CHEYENNE, Wyo. - It's not as simple as calling 911 when Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS)-equipped C-130s and crews assigned to the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing are requested to help suppress a wildfire.
A lot of people and agencies are involved in the process that ultimately calls for the activation of 28 to 32 Wyoming Airmen for Wyoming's two MAFFS-ready planes.
By the time MAFFS units are notified, fires may have been burning for weeks and all civilian resources have been exhausted or are otherwise unavailable.
According to David Perez, U.S. Forest Service assistant Boise Air Tanker Base manager, most fire suppression and recon aircraft are civilian-contracted and not as big as the MAFFS II 3,000-gallon tanks. "Fires are mostly, in the initial stages, to be picked up by local resources. Ninety to 95 percent of the time, they catch those fires when they're small. There are times when those resources are spread too thin or there are too many fires going at once or they get too big," Perez said. "MAFFS is usually called in when several of these (larger) Type 1 fires are going."
State governors may call out MAFFS units in their state, but normally, the mission is routed from the USFS to the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC), based at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), located in Boise, Idaho.
NIFC through U.S. Northern Command requests the Department of Defense's U.S. Air Force resources. The Wyoming Air National Guard, in addition to the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard; and the U.S. Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are home to the eight C-130s in the fleet.
Maj. Kirk Johnston, a MAFFS pilot with the 30th Airlift Squadron, in Cheyenne, said about half the MAFFS-qualified crew members at the 153rd are traditional Guard members, and therefore when the activation comes down, as it did for 34 incidents in seven states last year, there is a bit of scrambling needed to alert Airmen.
"Everyone is alerted that there is activation. They'll let their employers know and we'll get on the phone and see who's available," Johnston said. The goal is to be on scene within 48 hours, and have a backup team ready to switch out after 10 days, if necessary.
Cheyenne hosted the annual training and certification event recently at which many of the players in the MAFFS arena took part. Crews and equipment from USFS, Bureau of Land Management and NIFC were put to the test with realistic training missions and communications scenarios.
Michael Bassett, a USFS tanker base manager out of Idaho, said the training is beneficial for him and his crews too. They move all the USFS-owned MAFFS ground equipment, which is packed in CONEX boxes and stationed around the country, ready to move where needed.
"It facilitates the training and the proficiency of the flight crews as well as training ourselves on how to interact with these crews when they are in remote areas," Bassett said.
"It benefits the program as a whole as we are part of the resource that's called up when these aircraft are activated. Because we've been part of this process in Cheyenne, we're also part of a list that gets called out; especially if there's an extended deployment. Sometimes we'll be deployed to a tanker base for weeks at a time so they'll switch crews out so no one gets too fatigued."
At Cheyenne, as they would be at a fire location, USFS dispatchers are communicating with Air Force crews as well as the USFS lead planes that show the MAFFS crews where to drop the fire retardant - or slurry - which is essentially a red-dyed water and salt mix.
"The lead planes are kind of the air traffic controller in the sky," Johnston said.
"As far as target acquisition it's kind of like baseball. It's less of a science and more of an art," said Maj. Donny Salamone, a 153rd MAFFS aircraft commander, instructor pilot, evaluator pilot and traditional Guard member who also works for a civilian C-130-based firefighting business.
"We rely on the forest service to choose the tactic. That's usually a verbal description. They have smoke generators and they will signal where they want us to drop. We can look underneath and see what's directly underneath that smoke then line up our plane on that line."
The MAFFS II system's two compressed air tanks can push out 3,000 gallons of slurry incrementally or all at once in about 5-6 seconds.
"Sometimes they will have us do a V pattern, so we'll make one pass and then another in a V in front of the fire," Salamone explained. "We rarely drop right on a fire. It's intended more for containment. Depending on fuel or heat we may drop several lines. Sometimes off a bit where lighter fuel is, and allow the fire to burn up to that line."
That's where loadmasters like Master Sgt. Wally Warner come in. He sits in the back of the C-130 behind the 3,000-gallon tank and all of it related apparatus and controls. He gets the word from the front of the plane and sets the controls for how much retardant to drop. He also monitors air pressure and how much slurry is in the tank, among other tasks.
He, like all MAFFS crew members, must have years of experience on a C-130 crew before being considered for MAFFS duty.
"We have to have a minimum of 880 hours," he said, "so it's mostly older, seasoned guys. It's not something you want to put a brand new guy into."
Salamone agreed, adding the wait is worth it. He is in his eighth year as a MAFFS pilot.
"We fly quite a bit of low level in formation and we train to a very high standard, so when we come into MAFFS there are unique challenges, but it's a pretty smooth transition. By the time you move into MAFFS you're a senior aviator anyway and most people are pretty excited to move to the next level," he explained.
"For me personally, I'd never flown into a fire environment before. I'd never flown close to a forest fire before. That was something you always flew around. The aircraft is heavy and it's usually hot outside, which reduces performance a bit, and you're flying relatively close to the ground so you have to think about your energy management a lot."
The annual training ensures crews and equipment are ready for the inevitable real-world task.