Meeting Of The Special Mission Minds

By Jeff Rhodes Posted 14 March 2011

“We have unique skills within our command, including some special missions in particular,” explained Maj. Gen. James Rubeor, 22nd Air Force commander. “The special missions are the ones that help bring military support quickly and efficiently to civilian agencies in time of need.”

One of three numbered air forces in Air Force Reserve Command, or AFRC, 22nd Air Force is primarily responsible for supporting air mobility operations. Nine of the thirteen wings in 22nd Air Force fly C-130s. Of those, three units fly the special missions. AFRC contributes 100 percent of the US Air Force weather reconnaissance and aerial spray capabilities and twenty-five percent of the Air Force’s Modular Airborne Firefighting System capabilities. These capabilities represent a significant portion of the support the command provides under its federal Defense Support to Civil Authorities mission.

Representatives from the units that fly those special missions met for the first time on 12–13 January 2011 at Peterson AFB, Colorado. Each of the three units had one of its aircraft on static display for other participants and local active duty Air Force personnel to look over. The 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, brought one of its WC-130J Weatherbirds while both the 757th Airlift Squadron at Youngstown ARS, Ohio, and the host 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson displayed one of their C-130Hs with their special mission equipment installed.

“This conference sprang from discussions with members from each unit,” noted Lt. Col. Dave Condit, who runs the Modular Aerial Firefighting System, or MAFFS, program with the 302nd AW. Condit also served as the coordinator for the conference. “We looked at these three missions and found that we have a lot in common. The equipment is different. The execution is different. But there was an amazing amount of crossover.

“We also discovered we have some overlapping issues,” Condit continued. “The way we do our atypical missions, which tend to support civilian authorities, presents issues we have to deal with on a regular basis. But we found that these issues are ones we can raise to those civilian agencies together. That should generate some answers to some operational questions we have. That way, we don’t have to invent what we need to do when we’re responding to a disaster.”

“We found that each wing does its mission really well,” said Capt. Travis Adams, one of the aerial spray mission coordinators and a pilot with the 757th AS at Youngstown. “It was very interesting to see how the other units do business.”

Each of the three special mission units had highlights in 2010.

• The 757th AS, the only fixed-wing aerial spray unit in the Department of Defense, has used the Modular Aerial Spray System, or MASS, for decades primarily to spray insecticide over large areas that are either breeding grounds for, or infested with, disease-carrying insects. The system’s spray bars, which protrude from a four-inch hole in the paratroop doors and are attached beneath the wings, can be installed on the C-130 in under thirty minutes. Four of the squadron’s six aircraft have been modified for MASS missions. Known as the Blue Tigers, the squadron is usually called in after a hurricane to spray insecticide over areas of standing water to eradicate disease-carrying mosquitoes. Squadron aircrews sprayed more than 700,000 acres after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike struck the Texas and Louisiana coasts in 2008.

But last year, 757th AS crews carried out their first-ever operational missions to spray dispersant on oil polluting open water in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. During a six-week operation, squadron crews sprayed 145,000 gallons of dispersant on ninety-two sorties and covered more than 30,000 acres of Gulf waters. “Although we had trained for this mission, we had never done it,” noted Adams. “We found that an actual operation on open water was different from what we had practiced. We’re going to have to make some adjustments to our training.”

• “We weren’t tasked to fight any fires last year, but we did qualify crews and flew training sorties,” noted Condit. “The big thing was fully developing the concept of operations for the MAFFS 2 system.” The 302nd AW, which shares the firefighting mission with three Air National Guard units, converted to the more sophisticated MAFFS 2 system in 2009. “MAFFS 2 allows us to use more existing fire tanker bases without the need for additional support equipment like we had with the original MAFFS. Because we can pressurize MAFFS 2 enroute, we can provide a quicker response to the fire incident commander.” The 302nd AW was activated to support firefighting operations in Israel last December, but the two aircraft and crews had only reached the Azores before the fires were brought under control.

• “We had an extremely busy year in 2010,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Talbot, the chief meteorologist with the 53rd WRS at Keesler. “We flew more than 100 sorties from various locations into storms during the Atlantic hurricane season totaling more than 1,300 flight hours. We had a better than ninety-nine percent mission accomplishment rate.” After this last hurricane season, which ends every year in November, the squadron began flying into winter storms in the Pacific to collect data to help meteorologists from the National Weather Service improve their forecasting accuracy by ten to fifteen percent. The Hurricane Hunter crews had completed ten winter storm missions by the time the conference started.

“From our perspective, the conference was very worthwhile. We learned quite a bit from each other,” noted Condit. “But, we also discovered some coordination and operational issues that we need to work on. We’ll work through those issues over the next couple of months and then see if it’s worthwhile to get together again in the future. It was a huge benefit just to have everybody together in one place at one time.”

Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.