MAFFS pilot talks about landing without a nose wheel

MAFFS hard landing
The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Aug. 17, 2014 following an in flight emergency. There were no injuries and only minor damage to the aircraft. Photo supplied by Hill AFB, Utah. (click to enlarge)

More details are coming to light regarding the Modular Airborne FireFighting System C-130 that landed August 17 without the nose wheel fully extended.

Maj. Derik George, a C-130 pilot with the Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd Airlift Wing was part of the crew that recently received the Air Mobility Command Chief of Safety Aircrew of Distinction Award for their efforts following a landing gear malfunction while fighting fires in southern Utah.

The MAFFS C-130 crew was attempting to land at Hill Air Force Base, Utah after conducting aerial firefighting missions in southern Utah Aug. 17, 2014 when Maj. Jack Berquist, aircraft commander, and George, co-pilot, realized the nose landing gear was not functioning properly.

“As we were approaching to land, Maj. Berquist, who was flying, asked for the gear down. After lowering the landing gear we got an unsafe gear indication in the nose,” said George.

The crew stayed in the traffic pattern at Hill and started on their emergency procedures. There are three ways to get the nose landing gear down but none of them worked. They called a Lockheed Martin engineer and test pilot but neither call fixed the problem. The U.S. Forest Service sent a lead plane to see if that pilot could determine what was wrong from flying underneath the aircraft, but again, nothing helped. After more than three hours of circling the airfield, the crew determined they had no other choice but to attempt a landing.

“At that point we said, ‘well, we are out of options, we are just going to land with the nose gear up.’ We called the tower, and they were able to put foam on the runway, that way it would arrest any fire that might start. We ran our checklists again, making sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. Jack Berquist was flying, he did a fantastic job. I don’t think he could’ve done any better. He held the nose up as long as possible and was able to get the nose on the ground in the foam,” said George.

The aircraft came to a stop and the tower let the crew know a small fire started under the nose. The crew shut everything down and egressed to a safe area. The emergency crews on the ground quickly put the fire out.

“The most rewarding thing of the whole day was how well the crew worked together,” said George, who has nearly 1,500 C-130 and more than 3,700 total flight hours. “The navigator was Active Duty, I was a Reservist. The other four crew members were Wyoming Air National Guard. It was very seamless. Everybody knew exactly what to do. MAFFS crews are some of the most highly experienced and best trained crews in the Air Force.”

The efforts by the MAFFS 3 crew resulted in the safe return of six airmen and only minor damage to a $37 million aircraft.

“Other than the fact that there was a mechanical malfunction, which is pretty rare, there was nothing that surprised me about this event. We look for top notch people, we train hard. They tried ‘A,’ they tried ‘B,’ they tried ‘C,’ and they ended up having to do ‘D,'” said Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, 302nd AW chief of aerial firefighting. “It all worked, just the way it should have.”

Besides Berquist, Goebel and George, the other crew members were flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Damian Hoffmann, and load masters, Master Sgts. Brandon York and Christian Reese.

Four C-130 wings perform the MAFFS mission, each providing two MAFFS-capable aircraft and the air and ground crews needed to operate them. They are the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard; 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve Command, in Colorado.

Deicing an air tanker

Deicing MAFFS 8 Cheyenne
Deicing MAFFS 8 at Cheyenne. @AEGMAFFS photo.

That is something you don’t see every day — deicing an air tanker. Some overnight snow at Cheyenne required deicing on the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, air tankers that are in Wyoming for training, certification, and recertification this week. C-130s from Charlotte, NC, and the base at Cheyenne are participating. These National Guard units each provide two C-130s, a portion of the eight that can be called up nationwide, if the atrophied United States air tanker fleet, down to nine now, needs supplemental aircraft. 

Ground MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Ground training for MAFFS crews at Cheyenne, April 28, 2014. AEGMAFFS photo.

Photos of MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

Tuesday I found myself in Cheyenne, Wyoming where two Air National Guard units were conducting their annual training and recertification for using their Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS).

The 153 Airlift Wing from Wyoming and North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing got together along with six lead planes for ground-based meetings and airborne exercises.

I’ll write more about the MAFFS training later, but until then, here are some photos.

MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Filling the MAFFS with water (for training drops) and compressed air. The MAFFS also have an on-board air compressor which can be used if there isn’t one provided at an air tanker base.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
The larger tank with the blue dot holds 3,000 gallons of retardant or water. The smaller white tank is for compressed air (at 1,200 psi) which pushes the retardant out of the larger tank.
MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Two Loadmasters operate the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold of the C-130.

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All of the photos were taken by Bill Gabbert and are protected by copyright.