Nevada Forestry and National Guard helicopter bucket training

Personnel from Nevada this week conducted aerial fire suppression and water bucket training on the heels of a wet winter and ahead of what could quickly turn into a very active summer for area firefighters.

Training throughout the week included several scenarios that mirrored real situations.

“In advance of what promises to be a challenging fire suppression season, this training aims to improve interagency crew cooperation and interaction, especially communication between ground and air crews,” National Guard spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka said, according to the Record-Courier newspaper. 

A bucket drop test during training with the Nevada Division of Forestry and Nevada National Guard. Courtesy photo.
A bucket drop test during training with the Nevada Division of Forestry and Nevada National Guard. Courtesy photo.

Interview with a Crew Chief on a C-130 MAFFS air tanker

On April 21, 2017 we interviewed Zach Havel an engine mechanic and former Crew Chief on C-130 Modular Airborne FireFighting System aircraft. The MAFFS converts the aircraft into a 3,000-gallon air tanker. We talked with him at Boise during the annual MAFFS training and recertification.

Rappel academy hosts 110 participants at John Day, Oregon

About 110 firefighters attended the Rappel training held at John Day, Oregon April 17-21. Four Bell 205’s were there: N510WW, N669H, N933CH, and N205DY.

These excellent photos were taken by Todd McKinley. Thanks Todd!

Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon Rappel training John Day Oregon

Video interview with the Colonel in charge of MAFFS annual training

Colonel Bryan Allen was interviewed during the annual training and recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System crews at Boise, Idaho on April 21, 2017. The MAFFS converts a military C-130 into an air tanker for battling wildfires.

Col. Allen discussed:

  • How playing the recording of the C-130J audible cockpit warning “LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR, LANDING GEAR” over the public address system at Lockheed, helped to develop a software modification that enabled the pilots to turn off that voice while they were on final approach to drop retardant on a wildfire.
  • The number of sorties and description of the training the MAFFS personnel received during the annual session.
  • How the crash of MAFFS 7 in 2012 affected the training.
  • The origin of the MAFFS equipment.

Time-lapse, refilling MAFFS air tanker

We shot this time-lapse video today at Boise during the annual Modular Airborne FireFighting System training. It shows C-130 aircraft cycling in and out of a reloading pit. During the process it was filled with about 3,000 gallons of water and possibly compressed air from an air compressor on the ground — or the crew could have used the air compressors on-board the aircraft. When the reloading hose for water is dragged out to the aircraft, a compressed air line is zip-tied to it.

MAFFS training has started in Boise

Above: MAFFS parked on the ramp at Boise, April 20, 2017, for their annual training.

This is the second year in a row that all four military bases that operate C-130 aircraft with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) have assembled in one place to conduct their annual training and certification. Today, Thursday, was all indoor ground school, held in the theater at the Idaho National Guard facility at Gowen Field in Boise.

On Friday their plans are to fly the aircraft and make water drops in the Boise National Forest.

MAFFS training Boise 2017
MAFFS training at Boise, April 20, 2017.

Each of the four bases sent two MAFFS-equipped C-130’s plus at least one additional C-130 with support equipment. The MAFFS bases are at Reno, Colorado Springs, Cheyenne, and Channel Islands (in southern California). Reno, last year and this year, has had just one MAFFS unit available, since the U.S. Forest Service HC-130H has been using one of the eight that are available, but this week Reno will be training with two. The USFS HC-130H is parked across the runway from the National Guard side of the airport at the National Interagency Fire Center. We’ll check, but it may have hauled the MAFFS up to Boise so that Reno could use it.

We will have much more about the MAFFS training later this week, with more photos and hopefully, interviews.

California National Guard helicopter training, 2017

The creation of the “Baseline Skunk Works” and the interaction with private industry led to many advances in helicopter water buckets.

By John Yount

(All photos are from the 2017 helicopter water bucket training, shot by Bob Martinez, a Volunteer in Prevention Photographer with CAL FIRE)

California’s annual Army National Guard helicopter water bucket training took place this year near Sutter Creek, California. National Guard and Air Force helicopters from Mather (Blackhawks), Stockton (Chinooks), and Moffet (Pavehawks) participated in the training over the three-day period. Classroom sessions, water drops, and the inevitable exchange of information among personnel will help facilitate a smooth activation when the aviation assets are needed.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingThere is much more to this story than just an annual training. The interaction of the Military and State of California has spanned over half a century.  This cooperative spirit has been the success of the program. Although the Guard and Air Force Reserve have their own mission agendas it is the history of the Guard and CAL FIRE working together during the wet months that has contributed to a significant enhancement in fire bucket reliability, versatility, and performance.

With the introduction of the CAL FIRE (then CDF) Military Helicopter Manager (MLHM) program in California in the late 1990’s it was deemed  important that a CDF aviation person be assigned to each helicopter during an activation. Flying with the Guard, CAL FIRE personnel work as part of a team providing tactical input, complete logistical support, and coordination with the Guard and CAL FIRE command centers.

California national guard fire helicopter training

Development of new helicopter water bucket technology

At the beginning of the MLHM program it was quickly identified that the rigid 2000 gallon Big Dipper buckets and the special production for the Guard  of a 1140 gallon Bambi Bucket needed to be addressed. The lead CDF person approached CDF management with a plan to initiate an updated program with respect to working with the Guard. One of the four components of the plan was to work on the buckets. A phone call to SEI (Bambi) saw an immediately response. Two SEI representatives, the general manager, and chief engineer came to California to work with CDF and the Stockton Guard to make a change.

The following fire season a new generation 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was presented to the CDF and Guard for testing during that fire season that became very active. The 2,000 gallon Bambi bucket was put to the test. From the lava beds of the Modoc National Forest to Southern California in a three week period the redesigned Bambi delivered 1.6 gallons of foam enhanced water flawlessly.  The interaction between the Guard, CDF and Bambi wasn’t just a business model but evolved into a “can do” chemistry that saw the development of many new Bambi products.  The hub for new products was the CDF’s Baseline Helibase/Heliport and Fire Camp near Jamestown, California, unofficially known as the Baseline Skunk Works. The next five years saw the development of numerous fire suppression products for helicopters.

California national guard fire helicopter training

One of the concerns of using the larger 2,000 gallon Bambi Bucket was the inability to pick up a full bucket of water in a source less than five feet deep. A skilled inmate work team of four directed by CDF personnel at Baseline started a Bambi modification of a 324 gallon Bambi with SEI providing a submergible pump.  Intermountain Helicopters of Columbia, California provided the copter that would test this 324 gallon “power fill” Bambi while pumping from a 1,000 gallon pumpkin tank. With SEI on site during testing this was the beginning of the power fill bucket era.

A second Baseline Skunk Tank project was to develop a multi-variable drop valve for the buckets. Two prototypes were made. One was divided into two separate chambers, with each having a small rubber valve allowing the load to be split. It was the Stockton Guard that came to Baseline (about 10 minutes from Stockton) and flew a helicopter with the modified bucket.

The second prototype used compressed air to open and close a carburetor butterfly valve. Again the Stockton Guard provided the Chinook, which is an external/internal cargo hauler. Instead of flying a four ton concrete slab around for external flight training the external load training hours were used to practice and develop new ideas in aerial fire fighting.  With SEI working with the Guard and CDF a clearer picture of understanding the needs of the aerial fire fighting community evolved.  Products like the SEI Torrentula Valve with power fill became part of SEI’s product line. Today ninety percent of the California Guard  Chinook helicopter buckets have been equipped with these valves and pumps.

The concept of a portable water tank of over 10,000 gallons was imagined at the Baseline Skunk Works.  SEI was contacted and liked the idea. Within two months the first Heliwell arrived at Baseline. Although the Guard wasn’t used to dipping from the Heliwell, the “test to destruction” was accomplished by dropping 2,000 gallons of water into the well’s opening from fifty feet. The tank performed as designed, a tribute to SEI engineering and manufacturing.

The next project for the Guard and CDF was how to fill from a small or shallow water source, as many of the water dip sites for helicopters in arid California are less than four feet in depth. A manufacturing company, TMR Fabrications in Merced, California was contacted. The idea was to build an external rectangular tank that could be transported inside a Chinook. The tank needed to be capable of being loaded and unloaded in less than ten minutes The TMR Water Rat Tank was built with input from the CDF Baseline Skunk Works and the Stockton Guard. What evolved was a self-contained 1,800 gallon water tank powered by a twelve horsepower engine driving a snorkel pump at the end of a twelve foot 5 inch hose.  The Water Rat filled to capacity in less than a minute. The “Rats” dump valve could release a partial load or all the water in less than 8 seconds. Once again the Guard flew the tank under a Chinook and was able to use it at no charge.

California national guard fire helicopter trainingOne of the significant features of the Water Rat was the safety of redundant slings, connecting to the Chinooks fore and aft hooks. This was a great safety feature in case of an accidental hook release. This project led to a military self-contained 2,000 gallon internal Chinook water tank that discharges the entire load in less than 8 seconds.

Other projects that came from the Imagineers at the Skunk Works included the Marine Recovery Device (MRD) and  the first Fire Sock initially built by Intermountain Helicopters fabric shop.  A 10 gallon foam concentrate system for the Chinook designed at the Skunk Works and built by SEI came in two models, gravity and pressure demand.

Although this year’s training near Sutter Creek was just part of the preparation for the upcoming 2017 fire season, the relationship between the CAL FIRE and the Guard over the decades have made a significant contribution to helicopter fire fighting products word wide.