retardant loaded into an aircraft is used on a single fire. However, the system does allow one load to be used on multiple fires.
“It depends on the need,” Delaney said.
The success of the firefighting effort is also dependent on the working relationship between the U.S. Forest Service and the Air Force.
“The working relationship between the Forest Service and the Air Force has always been exceptional,” Delaney said. “They provide what we need and we try to provide the asset that they need. They know how important we are to the fight and they take care of us.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Mike Miller, Forest Service MAFFS liaison officer. He coordinates between the Geographical Area Coordination Center, which handles the fires in a geographic area, and the military to deliver the retardant to the fire.
“It’s a smooth working relationship,” Miller said. “We ensure the MAFFS are working and supply their logistical needs such as the retardant and fuel. They supply the airframe to get to the fire.”
To ensure currency, MAFFS aircrews and support personnel attend a week-long joint Air Force — U.S. Forest Service training event every spring, typically before the fire season.
“The training allows us to get back, fly and interact with the Forest Service,” Delaney said. “It also allows us to get together as [MAFFS] crews and communicate. It helps us build camaraderie.”
This is evident among the 12 flight crews, three staff members and 20 maintainers who are part of the effort.
“The teamwork is exceptional,” Delaney said. “We only hand-pick the elite, those we perceive to be the best individuals we have for this mission. It’s a high-risk mission. We take it very seriously.”
The 2012 MAFFS operation stood up June 24. As of July 8, the operation had conducted 145 air drops and discharged more than 380,081 gallons of retardant.