By Maj. Kimberly Holman, 146AW
/ Published August 06, 2012
PORT HUENEME, Calif. -- On June 25, the California National Guard' s 146th Airlift Wing (AW) proudly entered yet another annual fight with U.S. Forest Service against wildfires, this time in the Rocky Mountain Region with flames threatening the Air Force Academy and new cadets in Colorado Springs, Colo. The threat to life and property was so great this year that all eight MAFFS (Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems) C130 aircraft from across the country were activated to the same place at the same time, a situation seldom witnessed in more than 40 years of MAFFS' existence.
July 1, 2012, however, was an exceptionally somber day for the Air National Guardsmen and Air Force Reservists who volunteered to fight the wildfires ravaging the Rockies. That evening at about 6 p.m., a C-130 from North Carolina's 145th AW equipped with MAFFS went down while fighting the White Draw fire in South Dakota. Four Airmen were killed and two survived but are suffering serious injuries.
Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon, 50, Maj. Ryan David, 35, Maj. Joseph McCormick, 36, and Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, 42, were honored in an emotional memorial ceremony the following week in Charlotte, N.C.
"Today the 146th Airlift Wing is mourning those lost Airmen who we have flown side by side with for so many years," said Col. Paul J. Hargrove, California Air National Guard's 146th AW Commander, who was in attendance at the memorial. "We hold the highest respect for these brave aircrew members, and want to convey to the families our deepest sorrow. Our prayers go out to the grieving families and the injured Airmen as they recover."
MAFFS activities persevere
MAFFS flights were placed on hold the evening of the crash, July 1, to give all personnel time to "reflect and reset" following the accident. MAFFS operations resumed the morning of July 3, while members of the North Carolina Air National Guard returned home to Charlotte to be with friends and family, and mourn the loss of their fellow Airmen.
"The men who lost their lives were truly heroes. And I know that for many of us flying is part of our healing process," said Hargrove about returning to MAFFS duty. "This is an extremely challenging mission, but flying is what we love to do. It helps to know that we are out there helping to save lives and property fighting these wildfires."
After the devastating loss of MAFFS 7, the call-sign of the C130 that crashed, a new call-sign was added to the fleet for the first time. MAFFS 9 rolled onto the ramp at Hill Air Force Base July 10 to join in the firefighting efforts. The call-sign MAFFS 7 has been retired in honor those who lost their lives.
"The Forest Service has had one spare MAFFS unit was stored at the 146th Airlift Wing in the event they someday needed it," said Hargrove.
Since being activated June 25, the MAFFS fleet has completed more than 250 drops, releasing more than 641,000 gallons of retardant on Rocky Mountain area fires.
MAFFS continues in Boise, Idaho
The U.S. Forest Service has changed MAFFS staging locations in efforts to follow fire activity and lessen commute times to the fires, first sending the 146AW to work out of Cheyenne, Wyo. with the 153rd AW, then to Hill Air Force Base outside of Salt Lake City, and most recently to Boise, Idaho.
"With all the recent rain in the Rocky Mountains, they just don't need us down there right now," said Col. Jerry Champlin, 153rd Air Expeditionary Group commander.
Recently the U.S. Forest Service also modified its request for assistance for the MAFFS-equipped C-130s assisting with the fires, releasing two of the original six aircraft from the 153rd Airlift Wing in Cheyenne, Wyo. The request for assistance was modified due to the decrease in fire activity in the West.
"Although the new request for assistance reduces the operational requirement down to four aircraft, the remaining MAFFS units will maintain their ability to quickly ramp up again if needed," said Champlin.
MAFFS are operated by four military units: the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard; 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard; 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard; and the 302nd Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve Command.
MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes. The MAFFS program is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Defense. The Forest Service owns the MAFFS equipment and supplies the retardant. DoD provides the C-130 aircraft, aircrew, maintenance and support personnel to fly the mission.
MAFFS provides a surge capability that can be used to boost wildfire suppression efforts when commercial airtankers are fully committed or not readily available.