- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. | Lt. Col. Luke Thompson sometimes skims his C-130 cargo plane just 150 feet above the ground, battling smoke, shifting winds and rugged terrain on his way to drop thousands of gallons of gooey pink fire retardant onto the front lines of a wildfire.

“It’s kind of like pushing an elephant around on ice,” he said.

The Air Force reservist at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is one of about 100 Air Force Reserve and National Guard pilots nationwide certified to fly firefighting missions in C-130s.

As wildfire season begins in earnest, some of these firefighters will be taking to the skies with new equipment that will allow them to drop more fire retardant on the ground and get less of it on the plane.

They’re assigned to a Reserve unit at Peterson and to Guard units at Port Hueneme, Calif., Charlotte, N.C., and Cheyenne, Wyo.

For firefighting work, C-130s are equipped with the Modular Aerial Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS - a rectangular web of pressurized tanks and tubes on a metal frame that slides into the plane’s cargo bay. The system can rain about 3,000 gallons of fire retardant onto a fire line in a matter of seconds.

Up to eight MAFFS-equipped C-130s can be called up to assist a national fleet of 19 privately owned multiengine firefighting tankers, which work on contract with federal agencies. Last year, MAFFS planes made 488 firefighting drops, flying a total of nearly 680 hours.

The squat, bulky C-130s are well-suited to firefighting, said Lt. Col. Courtney Arnold, a reservist and commander of the C-130 squadron at Peterson. Their enormous wings give them plenty of lift, and their four turboprop engines can generate huge amounts of thrust very quickly.

“It’s ideal for low-to-the ground, slow-speed maneuvering,” Col. Arnold said.

Col. Thompson has piloted MAFFS missions since 1996 and estimates he has flown about 200. In the understated vocabulary that seems common among C-130 pilots, he called the work “fairly challenging.”

“There’s times when they’ve brought us in and you’re dropping right between the fire and a bunch of houses, and that makes you feel good,” he said.

Pilots also must keep track of a small spotter plane they follow to the drop site, other firefighting planes in the air and radio communication with fire managers. Then there’s the smoke outside the window and the ground just below.

“I don’t know if ‘scary’ is the word,” Col. Thompson said. “There’s definitely times when the hair on the back of your neck is starting to stand up.”

MAFFS was developed by the military and the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s after some large wildfires earlier in the decade, some of them on Department of Defense land. The system became operational in 1974.

This year, the Forest Service is rolling out the MAFFS II, designed to get more of the fire retardant onto the ground and less on the plane.

A demonstration during MAFFS training in Tucson, Ariz., in May showed why: A C-130 equipped with the original system lumbered in low over the Tucson airport, water gushing out of two nozzles at the open rear cargo door. Most of it cascaded to the ground, but some swirled up onto the plane’s tail.

MAFFS missions can add anywhere from two weeks to two months to a pilot’s duty time each year. Still, Col. Arnold said, there’s a waiting list of pilots and crew who want to fly them.

“You feel like you’re doing something real and helping someone out, as opposed to the routine training mission,” Col. Thompson said.

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