California National Guard helicopter crews train to fight wildfires

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire

The article below was written by Johnny Yount. Photos were taken by Bob Martinez.

Times are changing in the wildfire business as quickly as the global weather. The annual National Guard and CAL FIRE training was conducted April 10 through 12 at the CAL FIRE Academy in Ione and Lake Pardee in Amador County.  The Army National Guard has been in partnership with CAL FIRE for over five decades fighting fire with helicopters. The C 130 (MAFFS) provided by the Air National Guard at Channel Islands have been delivering retardant since the 1970’s. In an effort to protect the people and resources of California every branch of the military in California can provide aerial delivery of water or retardant.  This is not unique to California, as many states have increasingly become involved in using state guard units to augment firefighting forces.

In the early 1990’s a plan called Spirit of Cooperation was put together by CAL FIRE to begin working much more closely with the State’s military helicopter units to  benefit and provide a safer fire work environment for both CAL FIRE and the Military.

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifireCalifornia National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire

Meetings where held, issues identified, and a plan of action initiated with a mutual understanding  of what would be required to enhance the capability of both the Guard and CAL FIRE simultaneously.

There were five components to the plan. One of the components identified was the addition of a military helicopter manager who would fly at all times with the helicopter and provide tactical and logistical support to the military air crew. This simple step, providing an air program qualified helicopter manager to be part of the flight crew, maximizes the capability of the helicopter to move around the State much like a fixed wing air tanker.

The training at the CAL FIRE Academy was a refresher for most in attendance. The majority of the students are CAL FIRE aerial fire fighters, air attack and helitack Captains. Each military manager represents years of air program understanding and airborne firefighting experience.  Also involved in the program are aerial fire fighters from Orange County Fire Authority and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire

When a Guard helicopter is activated, a manager is assigned to a specific copter and crew. The Blackhawks have a crew of three military and one CAL FIRE military manager. The Chinooks have a crew of four military and one CAL FIRE manager. In addition to the airborne helicopter assets, Guard and CAL FIRE liaisons are assigned to the activation.  Maintenance teams, fuel tenders and other military support staff are also assigned as needed to assure that the activation runs smoothly.  As mentioned, the Guard helicopters move around the State more like a fixed wing air tanker than a helicopter.  It would not be uncommon for a Guard helicopter to be working a fire on the Modoc National Forest (Alturas Airport), get released, head south to a new emerging fire on the Angeles National Forest, remain overnight in Bakersfield, and then be reassigned to a fire in Ventura County.

During transit the Guard helicopters are in contact with the three primary CAL FIRE Operation Centers at Sacramento, Riverside and Redding.  New initial attack fires or change of assignment are common.  This fire season the Guard facilities at Los Alamitos, Stockton and Mather will be providing as many as five Chinooks and five Blackhawks.

CAL FIRE will hold similar training with the United States Marine Corps and Navy.

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire

California National Guard helicopter crew training wildifire


DynCorp awarded contract with CAL FIRE

DynCorp International (DI) announced today that they have been awarded a contract to continue supporting the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aviation program helping suppress and control wildfires. Work will be performed at McClellan Park in Sacramento, California, and aircraft are deployed throughout 12 air tactical and 10 helitack bases throughout the state.

Through this contract, DI team members provide line to depot-level maintenance on CAL FIRE’s fleet of 51 aircraft including S-2T air tankers, OV-10A aircraft and UH-1H helicopters. DI will also continue providing full flight operations, including pilots, for CAL FIRE’s fixed wing fleet of aerial firefighting aircraft. Aircraft maintenance services include repair, overhaul, modification, and manufacturing of airframes, engines, propellers, helicopter rotating components, and various aircraft parts and components.

“We have been honored to be able to provide this unique support to the CAL FIRE team since 2001,” said James Myles, DynAviation senior vice president, DynCorp International. “This new award continues our partnership with CAL FIRE and retains DI’s status in the aerial firefighting community as part of the world renowned CAL FIRE Aviation Program.”

The competitively awarded contract has a two-year base period with three, one-year options, for a total potential value of $126.2 million.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Todd.


Sky Aviation’s CH-46E


Sky Aviation, based in Worland, Wyoming, posted this message June 24, 2014 on their Facebook page:

Sky Aviation purchased four CH-46 helicopters and this week, we are taking official possession of them in Tucson! Stay tuned for pictures. At least one will be transformed immediately into civilian paint. We are hoping to support both fire fighting and construction with our Phrogs.

In June 2014 they flew one of them to Sabreliner Aviation in Perryville, Missouri to begin the demilitarization of the aircraft.

And on April 9, 2015:

Sky Aviation's CH-46.

Sky Aviation’s CH-46E getting the final touches in the paint booth. Photo by Sky Aviation.



Colorado agencies train for aerial firefighting

Agencies involved in aerial firefighting in the Colorado area are meeting and training together on Friday and Saturday of this week at Buckley Air force Base in Aurora. Friday’s sessions were indoors, focusing on procedures, communications, and the academic side of fighting fires from the air.

On Saturday they will take to the air working with the equipment they will use on a fire. The Blackhawk helicopters will be visible after 9 or 10 a.m. near Chatfield and Strontia Springs Reservoirs and Waterton Canyon.

The agencies involved include the Colorado Army National Guard 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region, Bureau of Land Management, and Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. The National Guard also worked with active duty Army aviation units from Ft. Carson, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota.


One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12s.


Wyoming Air Guard prepares for another MAFFS season

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The sweat droplets on the faces of the Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems crew members were in a tight race to hit their jaw line and fall to the floor of the flight deck.


Master Sgt. Kevan Johnson, 153rd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Cheyenne, Wyo., prepares to load a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Firefighting System II onto a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130, June 24, 2012. The Wyoming Air National Guard MAFFS unit has been activated to support the Rocky Mountain area fires, they will base out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo by Staff Sgt. Natalie Stanley.

The crew had flown this mission hundreds of times, but this flight was different. The flight deck on the C-130H aircraft was overwhelmingly stuffy as Maj. Jack Berquist informed his crew that their landing gear was malfunctioning – something that has never happened on a MAFFS mission or in the unit itself.

Moments after dropping slurry on fires in Utah last August, the crew circled the skies, hoping to land at Hill Air Force Base as they troubleshot the nose gear malfunction. As they prepped for an emergency landing, Berquist aimed the aircraft toward the foam that had been sprayed on the runway and landed, skidding hundreds of feet to the resonance of aircraft metal skidding on concrete, where the aircraft finally came to a stop.

All six aircrew members walked away without injury and only minor damage was sustained to the $37 million aircraft.

Less than a year later, today, the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, is preparing to fly MAFFS for its 30th year.

The wing has flown the MAFFS mission since 1975; last year was the only major mishap the wing had while flying MAFFS. In fact, since the inception of the MAFFS program in 1970, the only significant accident occurred in July 2012, when a C-130 from the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard, went down in the Black Hills National Forest near Edgemont, South Dakota, tragically killing four airmen and wounding two others.

“Being involved in MAFFS is some of the most challenging, yet rewarding flying our crew members will ever be involved in,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jack Goeken, loadmaster supervisor at the 153rd Airlift Wing who has been flying the MAFFS mission for 23 years. “We are inside the rear of the aircraft and can’t visually see the terrain that we will be flying through while we are running our checklists and arming the system for the drops.

“You have to trust everyone on the crew to communicate quickly and effectively to accomplish the mission in a difficult flying environment.”

MAFFS units are portable fire retardant delivery systems that can slide into military C-130 aircraft to convert the transports into airtankers. The unit can hold 3,000 gallons of slurry which can be incrementally dropped or totally emptied in less than five seconds to cover an area a quarter of a mile long by 60 feet wide.

As one of four MAFFS-equipped military units across the nation, the 153rd is responsible for providing 25 percent of the Department of Defense’s MAFFS capability.

MAFFS also highlights the interagency coordination between the U.S. Forest Service and the DOD as the USFS owns the MAFFS equipment and supplies the fire retardant, while the DOD provides the C-130 aircraft, aircrew and aircraft maintainers.

“The Department of Defense is an important partner in wildland fire suppression,” said Robin Patterson, MAFFS liaison officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “The military C-130s that convert into airtankers provide the local, state and federal government agencies that suppress wildland fires with a surge capacity. This capacity is very important during the ‘shoulder seasons’ of late fall and early spring as well as during periods of high fire activity in the summer months. Airtankers are especially important in initial attack, or the early stages of responding to a wildfire, because they can help firefighters on the ground suppress fires while they are still small and keep them from growing into large, dangerous and costly fires.”

The annually-certified crews who fly the arduous MAFFS mission are highly experienced, averaging more than 3,500 flight hours in each aircrew position while also undergoing additional classroom instruction and flight training.

This year the commander for the Air Expeditionary Group, which oversees the MAFFS mission’s operations, is a pilot from the Wyoming Air National Guard. Col. Scott Sanders, who has been flying for 22 years, and has been MAFFS-qualified for six.

“The MAFFS mission is, in fact, very safe,” Sanders said. “However, every crew understands they must respect the performance limitations of the aircraft, maintain situational awareness of the fire activity, the terrain and the weather, and strictly adhere to published guidance, to ensure safety and mission success.”

In 2012 and 2013, Wyoming’s own MAFFS 1 and 3, flew almost 260 flight hours, on 166 sorties involving 54 incidents in nine states while dropping 732,575 gallons of retardant, providing one-fifth of the total support during these two seasons.

“MAFFS is by far the most challenging mission we fly here at the 187th Airlift Squadron,” said Chief Master Sgt. Raymond Arnold, flight engineer supervisor who has flown MAFFS for 27 years.

“Flying in mountainous terrain, unstable air and poor visibility added with flying low, slow and heavy requires great skill from the crews. With that said, MAFFS is on every C-130 operator’s wish list of missions to fly,” he said.

As the 153rd ramps up for their annual MAFFS training in May, the crews also hope they don’t have to utilize their skills and training this summer because that means that wildfires are actively burning somewhere. However, they take immense pride in doing so as past precedence has proven flying the mission saves those things whose worth cannot be measured: Wildlife, forests and homes.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to actively lead a mission that’s so vital to saving lives and infrastructure,” Sanders said.


Precision water drop near Los Angeles freeway

Vertical Magazine, a publication about helicopters, has a photo contest going. Below is a submission by Michael Meadows, showing an L.A. County Fire Department Firehawk dropping water along the 101 Freeway in Calabasas, California. You can vote for your favorite at their Facebook page. (The link below the photo does not work.)