It has been confirmed that the two MAFFS C-130s at Peterson Air Force Base have been activated. Wednesday morning the U.S. Forest Service issued a news release. Below is an excerpt:
…The MAFFS will be provided by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. They will be based in Colorado Springs, Colorado and will begin flying wildfire suppression missions as soon as safe and effective operations can be established.
“We are experiencing an uptick in wildfire activity and we are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we have adequate air tanker capability as we confront explosive wildfire conditions in Colorado, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the West,” said Tom Tidwell, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability is critical to provide support to, and enhance the safety of, the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to suppress wildfires that are threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, and valuable natural and cultural resources.”
Many of the residents in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Nevada, and Oregon would agree that yes, there has indeed been an “uptick” in fire activity.
This was an unusually quick activation of MAFFS. Usually fires destroy large numbers of acres and/or homes for several days before the C-130s get cranked up. However, only two of the eight MAFFS were activated.
In 2012 four MAFFS were activated on June 24, and four more, including the two at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, on June 29, three days after 347 homes were destroyed about seven miles from Peterson.
(Originally published at 11:06 p.m. MT, June 11, 2013)
In a briefing about the 7,500-acre Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Terry Maketa, the El Paso County Sheriff, said Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, has activated the two Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130 air tankers at Peterson Air Force Base. The Sheriff said the aircraft should be available by mid-morning Wednesday.
Those aircraft are operated by the 302nd Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve, rather than the state national guard like the other three units that have MAFFS, so it would be unusual for a governor to have the authority to activate them without going through the National Interagency Fire Center.
On Tuesday three major wildfires broke out in Colorado. Strong winds of over 30 mph at Grand Junction kept two SEATs from being able to take off to assist with the fires. However, high wind speeds at the fires may have made the air tankers ineffective even if they could have gotten off the ground.
In addition to talking about the C-27J in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell discussed at length the air tanker program, especially the contracting process for the next-generation air tankers.
During the hearing, which was primarily about the USFS budget, Senators Jack Reed (Rhode Island) and Jon Tester (Montana) asked many questions about the air tanker program. The entire hearing lasted almost two hours; you can watch a video of it HERE. You will see that there were three people in the audience, and only about five or six senators were present, out of the 30 that are members of the committee.
Chief Tidwell said he has the authority to override the protest filed by Neptune for being passed over for the next-gen air tanker contracts. If he does, it would be within the next couple of weeks and would be based on an “emergency” — a shortage of air tankers. On May 17 Colorado Senator Mark Udall issued a statement saying the protest should be overridden because Colorado lives and homes are at stake.
In reading between the lines of Senator Testor’s statements and questions, he appeared to be chiding Chief Tidwell for not awarding any next-generation air tanker contracts to a particular business in his state, Neptune Aviation. Neptune has two BAe-146s with at least interim approval by the Interagency AirTanker Board, and two more that the company expects to have ready to go later this summer. Neptune did, however, receive contracts on the “legacy” air tanker solicitation for some of their P2Vs and one BAe-146. [UPDATE May 23, 3013; Neptune was recently able to add a second BAe-146 to the contract as “additional equipment”.]
I transcribed some sections of the dialog:
At 43:28, Tidwell: “We will have an adequate air tanker fleet this year. We are anticipating between 24 and 26 planes to be available. We currently have nine aircraft under what we call a legacy aircraft which is seven P2s plus two BAe-146As that are currently on contract. We are in the process of awarding contracts for seven more aircraft which we call our next generation which are the faster planes we are trying to move forward to, that carry larger payloads. In addition to that we continue to work with the Air Force and Air Force Reserve to make sure the MAFFS units, the C-130Js and Hs are available again this year as a backup. We’ve also taken steps to be able to work with Alaska and Canada to bring down their [Convair] 580 planes if we need those aircraft.
So based on everything we’re moving forward with this year I feel confident that we will have a set of aircraft that we can respond.
In addition to that we are anxious to see what the Air Force, the decision that they make, if the C-27s are surplus and they become available, and we would definitely like to have seven more of those aircraft to be part of our overall fleet. They would be government owned but contractor operated. We are moving forward to actually look at what it would take to take our MAFFS units and modify those to fit into the C-27s so if those planes become available that we will be able to move as quick as we can to build those MAFFS units for those C-27s. ”
(Senator Reed asked a question about next gen contracts. Are you confident that you will have those next-gen aircraft under contract and useful this fire season?)
Tidwell: “Mr. Chairman, we are working through the process of the contract for the next generation and we have received a protest, that we will work through that protest. I do have the authority to override that protest and as we go through the process I’ll make that determination to ensure that we have the aircraft we need to be able to respond to fires this year.
We estimate that with the C-27s it would cost about $3 million per aircraft to build the MAFFS units and then to make some changes on the aircraft to make them usable for our mission and take some of the military equipment and armor off those aircraft that is no longer needed for our mission.”
(At 1:03 Senator Tester asked about the status of the aircraft on the next-generation contracts:)
Tidwell: “Once we work through the protest and actually award the contracts it is our expectation that those contractors that have the new contract awards will have their planes ready to go withn 60 days for testing.”
(Senator Tester asked, after the tests, when will they “be ready to fly?”)
Tidwell: “It’s our expectation that when they complete the tests they will be ready to fly. The aircraft that are being considered they are all FAA certified already so there isn’t that problem, they don’t have to deal with that. So they have to get their tanking systems to be able to use our performance tests.”
Senator Tester asked if they took into consideration when evaluating the potential contractors if they would be ready to fly this summer. Tidwell said, yes, they were expected to be able to be ready in 60 days. The contingency plan, he said, is to bring down the [Convair] 580s from Canada and to use the MAFFS.)
Tidwell: “We’ve been asking for the C-27s so that we at least have part of our fleet that is government owned so there is a guarantee that we will have some aircraft. So this has been an ongoing problem with these contracted aircraft.”
Tester: “My problem is not with the contracted aircraft per se, and I’m not for privatizing government, but my problem is that there were better options on the table that could be taken up by the Forest Service from my perspective and they didn’t do it. And you know exactly what I’m saying and all that.”
Tidwell: “We have a set of procedures that we follow when we award contracts. I can guarantee that there has been a high level of oversight provided and the process of being able to protest and have another level of review, that’s the process that we have to follow. And because of that our folks go to great lengths to be able to make sure that we are making right decisions based on what the contractors provided us and we have to make our best decisions.”
Tester: “The bottom line is we need to get the biggest bang for the buck and I’m not sure that because of the fact that we don’t know if these planes are going to be operational or not, whether we got the best bang for the buck.”
Tidwell said that “within the next week or so” he will make a decision about overriding the protest or not.)
At 1:39, Tester questioned again whether the seven next gen aircraft have FAA certification. Tidwell said it is his understanding that six do, and one made some air frame modifications, so it may not have the FAA certification. Tester asked Tidwell to confirm and get back to him.
Tester asked about the status of the C-27 transfer. Tidwell said it is his understanding that the Air Force is doing a study to determine if they want to do the transfer or not. The study could be done by September.
Tidwell anticipates the payload of the C-27 to be 1,800 gallons. Maintenance would be contracted. He said it would cost between $21 and $26 million to convert seven C-27s into air tankers.
In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell said the agency hopes to obtain the C-27J aircraft that the Air Force may decide to declare surplus, and the USFS would outfit them with scaled down versions of the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank systems that are used in military C-130s. When asked, he said the C-27Js would hold 1,800 gallons of retardant in the MAFFS unit. When used in C-130s, the systems can carry up to 3,000 gallons, during favorable density altitude and fuel load conditions.
Some would say that choosing a MAFFS design rather than a conventional gravity powered tanking system is misguided. The retardant in a MAFFS is pumped out by a complex compressed air system and the delivery has been criticized as not being able to penetrate tree canopy as well as a gravity system. A MAFFS would have a much lower retardant capacity since it requires an air compressor, tanks for compressed air, and a complex system of additional valves and piping. All of that extra equipment means less capacity for carrying retardant. It also requires two loadmasters, in addition to the two or three person air crew, to operate the MAFFS, doubling the personnel cost.
I just don’t see the advantage of installing a MAFFS unit in a government-owned air tanker rather than a conventional gravity system. It holds less retardant and does a less than desirable job of retarding the spread of a timber fire.
Sure, you would be able to remove the MAFFS and use the plane for hauling cargo in about a day, but how often during the winter does the USFS need seven cargo planes? It could be used during fire season to haul firefighters, smokejumpers, and fire equipment, but then that makes it unavailable as an air tanker. So you’re either going to use it for hauling stuff, or as an air tanker, but not both.
It should be relatively simple to scale down an Aero Union gravity tank, which has been tested, approved, and used for decades in C-130s, to fit into a C-27J.
Coulson is using an Aero Union designed tank, slightly modified, for the C-130Q they are building right now in San Bernardino. The tank has wheels, and Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that they can install or remove the tank in about 30 minutes, making it available to haul cargo.
I spent part of the day Tuesday at the refresher training and recertification for the crews of four military C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft at Cheyenne, Wyoming. Let’s see… what time was I there?
MAFFS can be activated to provide surge capacity when the small feet of contracted federal air tankers is tied up on going fires or initial attack.
The training incorporated some of the changes to the system that were influenced by the crash of one of the MAFFS air tankers, MAFFS 7, last year in South Dakota. It appeared to be very thorough. Here is the training — by the numbers:
4 — MAFFS C-130 aircraft plus one for backup
6 — Lead Planes
160 — people from the two Air National Guard units, plus one or two dozen ground support personnel mostly from the U.S. Forest Service
49 — missions
373 — drops
80 — flight hours
At Cheyenne we talked with the Air National Guard MAFFS managers from the two units participating in the joint training, Major Jeremy Schaad from Wyoming’s 153 Airlift Wing, and Lt. Col. Brian Rachford from North Carolina’s 145 Airlift Wing.
One of the changes that has been implemented is the development and use of standardized written pilot qualifications for all four military bases that can each activate two aircraft and crews. When four people on the MAFFS #7 crew were killed last year no such uniform guidelines existed. Until 2013, each Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve MAFFS base used their own criteria for determining the requirements to serve on a MAFFS aircraft. The new standards specify how many base flight hours and hours spent on previous MAFFS missions are required to be the pilot in command and the copilot. They also formalize across the four MAFFS bases procedures, training, and written manuals.
There is now an increased focus on taking the time to analyze the specific scenario for each mission, including the weather conditions and the influences of the fire.
The Air Force report about last year’s MAFFS 7 crash on the White Draw Fire said a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm was one of the causes. During a previous retardant drop on the fire about five minutes earlier, the aircraft experienced a drop in airspeed despite operating under full power. Before the second drop the crew discussed the air speed problem but decided they could adjust to the conditions. The plane crashed on the second drop. Firefighters on the ground reported very strong wind speeds about the time of the fatal drop. One estimate was 50 mph.
The MAFFS 7 flight crew obtained a detailed weather forecast for the fire they expected to fly that day in 2012, the Waldo Canyon fire at Colorado Springs, but they did not have one for the fires in South Dakota, nor did they request one when they were diverted from the Arapaho Fire in Wyoming to fires in South Dakota.
The last time the four MAFFS bases sent their eight aircraft and crews to one location for joint training was in 2010. In 2012 all four bases conducted the training on their own. This year the California and Colorado bases each did their training independently, and the Wyoming and North Carolina bases joint-trained in Cheyenne.
The crash report did not specifically state that the lack of joint training the year of the accident was an issue, but it did say this:
Local training did not include different terrain conditions, density altitudes and congested pit operations, all of which are essential components in order to comprehend what live MAFFS operations entail. Additionally, all four MAFFS units were not integrated in order to provide a more realistic learning environment for new and seasoned MAFFS crewmembers.
Military C-130s can be used as surge resources when the privately owned contracted air tankers are committed to going fires or initial attack. They are transformed into air tankers when outfitted with the 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS).
Here are ten things you may not have known about MAFFS air tankers.
Operating one of the eight MAFFS aircraft costs $5,000 to $6,000 per hour. This is paid by the U.S. Forest Service or is charged to the fire.
After the crash of MAFFS 7 on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota in 2012, the “MAFFS 7” number was retired.
Since one of the MAFFS slip-in units was destroyed in the crash, MAFFS 9, a new number, is using what was the spare ninth unit. Now there is no spare unit.
The U.S. Forest Service supplies the ground-based marshaling and retardant loading personnel when MAFFS are activated.
Maintenance and repairs of the MAFFS slip-in units are performed by a crew of six technicians supplied by the USFS. Some of them are former Aero Union employees. The MAFFS units were made for the USFS under contracts awarded to Aero Union.
The Aero Union company, after going through bankruptcy, now consists of one person who is dealing with the remaining financial issues until the doors are closed for the last time. If any new MAFFS units are manufactured, it would likely be done by another company.
The USFS has copies of the technical and engineering documents and they believe they have the rights to have additional MAFFS 2 units manufactured if they desired, according to what we were told by a person who is very knowledgeable about the system. The bank that now owns Aero Union may or may not agree.
The retardant is pumped out of the 3,000-gallon tank by compressed air stored in two tanks at 1,200 psi. The compressed air tanks on the new MAFFS 2 units are refilled by two onboard air compressors which can fill the tanks in 15 to 20 minutes. Or, they can be refilled by one of six portable USFS air compressors on the ground (in about 14 minutes) that are moved around to air tanker bases as needed when the MAFFS aircraft are activated. The first generation MAFFS 1 units, no longer used, did not have onboard air compressors and had to be refilled on the ground. The contracts for the MAFFS 2 units specified that the air tanks had to be refilled by the onboard air compressors in no more than 30 minutes.
The military personnel working on a MAFFS aircraft typically fly for seven days, and then are relieved by a replacement crew.
The USFS has no plans to ever again use the first generation MAFFS 1 units.
Two of the four military units that provide military C-130 aircraft configured to serve as air tankers are conducting their annual training, certification, and recertification. Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs had their’s April 19-23 and Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne has chosen the week of May 5. The military Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) can help fill a need for a surge capacity when all of the privately owned contract air tankers are committed.
The 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson is the only Air Force Reserve organization that has an aerial fire fighting mission. The wing’s MAFFS program added one pilot, two navigators, two flight engineers and four loadmasters to the aerial fire fighting roster this year. Reserve aircrew members who support the MAFFS mission are volunteers, with each working to incorporate aerial fire fighting training into their required airdrop and tactical flying skill sets.
New data that the National Interagency Fire Center released about the 2012 wildfire season reveals that almost half, or 48 percent, of the requests for large air tankers could not be filled. Of the 914 requests, 438 were rejected as “unable to fill” (UTF), meaning no air tankers were available to respond to the fire; 67 were cancelled for various reasons. The requests that were filled included 346 for civilian contracted air tankers and 63 for military Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) C-130s.
For additional perspective, consider that the number of requests for air tankers during the 2000 fire season was higher than the 13-year average between 2000 and 2012 — 548 requests vs. the average of 434, but in 2000 only 7 percent of them were UTF. In 2000 there were 40 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts compared to between 9 and 11 in 2012.
More acres burned in the United States in 2012 than average. At 9.3 million, it was the most since 2007. But the number of fires was surprisingly small, only 67,774 which is the lowest number since 2005.
The average number of fires in the lower 49 states each year is gradually decreasing, but the average size is increasing rapidly. This could be due to a number of factors, including climate, increased fuel loading (vegetation), reduced budgets, fewer firefighters, and not as many air tankers.
One of the reasons the U.S. Forest Service has allowed the air tanker fleet to atrophy may be a misguided attempt to save money. Fast, aggressive, initial attack on new fires can reduce the number of megafires that may burn hundreds of homes while costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in suppression costs alone. The 2002 Federal Aerial Firefighting Report, usually known as the “Blue Ribbon Panel Report”, addressed this issue:
While cost-saving is an essential contracting criterion, it appears to have displaced other, less-quantifiable criteria that call for more judgment and experience, such as value, safety records, and past performance. Pilots have sarcastically referred to this cost-focus philosophy as “budget protection” rather than “fire protection.” In contrast, a Canadian philosophy states, “We can’t spend too much the first day [of a fire],” seems to justify spending money on early containment of a fire, and doing so in an operationally effective way that minimizes the number of escaped fires. In the long run, the Canadians believe that they spend far less for a quick-response capability designed to contain small fires than they do to fight fires after they grow large.
It has has been 1 year, 2 months, and 24 days since the U.S. Forest Service issued a solicitation for next-generation large air tankers, but no contracts have been awarded.