PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Every year, one Air Force Reserve wing and three Air National Guard wings along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service train and certify for aerial wildland fire fighting. On May 10-16, the Air Force Reserve 302nd Airlift Wing and the Wyoming Air National Guard 153rd Airlift Wing completed their annual training, hosted by Jeffco Airtanker base, Colorado.
The C-130 Hercules aircraft used for this mission are equipped with the USDA Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System which can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, or potable water during training, in less than 10 seconds to create a quarter-mile containment line.
“Our fire training this year is vital because we are coming out of COVID season where training last year was hampered and we were not able to get folks into the same room to share lessons learned, new tactics and new strategies,” said Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, 302 AW C-130 pilot and aerial firefighting chief. “This year we are going to be spending a lot of time focusing on emerging technologies, strategies, and procedures so that we can do this safely.”
Sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, the training consists of classroom sessions, flying and ground operations for Air Force aircrews, lead plane pilots and support personnel from the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other state and federal firefighting agencies. When the pilots and crews train, the MAFFS units are filled with potable water for practice drops. The wings flew their training drops this year in the Arapaho/Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
“This week everyone performed exceptionally well,” said Maj. James Espy, 302 AW MAFFS training mission commander. “So much learning happens through personal interaction and it’s hard to replace the classroom setting when it comes to training like this. Last year we had a massive zoom conference training but this year we were able to get back to the classroom setting again.”
They were also able to meet with the lead plane pilots to discuss and demonstrate finer details on the fire traffic procedures, communication and coordination. The experience in interagency coordination and communication is very beneficial to not only the MAFFS program but also to the wing’s primary mission of combat airlift and air drop, said Espy.
The MAFFS mission requires skills and knowledge the pilots and aircrew don’t usually execute compared to their respective wing’s other missions said Pantusa, who runs the MAFFS program at the 302 AW.
“The mission requires us to exercise tactics that we don’t normally operate in terms of flying low and slow and coordination and communication with agencies we don’t typically work with – from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lead planes to the interagency fire coordination dispatch centers,” he said. “We are training a lot of tactics and procedures that change and evolve throughout the years for this mission to be able to be done safely.”
Being able to train together is a major benefit of bringing the wings together for the annual training, said Espy. It not only allows for the sharing of experience to the newer crews but also streamlines the procedures between the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and USDA Forest Service. During the training, crews from the 302 AW and the 153 AW were able to fly and train together on each other’s aircraft.
“This demonstrated the interoperability between the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve that, even though there are some differences between the guard and the reserve, we still operate the C-130 the same way and there is good value in that mixing,” said Espy. “That is what is valuable about doing the MAFFS training exercises with the other wings because there is the opportunity for a lot of cross talk.”
The 302 AW, 153 AW, California Air National Guard 146th Airlift Wing and Nevada Air National Guard 152nd Airlift Wing provide a surge capacity that can be used for wildfire suppression efforts when other aerial firefighting resources are being used or are unavailable.
“We get sent out as a surge capacity to a very large fleet that’s in employment year round where the fire season typically starts out early in February and extends all the way out into November and December,” said Pantusa. “We contribute as Air Force eight additional aircraft. In 2020 we were deployed from the end of July until October, so for about two and a half months we were in California fighting some extreme fires that were breaking out there.”
When the wings are dispatched to a fire location, they work for the incident commanders who are on ground. The containment lines the MAFFS units drop directly helps the fire fighters on the ground and together work to slow or stop the spread of the wildland fire.
“MAFFS is a mission we enjoy doing and have a lot of pride in because it makes a difference in our local community and across our nation,” said Espy.