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.

MAFFS

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.

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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.

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Summary of air tanker use, 2014

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.

Graph, request for large air tankers

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.

Acres burned in wildfires

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.

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

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.
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Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker

A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

At that time some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3

Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3

Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.

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MAFFS crew receives award for actions during emergency landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A guard, reserve and active duty aircrew aboard a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130H3, recently received the Air Mobility Command Chief of Safety Aircrew of Distinction Award for its efforts following a landing gear malfunction while fighting fires in southern Utah on August 17, 2014..

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) #3 air tanker crew had finished two successful fire retardant drops when it was instructed to reload for a third drop at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah. As the crew prepared to land, Maj. Jack Berquist, aircraft commander, and his co-pilot, Maj. Derik George, noticed the nose gear wasn’t functioning properly. At that point, the crew, including the navigator Capt. Brett Goebel, flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Damian Hoffmann, and load masters, Master Sgts. Brandon York and Christian Reese, began troubleshooting the problem. Berquist also began communicating with Hill Air Force Base’s air traffic control about the issue.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem

Greg Brubaker sent the photo below to Fire Aviation. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

After two hours of circling and with only about 30 minutes of fuel remaining, the crew realized they had exhausted all of their options. That’s when Berquist directed his crew to prepare for an emergency crash landing. Preparations included having Hill officials spray foam on the runway and having crash fire rescue personnel in place.

After configuring the disabled aircraft, Berquist landed the plane and held the nose up off the ground as long as possible, before gently bringing it in contact with the runway. Berquist was able to bring the aircraft to a smooth stop on the center of the runway and the crew exited the plane without any injuries.

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

“In-flight emergencies and emergency landings do happen,” said Goebel. “We train extensively year-round in the aircraft and simulator for unlikely events such as these.

“Without a doubt, we provide some of the best training and preparation of any professional flying organization from not only an individual, but also a crew standpoint. This was definitely a crew effort!”

****

Fire Aviation first reported on the incident August 17, 2014.

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Two military MAFFS air tankers activated

MAFFS Cheyenne

File photo of MAFFS C-130s and crews during training in Cheyenne, Wyoming, April 30, 2014. Shown are MAFFS 0, 1, and 3. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The U.S. Forest Service has activated two military air tankers, Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS), out of the 146th Airlift Wing, Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in southern California. Eight National Guard or Air Force Reserve C-130s can be called up when privately owned contracted air tankers are committed on fires or initial attack. Presently there are about 17 large air tankers on exclusive use contract with the U.S. Forest Service, down from 44 in 2002.

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MAFFS air tanker experiences a hard landing

MAFFS 3 hard landing

The MAFFS 3 air tanker experienced a hard landing at Hill Air Force Base on August 17. There were no injuries. Photo supplied by the Air Force, originally from Fox 13.

One of the military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers experienced a hard landing Sunday. The crew detected a potential malfunction with the nose landing gear and executed an emergency landing at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah. Upon landing at 2:53 MDT, there was a small fire and the aircraft, designated as MAFFS 3, sustained damage, but there were no injuries, according to the United States Northern Command.

The Fox 13 TV station in Salt Lake City reported that the air tanker was scheduled to “refuel and resupply” at Ogden when the problem was first detected.

Greg Brubaker sent us the photo below. He said he noticed the aircraft was flying in the area for over an hour and he observed that the nose gear was not visible.

MAFFS 3 nose gear problem

MAFFS 3 circling in the Ogden area before it landed with a nose gear problem. Photo by Greg Brubaker.

In the photo, the doors that cover the nose gear appear to be partially, but not fully open. Click on the photo to see a larger version.

On July 19, two MAFFS C-130s, MAFFS 1 and 3, from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne were activated to assist with the firefighting effort and have been deployed ever since, working out of Boise and other bases while rotating fresh crews in and out.

There have been three other hard landing incidents involving privately owned contract air tankers with failed landing gear or brakes since 2010. No injuries were reported in these accidents:

  1. 2010, June 26: Neptune’s Tanker 44, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure upon landing, had no brakes, and went off the runway at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (JeffCo) in Colorado.
  2. 2012, June 3: One of the main landing gears did not lower and lock on Minden’s Tanker 55, a P2V. The aircraft landed at Minden, Nevada and slid off the runway.
  3. 2014, June 15: Minden’s Tanker 48, a P2V, experienced a hydraulic failure, resulting in the nose gear collapsing while it landed at Fresno, California.

On July 1, 2012 a MAFFS C-130 air tanker, MAFFS #7 operated by the North Carolina National Guard crashed. 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.

MAFFS at Helena

File photo of MAFFS 1 and 3 at Helena Regional Airport August 3, 2014. Photo by Jeff Wadekamper.

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Video of a MAFFS drop on the Day Fire

The C-130 Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS) crews are great about filming what they do. This in-cockpit footage of them dropping on the Day Fire in northern California a few days ago shows the pilots and the ground, while you listen to their radio and intercom traffic. If you look carefully at about 1:20, you will see the lead plane producing smoke to mark the target area a few seconds before the drop.

It appears that as promised, Lockeed fixed the automatic “LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR” audible warning that in the past plagued them for several minutes during the approach to each drop. I just heard some “ALTITUDE” warnings right as they were dropping this time.

After getting confirmation that it was a good drop, the pilot, who I believe is actually the actor Alec Baldwin ;) , smiles, laughs and says, “Good job! Isn’t that fun?”, and another voice says, “Oh, man, it’s awesome!”.

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