A small, white, twin-engine Beechcraft King Air aircraft crests the ridge and drops down into the valley. A much larger, gray, four-engine C-130 transport immediately pops up and follows the King Air into the gorge. On cue, the C-130 crew, now flying at 130 knots and only 150 feet above the ground, releases 3,000 gallons of water, hitting the exact line where the spotter in the lead plane wanted it to go. Coordination between the two aircraft is critical.
“We try to train exactly how we would operate in a forest fire. The only thing that is missing is the fire and smoke and the turbulent air near the ground,” said Lt. Col. Wylie Walno, the military commander for the annual Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS, training, held in May 2009 at Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Arizona.
More than 300 military personnel and seventy-five US Forest Service, other government agency, and associated contractor personnel attended the weeklong training period. During the session, procedures were reviewed, new aircrew members were qualified, and multiple water drops were made on simulated fire lines in the mountains near the city.
Three Air National Guard C-130 units—the 145th Airlift Wing at Charlotte, North Carolina; the 146th AW at Channel Islands ANGS, California; and the 153rd AW at Cheyenne, Wyoming— along with the 302nd Airlift Wing, the Air Force Reserve Command Hercules wing at Peterson AFB, Colorado, are tasked with the MAFFS mission. Each wing has two of the palletized MAFFS units. However, by law, the military can only be called in to assist when all available commercial airborne firefighting assets are engaged in fighting a blaze.
The 2010 fire season will mark the thirty-seventh year of MAFFS operation. Crews have flown close to 6,700 MAFFS sorties since the program began and have dropped more than 167 million pounds of retardant on fires across the United States.
In 2009, the C-130J made its debut as did the new and improved MAFFS 2 equipment, which, while specifically designed for operation with the Super Hercules, can be used on any Hercules. Last year, Channel Islands and Colorado Springs operated the MAFFS 2 on both the C-130J and C-130H, respectively. This year, all four wings are scheduled to operate the MAFFS 2 equipment. Aero Union Corporation in Chico, California, builds both types of MAFFS equipment.
“MAFFS has been described as the most dangerous thing we do,” says Col. Robert Baxter, an aircraft commander at Channel Islands. “It is very challenging and it tests the skills of the pilots. We fly a heavy aircraft at low altitude, but that’s something we’re trained to do. C-130 crews adapted very quickly to firefighting and have been very successful at it. People see the effectiveness of this system when we put a line of retardant between the back deck of their house and the fire line.”
A series of devastating wildfires on Air Force-owned property and on private lands in California in 1970 and 1971 led to the development of MAFFS. During those blazes, commercial firefighting aircraft, known as tankers, became so overwhelmed that the need for an emergency backup system was evident. Funding for initial design, development, production, and testing of a prototype system was provided by the Air Force and was completed in 1973.
Congress established the MAFFS program under the US Forest Service, which actually owns the equipment. MAFFS was declared operational in 1974. MAFFS can drop either water or retardant, which is a phosphate-based fertilizer mixed with water, and orange dye, so the mixture can be seen from the air and from the ground. Because this goopy blend—of ten derisively called “elephant snot”—is highly corrosive to aircraft, a rust inhibitor is also added. The most commonly used retardant goes by the brand name PHOS-CHeK—and arrives at fire air attack bases on a semi-trailer in one-ton bags. Each gallon of mixed retardant weighs about ten pounds. When the retardant is applied correctly—from the optimum altitude at the most efficient speed—it can put out a fire by smothering it or by coating the vegetation to prevent it from catching fire, thus providing a firebreak.
After the water evaporates, the fertilizer in the retardant promotes new growth. “The forest resource officer assigned to each fire will decide whether to use water or retardant,” says Clay Meyers, a Forest Service air tanker base manager.
“While retardant is the first choice, we won’t use it in areas with endangered plants and animals, for instance. We’ll use water instead.” Only water is used at the annual weeklong MAFFS unit training sessions to reduce expense, mess, and maintenance. The 2010 training session was held near Greenville, South Carolina, in late April.
Legacy MAFFS is a series of five 500- gallon aluminum tanks that are rolled onto the aircraft on connected, standard-size, military 463L cargo pallets. The system is pressurized by large ground-based compressors during reloading.
Over the fire, two articulated nozzles are positioned over the C-130’s open cargo ramp, and the 30,000 pounds of retardant in the tanks and ducts can be released in three short dumps or all at once in about ten seconds, leaving a swath 150 feet wide by 1,500 feet long. While legacy MAFFS is like a bucket, MAFFS 2 is more like a Super Soaker water gun—only as much retardant as necessary is dispensed out of its single, 3,000-gallon tank to allow for multiple passes over a fire. On MAFFS 2, the retardant is dispensed through an S-shaped duct to a single nozzle mounted in the aircraft’s left paratroop door. An easily removable plug door with a rubber collar fitted around the nozzle allows the aircraf t to remain pressurized.
Because the ramp isn’t open during drops, retardant doesn’t blow back into the cargo hold, and the smoke and heat from the fire are also kept out.
Like the original MAFFS, MAFFS 2 is also a three-pallet roll-on/roll-off system except that it has its own onboard compressors powered by the aircraft’s electrical generators. The onboard compressors allow for faster turnaround because, after the aircraft is reloaded on the ground, the retardant can be pressurized while the aircraft is enroute to the fire.
“MAFFS 2 is a more sophisticated system,” says Scott Fisher, an aviation management specialist with the Forest Service. “The nozzle forcefully directs a stream of retardant. The spray comes out at about seventy miles per hour and is optimized for the best coverage on the ground, and it keeps retardant off the tail of the aircraft. MAFFS 2 lets us be more effective around the fire. It’s sort of like using a ruler versus a yardstick to set off fire limits.”
The prevalence of yearly wildfires over the last several decades, particularly in the western United States, has brought about the need for permanent fire bases around the country. These facilities have basic necessities like pumps, hoses, holding tanks, and mixing tanks.
Other logistics and support, like communications equipment, security, food and water, and places to sleep for the hundreds of people necessary to fight the fires, are brought in just like at bases near the fires or at training sites, such as Tucson. When the MAFFS units deploy, they bring in their own ground personnel and additional aircrews, as well as spare parts for the aircraft. A MAFFS activation is very much like a military deployment.
At Tucson in 2009, portable 6,000- gallon water holding tanks, cal led pumpkins, were brought in, as well as pumps and compressors to load all the aircraft because the compressors on the MAFFS 2 units were not certified for use at that point. The crew of a C-130, with its easily recognized large Day-Glo orange MAFFS number on the fuselage and tail, would taxi into one of the three pits, and that aircraft’s maintainers, who double as the load crew, would spring into action. The MAFFS tanks aircraft were refilled in about fifteen minutes.
Much like close air support in combat, retardant drops—from commercial tankers, helicopters, or MAFFS C-130s—are designed to support fire crews on the ground. Coordination in fighting a fire is complex. In addition to communicating with the airborne assets, the Forest Service has to work with other agencies such as the state highway patrol, the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and even the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bring a fire under control.
At an air attack base, Forest Service dispatchers talk to all the lead pilots, commercial tankers, and MAFFS-equipped C-130s. To deconflict the airspace, dispatchers use a Forest Service-specific system that shows all the airborne firefighting assets involved in a fire with a bird’s-eye view. Click on an icon and the dispatcher instantly gets an altitude and airspeed reading.
“This system eliminates what used to take fifteen minutes of radio check-ins,” says Fonda Knox, the dispatcher in Tucson. To make sure the MAFFS-equipped C-130s can come up on the f ire net, the aircraft are equipped with the same type of new VHF/FM radio the Forest Service uses.
“This kind of operation gets hectic, but safety is paramount,” says Knox. “We don’t drop retardant at night, for example. MAFFS is the safest aviation fire program ever. No one has ever been lost and, knock wood, the C-130s have never had an accident.”
“Fires come in three sizes—small, medium, and out of control,” notes Baxter. “Once the guy on the ground makes the decision to drop, the pilot in the lead plane will take me where he wants me to go. We call the lead plane at about twelve miles inbound. The lead pilot will acknowledge us or tell us to orbit if he’s busy.” Once the lead pilot describes what he wants the C-130 to do, the crew starts running through the pre-drop checklist, slows the aircraft, lowers the flaps, and arms the MAFFS equipment.
“From the lead pilot’s direction, we see the target area and get the line. We know the way in, we have an escape route, and we have a way out of the drop. We stay about 800 to 1,500 feet behind the lead aircraft. Lead will go through and pull off, and I’ll follow him through. He is my seeing eye dog.” During the run, the MAFFS pilot flies the aircraft while the co-pilot works the radio, runs the checklist, and initiates the drop from a hand-held, corded trigger that runs from the flight deck to the MAFFS 2 set. Two loadmasters are carried on each drop to monitor the system. One of the two loadmasters riding on the MAFFS 2 equipment also has an auxiliary trigger.
“The common thread for lead pilots is an interest in putting fires out,” says Greg House, a Forest Service lead pilot. “Knowledge of fires is a big help, but no two fires are alike. Flying through a fire is a very dynamic environment. It’s not really an adrenaline rush, though. We have to pay very close attention to what we are doing. If we do something that gets us excited, we’ve done something wrong. We fly at 150 feet because that’s how the job gets done.”
“The MAFFS mission is one of the most rewarding things we do,” said Maj. Patricia Murray, a pilot at Channel Islands. “We have to get the drop right or somebody could lose their house or their life. We really feel like we help people.”