Air National Guard units train to battle wildfires
By Nathan Gray Independent Mail
/ Published May 01, 2010
GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The big C-130s lumber into the skies over Upstate South Carolina and western North Carolina, loaded with up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water.
This week, crews of Air National Guard units -- including the 146th Airlift Wing from the Channel Islands Air National Guard base at Point Mugu -- are flying training missions, preparing for what they know will come, wildfires roaring across hard-to-reach terrain.
Lt. Col. Bryan K. Allen, a pilot with the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard, dumps approximately 3,000 gallons of water on a field at the Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park in Greenville, S.C., during Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems training.
The aerial firefighters are taking part in annual training with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, which fit inside the C-130 airplanes.
Each unit can hold up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant or water. The planes fly at just 150 to 200 feet above the ground before releasing the retardant.
Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park was the site of this year's training. The location rotates every year to one of the four states -- North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado and California -- that operate the airborne firefighting systems.
The host this year was the 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard.
Greenville was chosen as a good location to train because the mountains and national parks feature terrain and ridge lines where wildfires typically occur. Less air traffic also was a factor.
"We're looking forward to helping out," said pilot Paul Hargrove, 50, of the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard. He is flying one of the newer C-130 J model airplanes that are equipped with Rolls-Royce engines.
Hargrove said the training is necessary to make sure the units are ready when wildfires rage out of control. July and August are months that California typically experiences wildfires.
However, the Santa Ana winds that occur in October and November also fan wildfires. Hargrove said that his unit will be needed in states that had diminished rainfall, including Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
A drift in the jet stream sent rain toward Southern California, which could reduce the number of wildfires in the area.
Lt. Col. Bryan K. Allen, a pilot with the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard, flies by the control tower at Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park in Greenville, S.C., during Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems training.
Colorado may be susceptible to wildfires because of a beetle problem that has resulted in a large number of dead trees.
In addition to assisting other states, the four units also can be called out of the country to help battle wildfires. A group from Ukraine attended this week's training.
Lt. Col. Bryan K. Allen, 46, a pilot with the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard, has been working with the airborne firefighting units since 1994.
"The training has been working flawlessly," he said. "It's a testament to the number of years we've been doing this."
Only the best and most experienced pilots fly the C-130 airplanes into wildfires. Many training hours are spent in a classroom learning the best tactics and procedures, how to fly in mountainous areas, and learning the hazards of flying with other nearby aircraft.
It takes at least 13 people to operate the airborne firefighting units: two pilots, two load masters, eight ground crew members and one lead plane pilot. Because the crew members are in the Air National Guard, many of them have civilian jobs.
"This allows them to bring other job-skill sets that are useful for what they are applying here," said Maj. Kimberly Holman of the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard.
"It's a lot of fun," said Crew Chief Tech Sgt. Rik Kallstrom, 32, of the 146th Airlift Wing California Air National Guard who is on his second year of MAFFS training. "We are learning how to do it in a real fire real fast."
The training attracted the eye of Gen. Victor E. Renuart, a four-star general and commander of Headquarters North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He was at the Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park on Thursday.
"This is a critical mission to the nation," Renuart said. "While we hope that we don't have to use this asset, I am confident that you are trained and ready when you are called upon."