Many Americans do not realize the important role the United States Air Force plays in combating forest fires and wildland fires. Each year the media show pictures of the hills above Los Angeles covered in fire and smoke, or major interstates in Florida shut down due to smoke from wildfires. The Air Force has an active role to play in fighting such fires from the air.
I was able to participate in an interview today with Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Allen, the deputy commander of the 146th AEG for wildland firefighting and Mr. Lynn Ballard, the public affairs officer on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Ballard is part of the U.S. Forest Service group working with the Air Force.
Lt. Col. Allen told us that there are four wings of aircraft designated by the Air Force for wildland firefighting. The 146th Airlift Wing flies out of Channel Islands Air National Guard Base in Southern California, the 302nd Airlift Wing out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the 145th out of North Carolina and the 153rd out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. They fly different versions of the C-130 aircraft with the 146th flying the C-130J which is the latest variant. The men and women involved in these missions are a mix of regular Air Force personnel along with Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard personnel.
Allen described the two systems used in the C-130 to deliver water or fire retardant, the MAFF system versions 1 and 2. Version 2 has a second generation upgrade, Block II. Both MAFFS are palletized for ease of loading and installation on the aircraft. The 146th and the 302nd fly with the MAFFS 2 and the other two air wings fly with the MAFFS1. There are nine MAFFS2 systems and eight MAFFS1 systems available, and the intent is to have eight total systems available for air operations at any one time.
MAFFS consists of a number of tanks containing air under pressure, and tanks containing water or fire retardant. These tanks are connected to a dispersal system that releases the material as drops similar to rain. The MAFFS1 is about 29 years old. The MAFFS2 brings a great deal more to the firefighting effort. It is electronically controlled and uses an exterior pintle to disburse the water or retardant. The MAFFS1 requires the rear ramp be open to allow for placement of disbursal nozzles and is controlled pneumatically. With MAFFS2, the aircraft can be pressurized, allowing it to potentially reach fires at the tree line in the mountains, 10-14,000 feet. It allows the aircraft to fly higher and faster to and from the fire. MAFFS1 requires the plane to fly low and slow, about 150 knots, to use the system.
MAFFS1 can apply fire retardant or water at a rate of four gallons per 100 square feet. MAFFS2 can reach eight gallons per 100 square feet, which compares favorably to available commercial aircraft systems.
The Air Force firefighting fleet is needed. Ballard said that the Forest Service has reduced its contracts for heavy air tanker support from 44 to 19. The MAFFS equipped C-130’s of the Air Force are there to fill in the gaps in supply when commercial tankers are not available. Allen told us that the 146th Air Wing has a 13 hour response time but an average time from request would more reasonably be 24-48 hours.
All of the USAF air wings flying MAFFS are in South Carolina for yearly joint training. On April 29, the various aircraft flew 110 flying hours and made 665 air drops of water or retardant. That is over 18 million pounds of water. As Lt. Col. Allen told us “We’re trying to make South Carolina even greener.” This training is the sole joint training the units receive.