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.
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.