This video was shot from Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) 3 as Lt. Col. Todd Davis and his crew dropped retardant on the Rockport Fire near Park City, Utah, July 25, 2014. Lt. Col. Davis and the lead plane pilot can be heard discussing where the drop should go to most effectively assist the firefighters on the ground.
The Department of Defense is aggressive about publicizing the role that National Guard aircraft play in helping to fight western wildfires.
— UtahFireInfo (@UtahWildfire) July 22, 2014
Two C-130s carrying MAFFS units were deployed to fires in Utah on Monday. The units were officially called up on Saturday morning, to be based out of Boise.
Updates Tuesday from the planes (you can follow them on Twitter):
- On Monday the planes did 12 drops of 18,000 gallons of retardant.
- Drops were made three times over the Lincoln and Sheep Fires in Utah.
- Six drops were made over the Tunnel Hollow fire in Utah as well.
Two Department of Defense C-130s have been called up to help fight massive fires in Washington state and Oregon, the National Interagency Fire Center announced on Saturday morning.
The two planes, equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS), were deployed from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne. The portable retardant units loaded onto the C-130s can carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. They can discharge their entire load in a matter of seconds.
The MAFFS units will initially be based in Boise.
The seven C-130 aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service are expected to be converted to air tankers by Fiscal Year 2018, which begins October 1, 2017. Chief of the USFS, Tom Tidwell, provided this information in a brief update on the retrofitting project Tuesday morning in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In addition to the lengthy delay in outfitting the aircraft to fight fires, Chief Tidwell said the earliest even one of them will be available to firefighters will be late in 2015. And by then that single aircraft will not have been fitted with a conventional internal gravity-based tank system, but it will be saddled with a 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Most firefighters will tell you that retardant converted to a mist by the pressurized MAFFS equipment is not as effective as a conventional gravity-based retardant tank system in suppressing fires, especially in penetrating tree canopy.
In the hearing today Colorado Senator Mark Udall brought up the C-130 subject when he asked the Chief if he was concerned about the progress of the retrofitting project. Chief Tidwell said he will remain concerned until he sees them flying over fires. He did not say why the conversions are going to take four years.
For anyone who has been looking forward to the seven C-130s bolstering the atrophied air tanker fleet, this is disappointing news.
In January a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, the Senator who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer of the aircraft, said two of the seven C-130Hs would not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers in 2014 after they are converted to air tankers. The other five may need extensive work, including replacement of the wing boxes which can take 10 months in addition to programmed depot maintenance which takes 6 to 7 months. In January we wrote about the wing box replacement and other maintenance that will have to be completed on the aircraft.
It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.
The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.
The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.
But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.
It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.
After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.
The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.
Yesterday I visited the Wyoming Air National Guard facility at Cheyenne Regional Airport during the annual training and certification/recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) units from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Charlotte, North Carolina. Each unit supplies two C-130H3 aircraft that can carry the 3,000-gallon fire retardant system when they are needed to help suppress wildfires, supplementing the United States’ atrophied fleet of large air tankers which has declined from 44 in 2002 to 9 this year.
The training includes classroom and airborne sessions, actually dropping, in this case, water, however, very strong winds required cancellation of the practice drops Wednesday. They hope the weather improves so they can get off the ground today.
In the photo above and the video below, Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard shows and explains how a hand-held control can be used by the loadmasters in a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker to release the 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, if for some reason the pilots, who normally trigger the release with an identical controller, are unable to perform that function. The video was filmed by Bill Gabbert for FireAviation.com on April 30, 2014 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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.