A maelstrom of smoke and flames obscures the pilot's vision.
Updrafts toss the plane around violently. The forward air controller points out
the target, and the pilot starts his run.
This, however, is a "combat" mission of a
different sort: controlling a forest fire by air-dropping fire retardant along
a precise line from treetop height into a blaze so hot that it often boils tree
"Wildfires have no rules," said Capt. Bruce
Strickland, an aircraft commander with the Air National Guard's 145th Tactical
Airlift Group, a C-J30B unit based in Charlotte, N. C. "That's why aerial
firefighting is one of the most exciting and interesting, but dangerous,
missions there is. I have never been as scared as I was on some of the fire
The fires in Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1988
and the blazes near Tucson, Ariz., in the summer of 1989 illustrate the
necessity for Military Airlift Command's Volant Forest mission. Using the
Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS), three Air National Guard units
and a single Air Force Reserve group dropped more than 1,600,000
gallons of retardant on Yellowstone and vicinity in 1988 and more than a
million gallons this year around Tucson in helping bring the flames under
The military's involvement in fighting forest fires is a
response to a need. MAFFS-equipped units are called in to fight fires only when
the commercial firefighting aircraft (called tankers) are committed and crews
hired by the US Forest Service become overburdened by the size of a forest
fire. Once the blaze is under control, the C-130 units are released.
Since their first operational use in 1973, MAFFS-equipped
units have been called on to help fight fires in all but six years. All the
units, which include the 153d TAG in Cheyenne, Wyo., and the Air Force
Reserve's 943d TAG in Riverside, Calif., have to be federally activated before
they can be tasked for fire duty. North Carolina's 145th TAG and the 146th
Tactical Airlift Wing from Channel Island ANGB, Calif., can also be activated
by their respective state governors.
Not As Easy As It
Giving Smokey the Bear an airborne assist is not simply a
matter of dropping retardant on or near a fire.
It is a complex process similar to launching an air strike.
A number of players are involved in every drop, including such outside elements
as the highway patrol, which has to close roads before drops.
Coordinating the entire firefighting effort is a joint
effort of the air attack supervisor (or "attack boss "), who is a
Forest Service pilot, and the incident commander, or "fire boss," who
directs the firefighters on the ground.
The attack boss usually directs three or more air tanker
coordinators ("lead pilots" flying "lead planes") who take
commercial and MAFFS tankers into a drop zone. The lead pilots, much like
forward air controllers, have to explain where the drop is to be made, lead the
tankers into the area, and—most important—lead the tankers out.
With lead planes, two different types of tankers,
helicopters (used to drop retardant on small fires or on hot spots in large
ones), cargo aircraft, and other aircraft carrying smoke jumpers all flying at
low level, the airspace above a fire gets crowded. Consider the firefighters on
the ground, and it is easy to see why effective communications are critical. A
lead pilot often has to talk or listen on four radios at a time.
The fire itself and the terrain add to the confusion.
"With poor visibility from the smoke over unfamiliar terrain, it is
dangerous out there," said M. M. "Buzz" Dyer, a fixed-wing
aircraft specialist with the Forest Service's National Aviation Management
Office in Boise, Idaho. It is so dangerous, in fact, that aircrews earn the Air
Medal after fifteen missions into the fires.
A forest fire is an example of the power of nature
unleashed. "The retardant will put out small fires," said Ed Kral, an
ex-smoke-jumper who is now an instructor lead pilot for the Forest Service.
"But you get fifty-foot-tall trees burning from the ground, and there is
no way it will put that out." A number of veteran MAFFS pilots have seen
trees explode from the heat as they flew over them. An additional hazard is
that the fires often generate their own lightning.
Unfamiliar terrain is often an equally large problem. In
1988, one C-130 was the last of three MAFFS tankers being led into a drop area
by a lead plane. The tail-end Charlie's vision was obscured by smoke and the
cloud of retardant ahead, and the aircraft hit a tree after coming over a
ridgeline. The tree tore sheet metal from the underside of the aircraft, but
the crew was able to land safely.
Every spring, MAFFS units get together with the Forest
Service to practice by making water drops. A refresher course for the veteran
crews, it allows new crew members to become MAFFS-qualified. For the ground
troops, the week-long training session (held this year at the Southern
Appalachian Air Attack Base at McGhee-Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn.) is an
opportunity to sharpen deployment skills and to practice loading the MAFFS
equipment with water.
Tools of the Trade
Each of the eight MAFFS sets consists of five palletized
500-gallon tanks with twin eighteen-inch-diameter pipes, which can hold an
additional 250 gallons of retardant each, running the length of the pallets.
The pipes feed into movable nozzles, called turrets, that extend over the edge
of the C-130's cargo ramp. Each MAFFS set takes about six hours to install, is
owned by the US Forest Service, and is maintained by a Forest Service contract
technician at the unit's home base.
Over the drop site, a loadmaster sitting at a control panel
sets pressure and arms the system, although the copilot actually releases the
retardant. Generally, all 3,000 gallons are dumped in one six-second release,
but two of the MAFFS sets have the capability to drop retardant in 1,000- or
The major difference between the commercial tankers, such as
Lockheed P2V Neptunes, Douglas DC-4s, -6s, and -7s, and even six World War II
Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateers, and the MAFFS C-130s is that the MAFFS
equipment is pressurized and sprays its load of 3,000 gallons of retardant when
released. The commercial tankers use gravity for their drops.
Retardant from the MAFFS equipment tends to swirl, and thus
it coats the fire's fuel, even on the underside of branches. It also provides
broader area coverage. Consequently, the C-130 crews make drops either to cut
off a fire or to steer it into natural or man-made firebreaks where the blaze
can be contained.
The retardant weighs about nine pounds per gallon, so a
gravity-dropped load will dig a trench if it is released from too Iowan
altitude. The concentrated nature of these drops enables the commercial tankers
to extinguish a fire.
The Forest Service mainly uses two kinds of retardant:
Phos-chek, made by Monsanto, and Fire-trol LCA, made by Chemonics Industries.
Both cost about sixty cents per gallon. The retardant is mostly fertilizer,
which holds moisture on the fire's fuel and helps promote reforestation. It
also includes a red dye, so firefighters making subsequent drops can see where
previous drops were made.
When mixed with water, the retardant is a gloppy mixture the
crews derisively call "elephant snot." This mixture is highly
corrosive to the aircraft, so a rust inhibitor is included. At a fire, all of
the panels on the rear of the aircraft are taped up, and the aircraft are
pressure-washed after nearly every sortie. The extensive maintenance and the
cost of retardant are the main reasons only water drops are made at the annual
A C-130, loaded with fuel, the MAFFS set, and a full supply
of retardant, has a gross takeoff weight of about 135,000 pounds. Takeoffs
frequently take place on short or unprepared strips in hot weather. Just
getting off the ground requires skill. The C-130s take off with the cargo door
open and the turrets extended, in case there is a need to jettison the load on
At the fire, the first order of business is to find the lead
plane, which loiters in the fire area. At this year's training session, one
lead pilot said to a MAFFS pilot on the radio: "You guys add the orange
[temporary day-glo orange numbers and wingtips] so we can find you, and we are
as bright as possible [white Beech Baron aircraft with orange trim] so you can
find us, and we still have trouble seeing each other. "
Once the two aircraft link up, the lead pilot has to bear in
mind that the C-130 is considerably larger than and different from his or her
plane. "We don't want to fly any closer to the fire than we have to,"
said Capt. Newton Huneycutt, an instructor navigator with the 145th TAG.
"The lead pilots have a tendency to fly in the fire and want to take us
The MAFFS tanker flies in trail formation 500 to 1,000 feet
behind the lead plane and goes to the target at a minimum altitude of 150 feet
above the tops of the trees at a speed of 130 mph. The drop has to be on
target, because a delay of even a half a second will give the fire the chance
it needs to keep burning. Most fires can be stopped with a four-foot-wide
Coordination between the lead pilots and the crews gets
better with practice. The lead pilots start thinking like C-130 drivers and
make their runs accordingly, and the C-130 crews remember to tell the lead
pilot such things as when the crew has changed out from the last time a
particular aircraft was in the area, so there are no references to "your
The tactics used for the drops have evolved over the years.
MAFFS units are more accustomed to formation work than the commercial tanker
pilots are, so there used to be two or more tankers following one lead plane.
After the tree-strike incident, though, that tactic was reevaluated. It was
determined that flying through a fire and watching one plane (rather than a
lead plane plus one or more C-130s) was enough, and there are no longer any
MAC and Forest Service regulations limit the crew duty day
to eight flight hours, but there is no limit on how many hours the ground crew
can put in. The Guard and Reserve technicians and specialists not only work on
the airplanes, they also help load the retardant and service the C-130s.
The retardant-loading operation resembles the fevered
activity of a race-track pit crew. Once the aircraft is marshaled in, it is
refueled, the windows are washed, and box lunches for the crew are passed up to
Meanwhile, people who normally fix turboprop engines run
hoses out to the MAFFS equipment and hook them on. Forest Service technicians
or contract retardant-mixers check to make sure the retardant is the right
consistency and also run the pumps. The retardant can be loaded in about
"The folks have to be flexible enough to do anything at
a moment's notice," said Capt. Gary Jandrisevits, the 145th TAG's
maintenance chief in Knoxville. "But they love it. It gives them the
opportunity to become directly involved with the aircrew's mission."
There are no MAFFS missions at night; once the sun goes
down, the ground crew starts on their "real" jobs. "These people
put in long hours, grab dinner when they can, and then they have to turn the
planes [get them ready to fly again], just to come out the next day and do it
again," noted Captain Jandrisevits. After the Yellowstone fires, all of
the ground crew members received the Humanitarian Service Medal.
The technicians also get practice in deployment and
cross-training. All of the units brought an en-route war readiness spares kit
to the training session, but the 145th TAG ran a shuttle aircraft to bring in
parts and new people. The Charlotte unit also provided major spares support for
the Cheyenne group, which reciprocates when the 145th TAG is out west. The
MAFFS mission is especially hard on tires, brakes, and starters because of the
repeated takeoffs and landings.
Despite the danger and hard work, those involved with the
MAFFS mission are enthusiastic to a fault. Only a handful of newcomers are
trained each spring. Nearly everybody comes back year after year—and the same
goes for the Forest Service pilots and technicians. Only retirements or
transfers create openings.
One reason for the MAFFS crews' enthusiasm could be the
rewards that go beyond medals. "The people in Helena [Mont., out of which the
MAFFS units worked while fighting the Yellowstone fires in 1988] were so
grateful for what we were doing, we couldn't buy a beer if we tried," said
Captain Huneycutt. "We might have torn shingles off the guy's house with
the retardant, but we had saved his house, and he appreciated it."
The Air Force Association is closed on Monday for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Jan. 22.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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