Volunteer who established air tanker base in Victoria, Australia earns prestigious award

The base is staffed completely by volunteers

Leighton Wraith
Leighton Wraith – second from the left. Photo credit – Weekly Times.

Country Fire Authority volunteer Leighton Wraith said he is thrilled to be awarded the prestigious Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) as part of the 2021 Australia Day honors for his long and outstanding service to CFA and his local community.

Leighton has protected and served the communities of South West Victoria for 40 years through volunteering with CFA.

While he has accomplished many roles during his time at Bochara and Dunkeld Fire Brigades, over recent years his greatest accomplishment was the establishment of the Hamilton CFA-EMV Air Base and its facilities.

As a licensed pilot himself, Leighton was passionate about aviation and the 2013 Grampians fires highlighted the need for better ground support and arrangements for deployment. Leighton was adamant there should be a permanently established airbase to service and support firebombing aircraft at Hamilton Aerodrome.

“It took me 7 years to complete – with several trips to Parliament and Local MPs offices,” Leighton said.

“It’s the largest CFA operated airbase in Victoria which is run by a great group of volunteers.”

Leighton has been vital to the recruitment, training and management of the members that operate the airbase.

Leighton recruited around 40 volunteers to perform various key roles and then managed them into six loading crews, which enables him to manage fatigue during major periods of operation by scheduling the rotation of the highly proficient teams.

Leighton said he often positioned the volunteers at the base full-time during high risk fire days to ensure they have the best possible aerial firefighting operations and the greatest chance at protecting Victorians.

Leighton is a well-respected leader whose hard work, dedication and ongoing management of the airbase means it is now recognised as the primary aerial fire support facility across western Victoria.

While Leighton has attended many and various incidents across his 40 years with CFA, he said last summer stands out the most.

“The 2019/20 summer was a long one. We were on duty ready to go every day,” he said.

“On some of the busiest days, the airbase crews reloaded 52 aircraft in one day.”

Over a six-week period during those devastating fires, the Hamilton Air Base carried out 330 reloads.

The effective deployment and efficient reloading of firebombers from Hamilton prevented the need to obtain resources from elsewhere in Victoria.

CFA District 5 Assistant Chief Fire Officer (ACFO) Richard Bourke said the contribution Leighton has made to aviation in advocacy of senior management, EMV and Government has been pivotal in where and how the airbase turned out.

“The facilities that are there are the jewel in CFA’s aviation crown and that is directly attributed to Leighton’s work.”

ACFO Bourke said the prestigious AFSM is such a deserving recognition for Leighton.

“We are all very proud of what he has achieved over the last 40 years. He is a credit to CFA and a credit to his community,” ACFO Bourke said.

From the Country Fire Authority

Firefighting air tankers, the early years

World first crop dusting experiment
World first crop dusting experiment (August 3rd 1921, Troy, Ohio) using an aircraft – Left: McCook Field engineer Etienne Dormoy (left) who designed the hopper and operated it during the flight ; Right: Lieut. J.A. Macready who piloted the plane (Curtiss JN-6). Photo: Houser, J. S. “The Airplane in Catalpa Sphinx Control.” Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station, Monthly Bulletin 7 (1922)

By Richard L. Hilderbrand

Military aircraft have long been used to apply insecticides and herbicides.  An entomologist from Cleveland, C. R. Neillie, believing that airplanes could be used to dust a stand of trees, worked with the Army Air Service at McCook Field in Dayton to test the idea.  On August 3, 1921, Lt. John A. Macready assisted in the successful treatment of catalpa trees using insecticide dropped from a Curtiss JN-6 airplane to kill sphinx caterpillars.

first crop dusting experiment
World’s first crop dusting experiment, Aug. 3, 1921

In 1933 a study summarized the military use of chemicals dispersed by aircraft and included the possibility of using chemicals to deny the opposition the use of rear areas and lines of communication.  This basic idea was applied in Vietnam to deny cover and limit food crops.

An engineering study completed in 1952 laid the groundwork for the development of the MC-I “Hourglass” system which was first used for defoliation in Vietnam.  Built by the Hayes Aircraft Corporation of Birmingham, AL, the MC-1 system included a 1,000-gallon tank and equipment to support six spray nozzles.

The MC-1 was used on many occasions but was not satisfactory to spray jungle foliage in Vietnam in “Operation Ranch Hand” due to the requirement for two passes over the treatment area.  Knowing a second pass was coming for adequate treatment allowed the enemy on the ground to prepare a “return” welcome party.  On February 2, 1962, Ranch Hand lost an aircraft and the crew became the first Air Force fatalities in Vietnam.

The need for a three gallon/acre spray capability in one pass resulted in the development in 1966 of the A/A45Y-1 sprayer which incorporated spray booms under each wing and under the tail and a larger pump to increase pressure from 38 to 60 psi.  The A/A45Y-1 Internal Defoliant Dispenser, also designed and manufactured by Hayes, was a complete dispensing system with a 1000 gallon tank, jettison capability, and rapid installation into and from a C-123.

In the spring of 1953, Douglas Aircraft Company was flying a DC-7 prototype out of Palm Springs Airport using water in a tank as a ballast to represent a load. At the end of flight-testing, the four-engine DC-7 made a low pass over the Palm Springs runway and dumped its ballast through three six-inch valves in the airplane’s belly. The result was a wide, mile-long swath of water that caught the attention of the DC-7’s pilots as well as observers, thus starting the concept of aerial attack on fires. The first application of aerial attack adapted a 1939 Stearman biplane that had been converted into a cropduster. In 1955 Willows Flying Service, a California agriculture chemical applicator, cut a hole in the airplane’s belly fabric and fitted the chemicals hopper with a flapper hatch that opened when the pilot pulled a rope to release 170 gallons of water. In August of that year the Willows Stearman made several runs on a fire burning in Mendocino National Forest, dropping 170 gallons on each run and assisting in “knocking down hotspots.” This was the first time that a real forest fire had been attacked using water dropped from the air.

TBM air tanker
TBM air tanker being refueled by truck in 1966 in the Beaverhead National Forest, Montana. The TBM payload was 800 gallons of retardant. Photograph provided by Mr. Dave Stack courtesy of National Museum of Forest Service History, Missoula, Montana.

In 1958 a single engine TBM Avenger (Grumman TBF manufactured by Ford) dropped retardant on a fire at Lake Elsinore, California and started the use of the TBM as a retardant tanker. Continuing through the 1960s, the tankers were usually modifications of WWII bombers, such as the TBM, that carried a several hundred gallons of retardant and dropped the load using the bomb bay. These drops were bulk drops and frequently a mass of retardant would break the trunks of trees. The military bombers were designed to withstand the “negative g” wing-loads of rapid cargo (e.g., bombs) deployment but were not necessarily adapted to the low-level drops in mountain terrain. Other aircraft used were the PB4Y, B-26, B-17, and P2V Neptune. Other military aircraft were used such as the Grumman AF with a payload of 800 gallons and the C-123. They were usually single purpose aircraft owned and operated by private contractors with much time parked on the ramp. These early pilots flew on the edge and would occasionally return to the retardant base with pieces of tree-top in their wings. C-119 “Flying Boxcars” were used through about 1987 and a few even had 3,400-pound-thrust Westinghouse J34 turbojet atop the fuselage.

One story from 1979 and recounted by Bill Waldman (Aero Union pilot) concerned a drop he made east of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon area. He made a partial drop and was pulling up out of the canyon. The C-119 made a drastic roll to the right so the co-pilot was looking at the rocks on the hill through an overhead window. Waldman jettisoned the load, corrected the roll and looked for an emergency landing spot and realized the Ford proving ground south of Kingman, AZ, was the best available. He held the plane level long enough to reach the skidpad test area at the proving ground, clearing the many new Fords on the pad by a few feet. He landed and was met by the manager of the proving ground who told his machine shop staff to give this pilot and plane anything they need to “get off my skidpad.” A 4 x 6 inch piece of aluminum and sheet metal screws repaired the flap and the plane with one dead cylinder due to a swallowed exhaust valve and a make-do patch flew to the canyon airfield for repairs. Over the time of their use three C-119s were lost due to structural failure.
Following the WWII bombers, the DC-4 (C-54), DC-6, DC-7, MD-87 and Lockheed P-3 Orion have been employed. California fire fighting continues use of military aircraft with the Grumman S-2T tanker that can hold about 1,200 gallons of retardant. The S-2T aircraft were used to track submarines until the 1970s.

Global Supertanker 747
Global Supertanker 747 approaching directly toward photographer Steven Whitby. Photo used by permission of Steven Whitby Photography.

The use of aerial firefighting aircraft has reached a new peak with the conversion of DC-10 and Boeing 747 aircraft to supertankers capable of carrying thousands of gallons of retardant. The supertankers drop at a few hundred feet or higher at 140 knots but cannot fly at tree top level as did the early pilots. The DC-10 conversions carry a load of 9,400 gallons and the 747 carries 17,500 gallons. The 747 interior contains several tanks that cover much of the length of the interior including the compressed air tanks for dispersal. The volume of retardant dropped is impressive and dispersal improved – the 747 may make a drop covering two to three miles and 100 yards wide.

Water can be used to cool a fire; however, the retardant is usually distributed in a line in front of the fire to assist ground teams with building a line to stop the fire. The retardant is a mixture of fertilizer type material that retains or absorbs moisture, decreases fire intensity and slows advance of the fire (even after drying) and is intended to act as a fire break when the fire reaches the retardant drop line. In 1956 borate was briefly tested on fires in southern California and found to be a soil sterilant but early air tankers were often called “borate bombers.” Today’s retardant is generally an ammonium-phosphate or sulfate based commercial mixture which is colored red to mark the drop site and weighs about nine lbs/gallon. The Monsanto brand Phos-Check became available in 1962. The product PHOS-CHEK® is now trademarked and produced by Perimeter Solutions and is one of a several retardant products. Certain current formulations of retardants can be used to pretreat fuel to act as a retardant and are resistant to weather conditions for extended time periods.

Air Tanker 855 drops Indian Canyon Fire
Air Tanker 855 drops on the Indian Canyon Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota at 8:27 p.m. MDT July 16, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Jim Hickman has memories of a few incidents from the early development of Modular Aerial Firefighting System (MAFFS) air tankers. When mixed with water, retardant is not only wet but very sticky and slick when coating a surface. In an early trial several hundred gallons of the retardant were loaded into the modules of a C-130 and the test run started. When valves were opened there was a dramatic and immediate dispersal with much of the sticky retardant mist flying back through the open ramp into the interior of the aircraft, where it coated every surface. Fortunately, it did not access the cockpit. Several modifications were completed to improve the filling of the tanks and the placement of dump nozzles to achieve proper dispersal of the retardant.

There were other errors and incidents which occurred with civilian-operated aircraft. One tanker had dual wheels on each main gear and had loaded at the tanker base at Prescott, AZ. The plane taxied out of the retardant pit, turned onto the main runway and took off. In about a minute the dispatcher had a frantic call from a civilian telling them that a huge wheel had just fallen off an airplane, hit on the street, bounced over a house, and was off in the woods. About then a pickup roared up to the tower and one of the retardant crewmen ran in with a handful of debris from the tarmac where the tanker had turned to go onto the main runway. The lead plane pilot watched while the tanker pilot lowered the main gear. Sure enough, the outside dual on one main landing gear was missing. The plane went on to the fire and dropped retardant, diverted back to the home base and made a safe landing. During development, the military pilots had flying experience but no fire suppression experience. In early MAFFS operations the military pilots were having trouble dropping the retardant in the location needed at the fire. As orientation the USAF pilots were flown in civilian tankers with experienced tanker pilots. Upon return from an orientation flight in a B-17 the AF pilot was asked what he thought – his reply, “The SOB was trying to kill me.”

A recent tragedy was the loss of Coulson Aviation’s Tanker 134 (a former Navy C-130) fighting Australia’s bush fires on January 23, 2020. The tanker was outfitted with Coulson’s RADS XXL retardant delivery system capable of dropping 4000 gallons on each run. The three crew members lost were decorated veterans of the U.S. Military services and each had extensive experience. The crash occurred north of the Cooma-Snowy Mountains Airport (near Peak View), New South Wales.

One incident of interest to me concerned a PB4Y2 on a fire in Alaska. I was on the fireline and watched with concern as the pilot came in on the level approaching below a fire but needing to climb up to the fire on the side of a mountain. Normal procedure was to come loaded over a ridge or hilltop and drop retardant going down the slope and then pulling up after the drop and returning to base. The drop was made, the engines roared and the PB4Y2 just cleared the trees on the top of the ridge. The PB4Y2 crashed a few days later July 22, 1968, on Joaquin Mountain in Alaska with the loss of four lives.

In another case a contract C-130A (civilian-operated) aircraft was flying against the Cannon Fire, near Walker, CA, on June 17, 2002, when it experienced a structural failure of the center wing section, causing both wings to fold upward and separate from the aircraft. Two weeks later another contract-operated PB4Y from WWII crashed near Estes Park, CO, also as a result of structural failure. A total of five personnel were killed in the two crashes.

As a result of the accident investigations, on May 10, 2004, the USFS abruptly terminated the contracts for many of the large tankers over safety concerns. The decision affected tanker contracts issued by both the USFS and Bureau of Land Management. In the vacuum left by the absence of the large tankers, the Forest Service said it would shift its firefighting strategies to rely more on heavy helicopters, light tankers and military MAFFS. With improvement of safety procedures the strategy has changed and the large aircraft, including supertankers, are currently operating world-wide.

Richard Hilderbrand, Ph.D., was a Smokejumper in the mid 1960’s and is a Life Member of the National Smokejumper Association.  He was on fires in the Northwest US and Alaska.  He has personally seen TBM aircraft return with tops of trees in their wings and has seen retardant drops from many aircraft.  He has jumped from a Ford Tri-motor, DC-2, DC-3, Twin Beech, Grumman Goose and other jump aircraft.   Special thanks are due to Jim Hickman, Bill Ruskin, Bill Allred, Bill Waldman, Bill Gabbert, and Steve Whitby for their contributions and review! In addition, I thank the many websites referenced in the text for their information; however, any errors are the responsibility of the author.

Air tankers in Tucson’s Pima Air & Space Museum

Grumman AF-2S
Grumman AF-2S in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.

Steve Stenkamp sent us these photos he took at the Pima Air & Space Museum last March. “It’s an excellent way to spend 3-4 hours,” he said.

Thanks Steve!

C-123 in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
P2V-7 in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
DC-7B in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.
C-119C in the Pima Air Museum. Photo by Steve Stenkamp.

Over 400 historic aircraft are on display at the museum that encompasses 80 acres of exhibits.

We grabbed this photo of the museum from Google Earth:

Pima Air and Space Museum
Pima Air and Space Museum. Google Earth, August 18, 2018.

If you go:

Location: 6000 E Valencia Rd, Tucson, AZ 85756
Tickets: $10 to $16
Website: pimaair.org

It is just south of Davis-Monthan AFB AMARG Facility and the military aircraft “boneyard” with over 4,400 planes in storage. From the Pima Museum you can board a bus to tour the boneyard but you have to apply for a security clearance at least 10 business days in advance of the desired tour date. You can apply for the clearance up to 90 days in advance.

MAFFS — A look back

Development and use of the Modular Airborne Firefighting System

By Richard L. Hilderbrand

MAFFS loading
Members of the 302nd Airlift Wing load a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS II) unit into a C-130 Hercules aircraft April 23, 2020 at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. The MAFFS unit is used during annual aerial firefighting training requirements. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Norton)

The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) program is a joint effort between the US Forest Service and Department of Defense (DoD).  The USFS owns the MAFFS equipment and supplies the retardant, while the Department of Defense has provided the C-130 aircraft, pilots, maintenance, and support personnel to fly the missions since the 1970s.

The current MAFFS II is configured for deployment using the C-130 aircraft, with installation requiring less than an hour.  The system carries up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant which can be discharged using 1,200 PSI air pressure in a matter of seconds.  The system can provide a fire line 60 or more feet wide and about a quarter mile long.

The USFS had used bulk retardant drops from older aircraft; however, improved dispersal systems did not exist and the USFS had a continuing need to provide assistance to ground personnel on a fire, especially for initial attack.  At the same time, the A/A45Y-1 spray equipment was in use in Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand.  In April 1970, the DoD suspended the use of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) herbicide, due to the presence of the toxic contaminant dioxin in the defoliant. In addition, in 1973 the Paris Peace Accord ended direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  These events left military spray equipment looking for a mission.

The search for a mission led to a proposal by FMC (previously Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation) that the DoD spray equipment be modified for use by the USFS to drop retardant in wildfire suppression.  In 1971 Arnold Adams (equipment development specialist for FMC) met with Jim Hickman (USFS, Washington Office, Division of Aviation and Fire Management) as staff liaison for equipment development.  Numerous meetings and review of the existing spray equipment at FMC in San Jose, CA, followed to determine applicability to wildfire use.  With positive initial evaluation by Hickman and Adams, the proposal was elevated through USFS, Department of Agriculture, USAF, and DoD.  A meeting of senior officials was held at the Pentagon for a complete review and the program was given final and unanimous approval by the Departments.

Following the initial proposal and production of the first MAFFS unit by FMC, the USFS turned to Aero Union Corp. for the manufacture of the operational MAFFS.  On October 17, 1972, Dale Newton of Aero Union Corporation of Chico, CA, was awarded patent 3,698,480 on the basic MAFFS type system.  This included the method and apparatus for retardant use from a large capacity main slurry storage coupled by means of fluid transfer pipes to a lower capacity slurry dispensing tank positioned aft of the main tank in the doorway of the aircraft’s cargo doors.  This patent envisioned a plane such as the C-130 for operation and using engine operation to provide compressed air to disperse retardant.

Bill Waldman of Aero Union provided the description of the development of the MAFFS to the current configuration.  The original MAFFS was in four components to be loaded individually with filling and pressurization being completed on the ground.  The compressor was driven by a VW engine and took many minutes of ground time to charge.  Support bases were selected, equipment gathered, and pilot training on operational procedures of wildfire suppression was conducted. USFS pilots, several of whom were ex-military, and contractor pilots were utilized.  Much of the training was done at the USFS National Training center at Marana, AZ.  The MAFFS era had begun!

An improvement of equipment by Aero Union led to a diesel engine for air compression and a trailer with all four components to be loaded as a single unit to the C-130.  Due to air and retardant characteristics the original design created more of a mist than a liquid dispersion that exited directly out of the aft ramp.  Major modifications were needed to achieve the dispersal of the dense retardant as a liquid by pressurized air with nozzles exiting the ramp and pointing downward from the aft ramp of the C-130.  Aero Union designed and produced the MAFFS II which is in current use.  Nine units were produced with two assigned to each MAFFS-capable military unit and one spare, of which one was lost in the crash of MAFFS #7.  MAFFS II was designed with one discharge nozzle exiting the aircraft from the left jump door, full capability to charge the system in the air, and a capacity of 3000 gallons.  In addition, the trailer system was improved to allow rapid loading and unloading of the C-130.

Aero Union also developed a version of a retardant tank known as the Retardant Aerial Delivery System (RADS).  Coulson Aviation purchased the intellectual property rights to RADS-1 in 2012 and has improved the RADS system, making several versions including the 4,000-gallon RADS-XXL and claim a 1600 gallon/second dispersal rate and reduced equipment weights.

A private company, United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC) headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought P-3 aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company’s financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.  Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the MAFFS and the second-generation RADS, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in air tankers.  To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed an organization named MAFFS Corp. They provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and are manufacturing new MAFFS II systems.  (For more information on the MAFFS II see Ten things to know about MAFFS military air tankers.)

An unfortunate event in the history of MAFFS was the crash of MAFFS 7, at the time operated by the North Carolina Air National Guard. The C-130 crashed on the White Draw Fire, July 1, 2012, as the result of a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm.  A plane on a previous drop had lost air speed but had recovered and the lead plane for the drop that crashed had been pushed within ten feet of the ground.   The investigation also determined that other contributing factors were the failure of the lead plane and air attack aircrews to provide adequate operational guidance on the approach to the drop.  A significant characteristic is that while many retardant aircraft can “jettison” a load, the C-130 MAFFS are limited to dispersing the load which requires more time and distance than a jettison.

USFS pilot Bill Allred was a frequent lead plane pilot and describes the role of the lead plane as essential for MAFFS flights for safety, efficiency, and economy.  The following is Allred’s description of the operation of the lead plane when flying with MAFFS C-130s:

The USAF pilots are in a foreign world and talk a different language than the fire fighters.  The MAFFS pilots depend on the lead plane to communicate how to enter the congestion of the fire traffic area and provide headings, escape routes and where to make the retardant drop.  The lead plane also communicates with the ground to be prepared for the MAFFS aircraft.  In addition, the lead plane frequently picks up the MAFFS when they approach the fire and leads the MAFFS planes over the drop area. The economy is that the expensive retardant planes, such as the MAFFS and the supertankers, are best used to transport retardant from a base to the fire.  Any minutes spent loitering over a fire is not only a safety concern but is tremendously expensive per minute.  Most MAFFS pilots are comfortable with formation flying and follow close behind the lead plane.

The first lead planes were T-28s or T-34s that had been obtained from military surplus. The planes were replaced with Beechcraft Barons and then King Air Turbine aircraft.   The first USFS lead plane pilot was Gar Leyva who was always identified as “Lead 1” while other pilots were identified by aircraft tail number or an assigned identifier.

MAFFS air tanker
A C-130 Hercules, equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, drops fire retardant April 27, 2011, above West Texas. MAFFS is capable of dispensing 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)

Allred recounts that two MAFFS aircraft of the Wyoming ANG and 24 personnel were sent to Indonesia in October 1997 for six weeks to provide support during an extreme fire season.  Farmers were accustomed to burning for agricultural purposes but in this particularly dry year the fires went up the hills and out of control.  MAFFS liaison plus USFS personnel including two lead plane pilots and MAFFS mechanics flew commercial air to meet the MAFFS C-130s.  The MAFFS met the crew members in Surabaya, East Java, where water drops were successful in firefighting.  Initial water drops only had access to water sources which proved to be corrosive to the aircraft and retardant was eventually shipped to Indonesia for use.  MAFFS resources were then moved to Jakarta for additional missions.  Attempts at drops in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, which was a two-hour flight one-way from Jakarta were prevented by dense smoke. A US Navy pilot in a King Air had flown an undersecretary-of-state to Borneo to watch those missions.  Efforts were then directed to South Sumatra, where the MAFFS were successful in suppressing fires around settlements and in Way Kambas National Park. The actual contribution of the retardant drops to control the massive fires is uncertain; however, the press was good and reports of the great success of the mission were returned through the chain-of-command and, purportedly, to the White House briefing room.

The Air Force Reserve operates a pair of MAFFS C-130 aircraft with personnel out of the 302 Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, and three Air National Guard units in Wyoming, Nevada, and California each provide two. These are the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, Cheyenne; the 152th Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard, Reno; and the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard, Port Hueneme.  The MAFFS provide a surge fire-fighting capability – a service that has been used frequently in recent years in support of ground personnel.

MAFFS 2009-2019 gallons per year
MAFFS 2009-2019. NIFC.

The MAFFS can be activated when commercial air tankers are stretched thin and upon the request from the the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID. The six National Guard aircraft can also be activated by the Governors of the three states in which they are based.  The MAFFS operating plan can be found at fs.usda.gov.

MAFFS air tranker
A Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System-equipped C-130 Hercules from the 302nd Airlift Wing drops a load of water April 22, 2013 near Fairplay, Colo. The Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd AW held its annual MAFFS certification and recertification for C-130 aircrews. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico)

The MAFFS program is a very visible and beneficial program for the departments involved and presents an exceptional opportunity as a cooperative effort with favorable public relations for all involved.

MAFFS training at Cheyenne
Two Loadmasters check out the MAFFS unit in the cargo hold of the C-130 at Cheyenne, May 7, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Richard Hilderbrand, Ph.D., was a Smokejumper in the mid 1960’s and is a Life Member of the National Smokejumper Association.  He was on fires in the Northwest US and Alaska.  He has personally seen TBM aircraft return with tops of trees in their wings and has seen retardant drops from many aircraft.  He has jumped from a Ford Tri-motor, DC-2, DC-3, Twin Beech, Grumman Goose and other jump aircraft.   Special thanks are due to Jim Hickman, Bill Ruskin, Bill Allred, Bill Waldman, Bill Gabbert, and Steve Whitby for their contributions and review! In addition, I thank the many websites referenced in the text for their information; however, any errors are the responsibility of the author.

Conair to replace all of their L-188 and CV-580 air tankers with Q400s

The company has purchased 11 De Havilland Dash 8 Q400 aircraft which will be converted to air tankers

Conair Q400
Conair Q400. Photo Credit Damien Fournier.

The Conair Group plans to retire all of their legacy L-188 and CV-580 air tankers and over the next two to three years replace them with De Havilland Canada DHC-8 Q400s.

In a statement, the company gave their rationale for making the change:

“Planes used to fight wildfires as airtankers are often older models and are flown into demanding environments, inevitably resulting in metal fatigue over time. In addition, aircraft designed to obsolete standards leads to increased risk of incidents, costly repairs, limited replacement parts, and ultimately time grounded from fighting fires. Conair’s strategic move towards a long-term vision includes replacing the company’s fleet of heavy legacy airtankers with the new Q400ATs.

“We evaluated 29 aircraft before selecting the Q400 for modification into an aerial firefighting tool. The unanimous opinion of our flight operations experts was that the Q400 exceeds all the Next Generation performance criteria within a maneuverable and stable platform.” says Jeff Berry, Director of Business Development at Conair. “The Q400AT is fast, fuel efficient, and tactically flexible, operating both initial attack as well as sustained support actions. The Q400 is still in production and has strong Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) support from De Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited (De Havilland Canada), guaranteeing availability of parts and servicing for years.”

The eleven Q400s, formerly owned by Flybe and now in Europe, will be delivered to Conair beginning this month.

In 2017 the Conair Group secured a deal to sell six Q400 Multi-Role aircraft converted to air tankers to France’s Securite Civile (Department of Civil Defence and Emergency Preparedness). These were new aircraft that Conair purchased from Bombardier which can be reconfigured in a few hours to carry passengers, hence the Multi-Role (MR) designation. The new aircraft are replacing France’s old S-2 air tankers.

One of Conair’s Q400s, a Q400AT not configured to carry passengers, was on contract in Queensland, Australia during the 2020/2021 summer bushfire season through December. This was the first time the state has had regular access to a large air tanker, rather than borrowing from New South Wales or Victoria. Tanker 141/Bomber 141 (C-FFQE) arrived in Bundaberg in August after departing from Abbotsford British Columbia and making fuel stops at Oakland, Honolulu, Majuro (Marshall Islands), Honiara (Solomon Islands), and Brisbane where it cleared customs.

Air Tanker 141, C-FFQEQ, Q400
T-141 (C-FFQEQ) Q400AT – Refueling at Majuro, Marshall Islands in August , 2020 while en route to Bundaberg, Queensland for the 2020-2021 bushfire season in Australia. Photo Credit Brendon Sutton.

In September, 2020, Jeff Berry, Manager of Business Development at Conair, said, “[The Q400AT] is a pure air tanker STC [supplemental type certificate], so we don’t have any of the residual plumbing, wiring, attachment points inside, or heavy duty flooring that you need for an MR, so it’s stripped down to be a pure tanker. And it gives us the maximum fuel load and the maximum retardant tank capacity. You get the full 10,000 liters [2,642 gallons]. The Q400AT is truly a ‘Green’ airtanker — it is incredibly fuel efficient burning only 58 percent of the fuel per hour while carrying 85 percent of the load of a typical type 1 airtanker.”

According to Wikipedia the Q400’s maximum cruise speed is 345 to 414 mph. It seems likely that the bolted-on external retardant tank would have a negative effect on the air speed and range. Out of the factory it is rated to haul up to 90 passengers.

conair tanker 42
File photo of Conair Air Tanker 42, a Convair 580, taxiing for takeoff at Whitehorse International Airport at Yukon, Canada. The aircraft was built in 1958. Photo by D. Cote, Yukon Fire Management.

Conair has been fighting fires for 51 years. In addition to the CV-580, Q400, and L-188, their fleet currently is comprised of air attack and bird dog aircraft (Cessna  Caravan C208B and Turbo Commander TC-690A), amphibious scooping air tankers (CL215T and Air Tractor AT802A), and land-based air tankers (Avro RJ85 and Air Tractor AT 802).

The manufacture date of the Convair 580 in the photo was corrected to show it was 1958, not 1981.

CAL FIRE expects to have seven new Firehawk helicopters in operation this year

The Governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year asks for 16 additional firefighting hand crews

CAL FIRE's new i70 Firehawk helicopter
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i Firehawk, helicopter 205, being tested at Centennial, Colorado May 7, 2020. Photo by @skippyscage.

The California Governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes funding to continue making arrangements for the seven C-130H aircraft that are being converted to air tankers and continuing the replacement of their Huey helicopters.

New Helicopters

Funds to replace CAL FIRE’s 12 Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters with new Siskorsky S70i Firehawks have already been received and allocated. Three new ships have been deployed so far, and it is estimated that four more will be put into operation sometime during the 2021 fire season (for a total of seven). CAL FIRE expects to put the remaining five helicopters into operation in 2022.

C-130H air tankers

The Budget includes $48.4 million to support the phasing in of seven large air tankers, C-130Hs. The 2019 and 2020 Budget Acts included funding for the aircraft that will be transferred from the federal government starting in 2021-22. The air tankers, currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, are being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force utilizing $150 million in federal funding. CAL FIRE is continuing to prepare for the arrival of these aircraft by training and certifying new dedicated flight crews and mechanics, and cross‑training and certifying its existing pilots to fly the aircraft to assist firefighters. CAL FIRE is working with its federal partners to meet the expected 2021-22 arrival of the air tankers.

More hand crews

The Governor is asking for 16 additional firefighting hand crews. He also wants to establish 14 more California Conservation Corps (CCC) crews that are often assigned at incident command posts on fires to assist with Logistics and other support functions.

The budget document says, “The fire crews will enable CAL FIRE to respond to larger and more damaging wildfires throughout the fire season and complete priority fuel reduction projects to reduce wildfire risk in fire-threatened areas.”

One of the justifications for the additional personnel was the “existing population trends” in prisons that has reduced the number of inmates available for firefighting.

Forest Health

The Budget also includes $1 billion for a comprehensive package of resources to increase the pace and scale of forest health activities and decrease fire risk, including $581 million for CAL FIRE in 2020-21 and 2021-22.


The budget also includes $5 million to provide a research grant to California State University, San Marcos to study enhanced firefighting equipment and strategies to protect firefighters from conditions present during wildfires in the wildland urban interface. 

What’s next

The Governor’s proposed budget will be considered by the legislature and will be subject to modifications before a final budget is passed.

Neptune receives $2M state loan to acquire two hangars

Neptune's air tanker 15 hangar
File photo. Neptune’s T-15 in the hangar, May 15, 2018.

Neptune Aviation has received a $2 million state loan to purchase two aircraft hangars at Missoula International Airport in Montana. This will add nearly 300,000 square of aircraft storage plus office space.

From the Missoula Current:

“The loan stems from the state’s Infrastructure Loan Program and was awarded by the Montana Board of Investments. Under the program, the airport serves as the loan administrator and Neptune receives tax benefits in exchange for creating new jobs. Doug Hill, director of State Loan Funds at the Montana Department of Commerce, said Neptune’s $2 million application was based on the creation of 120 new jobs.

“They need to be considered full time when I do my review,” said Hill. “For each job that’s created, Neptune is able to borrow $16,666. That’s how we came up with the $2 million amount.”

“The Infrastructure Loan Program helps Montana businesses finance the acquisition of publicly owned buildings and related improvements. It also looks to boost economic development and create jobs in the basic sector of the economy.

“The loans are awarded to companies that employ at least 15 people. The new jobs that are created must pay the private annual wage in Montana, which is currently $44,100, according to Hill.”

M&M Air Services to liquidate their aviation assets

Three single engine air tankers and ground equipment will be sold at auction

The Texas company that operated the two Single Engine Air Tankers that crashed in southeast Nevada July 30, 2020 plans a “complete liquidation” of their assets on January 9. A live and online auction will sell, among other items, three Air Tractor AT-802As, a fuel truck, and several other trucks and trailers.

Auction information M&M Air Services

A mid-air collision of the two Air Tractor AT-801A SEATs occurred as they were assisting firefighters on the Bishop Fire. Investigators found that the tankers were working in tandem with one close behind the other. The following aircraft made a rapid climb then suddenly turned left and collided with the other.

Killed in the crash were pilots David Blake Haynes and Scott Thomas. May they rest in peace.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tim.