C-130 Firefighters Face Special Challenges
By 1st Lt. Jody Ritchie, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Calif., Oct. 28, 2007 Military crews in the planes dropping fire retardant on wildfires in southern California face hazards and challenges unique to their humanitarian mission.
Heavy smoke hangs in the air as the Poomacha Fire in northern San Diego County, Calif., continues to burn on Oct. 26, 2007. Military crews on six specially equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft are supporting firefighting efforts by strategically releasing fire retardant in the area. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Roy A. Santana, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
First is the low altitude at which they fly, and the sudden, violent updrafts and downdrafts caused by the heat of the fire. Another factor is sudden changes in aircraft behavior when more than 20,000 pounds of fire retardant slurry are released from the plane. Then there's the smoke that reduces visibility as the crew maneuvers in airspace shared by other aircraft. The crews have a fully engaging experience every time they fly.
With those challenges in mind, crews train to ensure they can handle the hazards of flying the C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, or MAFFS.
“Not everybody can do this. You have to prove you can handle it,” said Maj. Wiley D. Walno II, a pilot with the Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing based in Cheyenne, Wyo.
When the first fire started in southern California this month, the news had the attention of reserve component airmen across the country. It wasn't long before members of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard joined forces to assist the firefighters battling the blazes on the ground. The Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado, the Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing in Wyoming and the 145th Airlift Wing in North Carolina responded quickly.
“I enjoy this job. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it,” said Walno, who has been flying MAFFS missions for 13 years.
"We've got people that wait for years to get an opportunity to get certified for this mission," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the Air Force Reserve Command MAFFS program coordinator and a 302nd Airlift Wing pilot based at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. "We only take the most experienced aircrew members, and we go through a lot of training and preparation for this.”
The training ensures Defense Department assets are ready to use the equipment when called upon by civil authorities.
The complexity of the air traffic associated with nearby Los Angeles International Airport makes the current activation a little different from others, Walno said.
“It’s real busy up there with all the LAX traffic,” he noted, “but our traffic alert and collision avoidance system keeps us away from other aircraft.”
That system communicates with traffic alert and collision avoidance systems on other aircraft, and it’s required on jets carrying more than 30 passengers. Pilots flying aircraft that get too close to one another are warned by the system to steer the aircraft away from each other.
As the aircraft get close to their retardant drop location, they must change their communication channels so they can talk to the incident commander assigned to the fire, who coordinates all the ground and air assets to provide the most effective fire fighting possible.
“Logistically, there are a lot of pieces that fit together," Walno said. "It’s amazing."
(Air Force 1st Lt. Jody Ritchie is assigned to 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs.)