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Firefighting aircrews face unique challenges

by 1st Lt. Jody Ritchie
302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

10/29/2007 - CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- The military crews in the planes dropping fire retardant on wildfire flames in southern California face hazards and challenges unique to their humanitarian mission.

First is the low altitude at which they fly and the sudden, violent updrafts and downdrafts caused by the heat of the fire. Factor in other sudden changes in aircraft behavior when more than 20,000 pounds of fire retardant slurry are released from the plane. Then there's the smoke that reduces visibility, even as they're maneuvering over terrain with multiple air and ground assets in close proximity.

All told, the crews have a fully engaging experience each and every time they fly.
With those challenges in mind, crews train annually to ensure they can handle the hazards of the job flying a C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with a modular airborne firefighting system, or MAFFS.

"Not everybody can do this. You have to prove you can handle it," said Maj. Wiley D. Walno II, a pilot with the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing based in Cheyenne.

When the first fire started in southern California this month, the news had the attention of reserve component Airmen across the country.

It wasn't long before members of the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard joined forces to assist the wildland firefighters battling the blazes on the ground. The Air Force Reserve Command's 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado and the Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing in Wyoming and 145th Airlift Wing in North Carolina responded quickly to this natural disaster.

"I enjoy this job. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it," said Major Walno, who has been flying MAFFS missions for 13 years.

"We've got people who wait for years to get an opportunity to get certified for this mission," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the Air Force Reserve Command MAFFS program coordinator and a 302nd Airlift Wing pilot at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. "We only take the most experienced aircrew members, and we go through a lot of training and preparation for this."

The training ensures aircrews are ready to use the equipment when called upon by civil authorities.

The current activation is a little different than others, due to the added complexity of the air traffic associated with nearby Los Angeles International Airport.

"It's real busy up there with all the LAX traffic," Walno said, "but our Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System keeps us away from other aircraft."

The TCAS system communicates with TCAS on other aircraft and is required on jets carrying more than 30 passengers. Pilots flying aircraft that get too close to one another are warned by the system to steer the aircraft away from each other.

As the aircraft get close to their retardant drop location, they must change their communication channels so they can talk to the incident commander, or IC, assigned to the fire. The IC coordinates all the ground and air assets to provide the most effective fire fighting possible.

"Logistically, there are a lot of pieces that fit together," Major Walno said. "It's amazing."

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