Military aircraft join firefighting effort

July 18th, 2013 | by Crystal Chatham | Comments
Two military C-130 aircraft from the California Air National Guard's 146th Airlift Wing sit on the ramp at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport here shortly after arriving July 3, 2013. These airplanes and two from the 302nd Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve Command, were ordered moved from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., where they had been fighting fires since June 11, to Mesa by planners at the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. MAFFS is a self-contained aerial fire fighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service. MAFFS modules are loaded into the cargo bays of military C-130 aircraft. Following USFS lead planes, military aircrews using MAFFS can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in order to check the advance of a forest fire. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Becker/Released)

MAFFS 6 and MAFFS 4, both military C-130J aircraft from the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, sit on the ramp at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on July 3. On Thursday both of these specialized aircraft were activated to fly firefighting sorties over the Mountain Fire. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Becker/Released)

Flying just 150 feet above the tree line, two California Air National Guard aircraft, each capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of chemical retardant per flight, were added to Mountain Fire aerial operations Thursday after being activated by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The planes, both C-130Js from the 146th Airlift Wing at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station, are military cargo aircraft with specialized inserts that configure the aircraft for firefighting.

Here is a look at part of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System inside the cargo bay of a California Air National Guard C-130J on July 3, 2013. MAFFS is a self-contained aerial fire fighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service and loaded into the cargo bay. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared Becker/Released)

Known as the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, the inserts are self-contained firefighting systems owned by the U.S. Forest Service and rolled onto the floor of the C-130 cargo bay.

Once over a target, the aircrew releases a mixture of Phos-Chek fire retardant and water on the fire through a nozzle in the plane’s left paratroop door. The crew can control how much retardant is dropped at a time and how it is sprayed, 146th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Officer Maj. Kim Holman said.

The aircraft, known as MAFFS 4 and MAFFS 6, each flew directly to the fire when they were activated around lunchtime Thursday. After their initial drops the crews have been flying back and forth to San Bernardino International Airport (SBD) to pick up more retardant. Military cargo planes used to be a common site at the airport, which was formerly Norton Air Force Base before it was shut down during the base realignment and closure in 1994.

Holman said flying from San Bernardino to the fire, making a drop and traveling back takes the aircrew about 15 minutes.

Landing in San Bernardino, pilots have to shut down the engines before taking on new retardant. So far the MAFFS crews are averaging about one drop per hour per plane, she said. By 3:45 p.m. each had done three drops.

Holman said the pilots are making their drops about 150 feet above the blaze while flying about 8,500 feet above sea level at a rate of 120 kts, or about 138 mph.

Both MAFFS crews are expected to fly until sunset and then return home to Port Hueneme, Calif. for the night. They will be back over the Mountain Fire on Friday.

There are eight such aircraft nationwide. In addition to the two MAFFS aircraft in her unit, there are two aircraft each at bases in North Carolina, Wyoming and Colorado. All eight are assigned to either Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve units.

About 15 personnel, including aircrew, maintenance and support staff from 146th Airlift Wing are working the Mountain Fire. As guardsman, they serve when activated, but maintain civilian employment as well.

“Everybody’s got a different story,” Holman said. In their civilian lives, members of the unit work as commercial airline pilots, CPAs and other jobs.

Holman said the MAFFS teams are excited to work the fire.

“They love this mission,” she said. “They are proud to be out there helping the people on the ground. Those are the real heroes.”

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