This video was shot from a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) military C-130 aircraft operated by Lt Col Todd Davis and his crew as they dropped on the Rockport Fire near Park City Utah, July 25, 2014. You can clearly hear the radio conversations between the lead plane and the other aircraft.
While the Roosa Gap Fire was burning in southern New York state, fire officials ordered an air tanker from Canada, an Air Tractor 802F Fire Boss single engine aircraft capable of scooping water from a lake.
Air tankers are rarely used in New York. In fact, one of the news reports we saw about the fire said this was the first time one had been used in the state, which is not true, of course. One of the stories that wildland firefighters still like to tell was a political battle about air tankers during the 1995 Sunrise Fire that eventually burned about 7,000 acres in the state on Long Island.
Six small air tankers were being used effectively on the fire, but a U.S. Senator from New York, Alfonse M. D’Amato, insisted that military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft were needed.
This incident may have been the origin of the term, “CNN drop”.
Here’s what we wrote about the incident in 2012:
…The fire is infamous among wildland firefighters for the battle between a U.S. Senator from New York, Alfonse M. D’Amato, and the Type 1 Incident Management Team running the fire. D’Amato called President Bill Clinton, who was vacationing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, and told him that he wanted military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers to help put out the fire. (As a side note, that First Family vacation was in itself an Incident for the local parks and national forests, and the impacts of it were managed by a National Park Service Incident Management Team, with this author as Planning Section Chief).
After talking to the president, D’Amato held a news conference, telling reporters that the C-130s were on the way. But the IMTeam had not ordered any large air tankers, and the fires were nearing containment using only some smaller air tankers and 12 helicopters.
D’Amato went to Long Island, and wearing a Fire Chief’s turnout coat, met with several high-ranking FEMA officials, Department of Agriculture executives, and the IMTeam. He was told the C-130s were not needed on the fire. The Senator vehemently insisted, and ultimately a request was placed for two C-130 air tankers from an Air National Guard base in North Carolina, along with a third plane carrying support personnel.
When the aircraft arrived, the fire was contained, but an area was found that had a little grass still burning near a highway, with plenty of room for TV trucks. A C-130 was directed to drop there, but before it could release its load a warning light came on in the cockpit and it had to return to the airport. The second C-130 was ordered to make the drop on the still-smoldering grass, and it did, to the delight of the media and Senator D’Amato.
This incident may be one of the first times the term “CNN Drop” was used to describe an air tanker drop whose primary objective was to placate local residents, politicians, and the media.
Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) Aircrews assigned to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard, are training and recertifying this week at Donaldson Field in Greenville, South Carolina. These photos were taken on May 5, 2015.
Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems crews training in Greenville, South Carolina this week expect to conduct flights over the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Rabun County, Georgia. Up to 15 practice flights with the air tankers per day may be conducted in which military C-130s will drop water on a target site approximately two miles south of Rabun Bald. In this tristate exercise, three other target sites may be used on the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina and Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.
— MAFFS (@AEGMAFFS) May 4, 2015
— MAFFS (@AEGMAFFS) May 4, 2015
A U.S. Representative is getting a lot a publicity by attaching an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that he says would “assess opportunities to expand coverage of MAFFS units in the western United States.”
MAFFS are Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems that can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft, enabling them to temporarily serve as air tankers dropping up to 3,000 gallons of retardant of wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service owns and maintains eight MAFFS units that are located at four military bases in California, Wyoming, Colorado, and North Carolina. Each base can activate two aircraft if requested by the U.S. Forest Service during a period when there is a shortage of contracted air tankers.
Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke introduced the amendment that was passed by the House Armed Service Committee. The next step is a vote by the full House. The amendment basically says a report must be written:
…Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of the Air Force to prepare a brief to the House Committee on Armed Services by September 1, 2015 that assess the locations of C-130 MAFFS units. Such a report should provide a listing of the current United States Air Force units, their utilization rates, and a future force allocation determination that most efficiently utilizes the MAFFS units. This report shall specifically assess opportunities to expand coverage of MAFFS units in the western United States.
The Department of Defense has said in the past that they have no interest in providing more than eight MAFFS aircraft and crews.
When the MAFFS are activated by the USFS they are positioned where they are needed, and can be moved around depending on the wildfire activity. For example, if fires are occurring in Idaho and western Montana, they may be based in Boise. If it is busy in New Mexico, they would most likely be found at Albuquerque.
So “assessing the locations” of these very mobile units appears to have little value.
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.
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.
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.
There were more requests for large air tankers (LATs) in 2014 than in any of the last 18 years. That is one of the facts in the 2014 version of the Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics put together by the National Interagency Fire Center.
We used data from the report to update statistics that we have been collecting over the years, including the chart below.
One of the more interesting trends is the number of requests for LATs that cannot be filled, referred to as Unable to Fill, or UTF. After reaching a high of 48 percent in 2012, it declined to 21 and then 12 percent in the next two years even as the number of requests for LATs was increasing.
One thing we don’t know is how many Incident Commanders needed air tankers but didn’t bother to request them because they knew that none were available.
Two stats for 2014 indicate there would be a reduced urgent need for air tankers. The number of acres burned in the 48 contiguous states in 2014, 3.4 million, was significantly below the 10 year average of 5.7 million. And the number of structures burned, 1,953 was less than the 10 year average of 3,098.
At the beginning of 2014 there were 10 LATs on exclusive use contracts. By the end of the year there were 17 — eight were added and Minden’s P2V had a landing gear problem (see below) which took it out of service indefinitely. The additional air tankers on exclusive use contracts included:
- 2 RJ-85s from Aero Flite;
- 2 MD-87s from Erickson Aero Tanker;
- 1 DC-10 from 10 Tanker Air Carrier; and
- 3 BAe-146s from Neptune
In the list of eight additional air tankers listed above, the DC-10 and the three BAe-146s were brought into service as “additional equipment” on a 1-year temporary basis under an exclusive use contract awarded in 2013. Due to a change in Department of the Interior procurement policies, this will not be done again in 2015.
Minden was awarded a Next-Gen contract for a BAe-146 in 2013, but never delivered the aircraft. Recently the USFS terminated the contract for default.
One air tanker was borrowed in 2014 from Canada for 10 days. Saskatchewan provided a Convair 580 and a TurboCommander 690 Bird Dog beginning on July 21. The air tanker group was in place until July 30, when it returned to Canada following a recall from Saskatchewan due to increased fire activity there.
Two Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft, C-130s from the military, were activated on July 20 and positioned at Boise. MAFFS 3 experienced a hard landing at Hill AFB when they had a problem with the nose landing gear. While no injuries occurred, the damage ended the service of MAFFS 3 for 2014, but MAFFS1 remained until August 24. MAFFS units provided retardant delivery to the Great Basin, Northwest and Northern Rocky Geographic Areas while employed from July 20 through August 24, delivering a total of 244,406 gallons while conducting 97 sorties. This is down from 2013 when 576 sorties were flown delivering 1,387,881 gallons of retardant.
Other notable aircraft mishaps or crashes in 2014:
- Pilot Geoffrey “Craig” Hunt was killed when his S-2T air tanker impacted the ground while he was attempting to make his second retardant drop on the Dog Rock Fire October 7 near Yosemite National Park in California.
- An air attack fixed wing aircraft, an Aero Commander 500, overshot the runway while landing at Wilcox, AZ on July 2.
- Tanker 73, one of CAL FIRE’s 23 S-2Ts, had a problem while landing at Hemet-Ryan Airport Friday, October 3 in southern California. The preliminary information indicated that it was a landing gear issue.
- A Bell 206-L3 made a crash landing into a river May 29 while recertifying for water bucket operations near Missoula, Montana.
- On June 15, Minden’s P2V, Tanker 48, was substantially damaged when the nose wheel landing gear collapsed during landing roll at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT), Fresno, California.
- On October 4 an air attack aircraft ran off the runway at Nevada County Airport near Grass Valley, California.
- An air attack plane under contract to the Department of the Interior crashed May 17 at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The Rockwell Aero Commander 500S impacted the ground shortly after takeoff. The aircraft was on an orientation flight for a new pilot on the air attack contract. Two company employees, but no agency personnel, were on board. There was an unconfirmed report that one person died several days later.