MAFFS training during COVID-19 pandemic

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Justin Norton
  • 302nd Airlift Wing

Aircrew from the 302nd Airlift Wing completed annual aerial firefighting training during a 4-day event at Jeffco Air Tanker Base, Colorado, starting April 27, 2020, in preparation for the upcoming fire season.

To complete the training, aircrew simulated aerial firefighting efforts by discharging water at different drop zones using the U.S.D.A. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS, loaded onto a C-130 aircraft. A full MAFFS tank holds 3,000 gallons of water weighing 27,000 pounds, and the entire load can be discharged in less than five seconds. The load can cover an area over one-quarter of a mile long and 100 feet wide. It can be refilled in 12 minutes. The unit can be loaded with fire retardant during firefighting efforts.

The 302nd AW aircrew accomplished 46 flights dropping 82,013 gallons of water for a total of 177 drops over multiple drop zones.

The 302nd AW worked together with the 153rd Airlift Wing from Cheyenne Air National Guard Base in Wyoming to accomplish the training. Each wing operated from their respective home base but used the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado as a loading base for MAFFS tank refills while taking precautions to keep themselves safe from COVID-19.

The plan this year was for all units to conduct training in Boise, Idaho using these MAFFS-loaded aircraft. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for multiple units from different areas of the U.S. to congregate in one place. To adapt to this challenge, each wing addressed the training requirements locally.

A day before the training kicked off, aircrew came together by virtual conference call in an effort to keep each other safe while accomplishing ground training requirements before the week of flying.

“With what we like to call physical distancing but socially connected, we put a lot of precautions in place while maintaining an emphasis on getting this training accomplished,” said Col. James DeVere, 302nd Airlift Wing commander. “This pandemic will have no effect on wildland fires and we need to remain prepared to respond with our partners when called upon.”

Some of the precautions taken while accomplishing the training included maintaining social distancing, wearing masks during close contact with one another and regularly cleaning the aircraft by wiping down commonly used surfaces with disinfectant.

“Once we’re up in the plane, we can fly almost like normal,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Ross, the MAFFS program manager for the 302nd AW. “We can operate while wearing appropriate PPE and it doesn’t impact our ability to do our job on the aircraft. But when we’re loading on the ground, conversations we would normally have face-to-face are held over the phone or radio instead, and we make sure we have PPE on when we’re forced to be in close proximity with each other.”

Out of the roughly 180 aircrew members in the 302nd AW, only 60 are qualified to perform the aerial firefighting mission.

“They’re our most experienced members,” said DeVere. “It’s a challenging mission. We fly at 150 feet off the ground in rugged terrain at high density altitude and slow airspeeds. You really need to be on your game and be able to back each other up to keep your team safe.”

The annual training usually brings all four MAFFS units together in one unified training event to form the Air Expeditionary Group, composed of the 302nd AW with the Air Force Reserve and three Air National Guard units from California, Nevada and Wyoming.