Report released on MAFFS air tanker crash

MAFFS 7
MAFFS 7, Department of Defense photo

Today the US Air Force released the full report on the crash of MAFFS #7, the C-130 air tanker operated by the North Carolina National Guard. The accident occurred July 1, 2012 as the aircraft was attempting to drop retardant on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota. There were four fatalities. The two crewmen in the rear of the aircraft were seriously injured but survived. Those two were operating the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) in the cargo hold which enables the C-130 to function as an air tanker, capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

The Air Force provided some photos of the crash site earlier.

The investigation was led by Brigadier General Randall C. Guthrie, USAFR. Also participating were the following board members: Legal Advisor, Medical Member, Pilot Member, Maintenance Member, Flight Engineer Member, Weather Member, Loadmaster Member, Recorder and two Court Reporters.

The report does not list who the investigation board may have interviewed. Most likely they talked with the crews of the lead plane and air attack and probably other personnel assigned to the fire in various positions, but it would seem to be important to have someone on the board who lives and breathes aerial firefighting. Maybe the “Pilot Member” was MAFFS qualified at least.

We will be writing more about this report in the coming days, but for now, here is the “Opinion Summary” from the report:

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I find by clear and convincing evidence the cause of the mishap was Mishap Pilot 1 (MP1), Mishap Pilot 2 (MP2), Mishap Navigator (MN) and Mishap Flight Engineer’s (ME) inadequate assessment of operational conditions, resulting in the MA impacting the ground after flying into a microburst. Additionally, I find by the preponderance of evidence, the failure of the White Draw Fire Lead Plane aircrew and Air Attack aircrew to communicate critical operational information; and conflicting operational guidance concerning thunderstorm avoidance, substantially contributed to the mishap.

On 1 July 2012, at approximately 1738 Local time (L), a C-130H3, T/N 93-1458, assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard, Charlotte Douglas International Airport (KCLT), Charlotte, North Carolina, crashed on public land controlled by the United States Forest Service (USFS), while conducting wildland firefighting operations near Edgemont, South Dakota.

At the time of the mishap all members of the Mishap Crew (MC) were assigned or attached to the 156th Airlift Squadron, based at KCLT. The MC consisted of MP1, MP2, MN, ME, Mishap Loadmaster 1 (ML1) and Mishap Loadmaster 2 (ML2). For the mishap sortie, MP1 was the aircraft commander and pilot flying in the left seat. MP2 was in the right seat as the instructor pilot. MN occupied the navigator station on the right side of the flight deck behind MP2. ME was seated in the flight engineer seat located between MP1 and MP2, immediately aft of the center flight console. ML1 and ML2 were seated on the MAFFS unit, near the right paratroop door. ML1 occupied the aft Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) control station seat and ML2 occupied the forward MAFFS observer station seat.

After three uneventful sorties, the Mishap Aircraft (MA) entered the White Draw Fire Traffic Area (FTA) in South Dakota. The lead plane for the MA was Lead B-5. Lead planes are responsible for the safe, effective and efficient use of air tanker operations within an FTA. A lead plane is also responsible for leading air tankers to a low-level, where fire retardant can be safely dispensed. Air Tactical Pilot (ATP) piloted Lead B-5 from the left seat and Air Tactical Supervisor (ATS) occupied the right seat. ATS initially acted as the airspace manager for the White Draw FTA. However, prior to conducting the retardant drops a third aircraft, Air Attack, entered the White Draw FTA and took over airspace management duties. Air Attack 3 (AA3) piloted Air Attack from the left seat and Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) was in the right seat.

Upon entering the FTA, the MC noticed a thunderstorm and witnessed lightning between 10 and 20 nautical miles away. ATP determined two retardant drops were needed. Lead B-5 and the MA performed the first drop precisely on target, but the MA’s airspeed was 10 knots slower than planned. As the MA positioned for the second drop, ME and MN noticed an increase in fire activity and surface winds changing in both velocity and direction. Lead B-5 then experienced a rapid “sinker” and ATP stated, “I got to go around.” ATP struggled to keep Lead B-5 under control. In response, MP2 commanded a go-around “out of this” and MP1 pushed the throttles up. Twelve seconds later, ATP advised the MC to dump their load and the MC complied. Despite MA engines at maximum power, airspeed and altitude continued to deteriorate, ultimately resulting in the mishap. The MA impacted lightly-wooded, rolling terrain and slid through a tree-lined ravine which was approximately eight feet deep, before stopping roughly 410 feet (ft) from the initial point of ground impact. MP1, MP2, MN and ME died in the mishap. ML1 and ML2 survived, but suffered significant injuries.

The mishap aircraft (MA) and a USFS-owned MAFFS unit were destroyed. The monetary loss is valued at $43,453,295, which includes an estimated $150,000 in post aircraft removal and site environmental cleanup costs. There were no additional fatalities, injuries or damage to other government or civilian property.

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Thanks go out to Jim