Photos from the MAFFS training

The annual training was held this week at Sacramento McClellan Airport

The annual training and recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 crews has wrapped up. Held at Sacramento McClellan Airport this year, it was attended by all four of the airlift wings that operate the systems: three Air National Guard units from California, Nevada and Wyoming, and one U.S. Air Force Reserve unit from Colorado.

All of these photos were taken by Bob Martinez. Thanks Bob! You can see more of his work at SmugMug.

MAFFS aircraft air tanker military

MAFFS aircraft air tanker military

MAFFS aircraft air tanker military

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TBT: National Geographic, Fire Bombers 1998

For Throw Back Thursday, let’s take another look at a classic film produced by National Geographic, Fire Bombers 1998. It includes some excellent footage of air tankers in that era, and also has interviews with a number of pilots. Bill Waldman probably gets the most screen time — he’s a good storyteller and seems comfortable in front of the camera.

We did our own interview, sort of, with Mr. Waldman, in 2013 in which we asked him 12 questions.

Below is the National Geographic film.

Senators ask Forest Service Chief about cutback in air tankers

In 2017 there were 20 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. This year there are 13.

In a hearing Tuesday morning about the Forest Service budget for FY 2019 before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Senators asked the interim Chief of the Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, about the reduction in the number of large air tankers on exclusive use contracts and the agency’s plans to rely on call when needed aircraft to fill the void.

Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief Forest Service
Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Interim Chief, U.S. Forest Service, testifies April 24, 2018.

Lisa Murkowski (AK), Chair of the committee,  mentioned the issue during her opening remarks. Senators Maria Cantwell (WA) and Cory Gardner (CO) asked questions about what could be a shortage of air tankers, with most of the discussion centering around call when needed vendors. The Senators appeared to be concerned about the higher daily and hourly costs of CWN aircraft, and referred to the 48-hour time frame for them to mobilize after notification.

air tankers contract exclusive use 2000-2018

Ms. Christiansen tried two or three times to explain how activating CWN air tankers works and how the USFS makes decisions about when to bring them on board. Her descriptions were rambling as she talked about predictive services, but it was a little too ambiguous for some of the senators who asked for clarification.

Senator Gardner mentioned that this year there are 13 exclusive use large air tankers compared to 20 last year, and talked about how call when needed aircraft are more expensive than exclusive use aircraft. He said, “What is the rationale for that again?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we really look hard and do our analysis on the right balance between the exclusive use which is for an extended period of time and the call when needed. We take this very seriously and we will evaluate each year and adjust for the balance of these contracts. These next generation aircraft are more expensive than the legacy aircraft we had operated for the last two decades. So we have to be fiscally prudent and responsible in finding that right balance. We are confident that we have the aircraft we need when we need it through the combination of exclusive use, the call when needed, the military MAFFS, and then when we can call our partners down from Alaska and Canada.”

Senator Gardner continued: “Do you think you’re providing industry with enough certainty, private industry with enough certainty, to replace some of the contracts in the past that were coming out of the Forest Service in terms of the air tankers that were in use since the 2014 passage of the Defense Authorization Act?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator Gardner we are doing everything we can to be a good partner with the industry and exercise our fiscal responsibility.”

No one acknowledged the elephant in the room, the reason there are fewer air tankers. The budget that Congress approved and the President signed forced the reduction. Ms. Christiansen, a member of the administration, apparently feels that she has to be a good soldier and say, everything is fine, there’s nothing to see here: “We are confident that we have the aircraft we need”.

And the Senators don’t want to admit that they approved legislation which caused the number of EU air tankers to be cut by one-third. So they asked mild-mannered questions and didn’t follow up when the administration’s representative insisted that everything is going to be OK.

During a discussion about budget reductions on a different issue, Senator Joseph Manchin (WV) said, “Have you been able to push back on the administration, saying you can’t cut me this deep, I can’t do my job?”

Ms. Christiansen: “Senator, we have prioritized what we can do within these constraints…”

Senator Manchin: There’s a lot of us that will go out and …..”

Ms. Christiansen: “Our priority is on the National Forests, but I look forward to working with you on additional priorities.”

Meanwhile, John Hoven, the Senator from North Dakota, spent most of his allotted time presenting what was basically an infomercial about his state.

A recorded video of the hearing will be available at the committee’s website.

Slow motion video of MAFFS test

The folks from the Air National Guard unit out of Reno, the “High Rollers”, tested their Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) before the training at Sacramento McClellan Airport this week. (I almost wrote “they tested it in slow motion” but that is not exactly correct.)

Oregon has 27 exclusive use aircraft on firefighting contracts this year

The Oregon Department of Forestry will have a greater emphasis this year on infrared mapping and the use of drones, and, has the 747 on a CWN contract.

Above: Whitewater Fire, 6 miles east of Idanha, Oregon. August 19, 2017. Inciweb photo.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing out infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

Last year, contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

With smoke from the 2017 wildfires still fresh in the minds of Oregonians, the Oregon Department of Forestry is already gearing up for this summer’s wildfires.

The agency’s Interim Fire Operations Manager Blake Ellis said a lot of preparation goes on behind the scenes each winter and spring. “We work to ensure firefighters are equipped and ready to respond quickly and effectively to wildfires all year, with a special emphasis on being staffed and ready for the drier months,” said Ellis. ” We essentially double our firefighting forces going into the summer, when wildfire risk is highest.”

Readiness activities include:

  • Contracts and agreements for firefighting equipment, aircraft and other resources have been signed.
  • A new policy governing use of remotely piloted aerial vehicles (also known as drones or UAVs) has been adopted. These systems will support fire protection and natural resource management.
  • Hiring of seasonal firefighters is underway. New firefighters will attend training at ODF and interagency fire schools across the state in June.
  • Permanent and returning firefighters will take fire line refresher training over the next two months.
  • Hundreds of miles of fire hose have been cleaned and rolled, ready for use statewide.

Last year ODF had great success testing out infrared technology. Carried on aerial vehicles, the equipment was able to see through heavy smoke on two Oregon wildfires – Horse Prairie and Eagle Creek. These systems provide sharp images and real-time fire mapping for fire managers, boosting safety and tactical planning. This year ODF is incorporating these technologies into its toolkit.

ODF’s Aviation Manager Neal Laugle said the increasing use of various types of aircraft in recent years highlights the importance of keeping up with new technology to achieve the agency’s mission. “From detection to fire mapping and active wildfire suppression, aircraft continue to play a critical role in the fight to save lives, resources and property,” said Laugle.

Last year, contracted aircraft flew 1,477 hours on firefighting missions for ODF, more than 100 hours above average, he said. For 2018 the agency has contracted the same number of aircraft as last year.

“We have 27 aircraft based across the state, including helicopters, fixed-wing detection planes, single-engine air tankers and a large airtanker, all of which we’ve secured for our exclusive use. We also have call-when needed agreements with a number of companies for additional firefighting aircraft. Among these agreements is one for the use of a 747 modified to carry 19,000 gallons of retardant should the situation warrant.”

ODF will continue to have access to aviation resources from other states and federal agencies upon request.

“Uncontrolled fires can be devastating. Our relationships with our partners are invaluable to support prevention and suppression efforts statewide,” said Ellis.

MAFFS training begins at McClellan

Above: C-130’s line up at Sacramento McClellan Airport April 23, 2018 as MAFFS training begins. Photo by 2nd Lt. Emerson Marcus, 152 Airlift Wing/Public Affairs.

The annual training and recertification has started at Sacramento McClellan Airport for the military C-130 crews who will fly and maintain the MAFFS aircraft this year.

All four of the airlift wings that operate the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System are participating: three Air National Guard units from California, Nevada and Wyoming, and one U.S. Air Force Reserve unit from Colorado. Following the crash of MAFFS 7 in 2012 near Edgemont, South Dakota, the U.S. Forest Service and the military units have made an effort to have all four units in one place at the same time each year for the training.

MAFFS air tanker training
Staff Sgt. Anne Lepillez, a 731st Airlift Squadron C-130 Hercules aircraft loadmaster, directs a USDA Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System aircraft loading trailer toward a C-130 at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, April 19, 2018. The 302nd Airlift Wing reservists are preparing for the annual MAFFS aerial wildland firefighting training and certification in Sacramento, California, beginning April 23, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Frank Casciotta)

“Training with all four MAFFS wings alongside the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE and other wildland firefighting agencies here in Sacramento provides a significant opportunity as we prepare for wildland fire season,” said Col. James DeVere, commander of the MAFFS Air Expeditionary Group and 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve. “Training collectively ensures overall standardization of operations while continuing to build working relationships with the key players in the wildland firefighting community. It is rewarding as guardsmen and reservists to stand alongside our agency partners, knowing that we help make a difference protecting our citizens and their property.”

The U.S.D.A. Forest Service’s MAFFS equipment — rolled into the back of a C-130 aircraft — can drop up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in six seconds through a nozzle on the rear left side of the plane.

The certification training includes classroom sessions and flight operations for military flight crews, lead plane pilots and other support personnel from the U.S. Forest Service and other wildland firefighting agencies.

Training water drops will be executed on lands within the Tahoe and Shasta-Trinity national forests. California residents in these areas may see low-flying U.S. Forest Service lead planes and C-130s dropping water Tuesday through Friday.

MAFFS aircraft are activated to supplement commercial air tankers contracted by the USDA Forest Service when high wildfire activity requires additional aircraft. They can also be activated by governors to assist with wildfire suppression in states where the Air National Guard units that provide the C-130s are located — California, Wyoming, and Nevada.

Forest Service contracts for aircraft onboarding analysis

When we saw the solicitation above and read the detailed description, we thought the U.S. Forest Service was planning to add more air tankers to their fleet or resurrect the Coast Guard HC-130H program, but that turned out to not be the case.

The solicitation seeks to hire seven contract personnel, with most of them being required to work out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It closed April 10 after being open for only about two weeks.

Their tasks will include:

  • Program and project management support;
  • Development of operations and management strategy;
  • Acquisition program support for aviation support contracts;
  • Technology insertion for aviation assets and facilities;
  • Analysis and implementation of supportability services for airframe, engine, and avionics.
  • Economic analysis for technology insertion and transformation efforts;
  • Safety program support for aviation and ground operations.

In February the Administration announced their desire to abandon the acquisition and conversion of seven Coast Guard HC-130H’s into firefighting air tankers after spending tens of millions on the project. They intend to operate one this year that is partially complete, borrowing a slip-in MAFFS retardant system.

Air Tanker 116 HC-130H retardant
File photo of Air Tanker 116, an HC-130H, using a MAFFS unit to spray retardant on a fire near Phoenix, June 22, 2017. Fox 20 Phoenix.

We asked Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones for a plain text translation of the language in the solicitation:

This solicitation is for engineering services needed for the USDA Forest Service to have one HC-130H equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) available to fly wildfire suppressions this year (2018) as in 2015 and 2017. The current contract for these services expires May 31st.

Ms. Jones supplied an update on the future of the HC-130H air tanker program:

Section 1098(a) of the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the transfer of seven HC-130H aircraft to the USDA Forest Service for use as Airtankers in wildfire suppression. Based on recent increased private sector investment in Next Generation Airtankers, the agency has determined that government-owned Airtankers are no longer necessary since private industry is capable of fulfilling the agency’s required Airtanker needs. As such, the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget notes that the USDA Forest Service will seek Congressional support to terminate the NDAA provisions pertaining to agency-owned HC-130H aircraft. Any changes or modifications to these provisions will require Congressional action.

So apparently this contract for seven people mostly working out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will be to support one aircraft. If, however, unlike Ms. Jones’ description, they could perform these services for the entire USFS Fire and Aviation Management aircraft fleet, including contracting, it could be a worthwhile investment.

We are reminded that in June, 2015, 522 days after the USFS HC-130H acquisition began, they came to a conclusion, according to a Briefing Paper.

This is a new program for the Forest Service, one that we have never managed before (We don’t know what we don’t know).

 

Aero Spray is now Dauntless Air

Aero Spray, Inc., an operator of Single Engine Air Tankers, has changed its name to Dauntless Air. The company also announced today the expansion of its fleet and the recent naming of a new CEO, Brett L’Esperance. Dauntless Air now owns and operates 11 amphibious AT-802F Fire Boss and one wheeled AT-802F. The aircraft feature onboard thermal imaging units and gel blending systems.

In our view it appears to be a good idea to rebrand the company in order to separate it from the flock of aerial firefighting companies with similar names, including Aero-Flite, Aero Tech, Air Spray, and Air Tractor.

There is also a new tag line:

Dauntless

Mr. L’Esperance took the company’s helm as CEO in June 2017 after more than 20 years of private equity investing and operating roles, including time at Bain Capital Credit, Woodside Capital Management, and the Watermill Group, .

Since joining Dauntless Air (formerly Aero Spray), Mr. L’Esperance has overseen a variety of updates to the business, including the addition of two new aircraft and six new ground support vehicles to its fleet in preparation for the 2018/2019 fire season, the relocation of its corporate offices within Appleton, Minnesota, and the implementation of new administrative and technology support systems to serve as the foundation for a stable, growing business.