Students of Fire

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

To the casual observer, the cargo aircraft chasing a small turboprop plane might look like two pilots playing a game of tag dangerously close to the treetops. To Lt. Col. Toshio Sameshima, a Wyoming Air National Guard pilot, it is a flying tactic he hopes will serve him well when he’s called in to help stop the spread of wildfires. In a remote section of heavily wooded and mountainous western North Carolina, Sameshima follows close behind a King Air 90 turboprop plane in his C-130 Hercules. His aircraft has been modified with what is called a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, to practice dropping lines of water to simulate the fire retardant pilots will use this summer when fire season is at its worst. The pilot’s movements are methodical as his tanker flies “slow and low,” roughly 150 to 200 feet above the tree cover, pushing the C-130’s aerial capabilities nearly to the limit. The aircraft soars close enough to the ground that Sameshima is able to make out the landscape’s distinguishing features below. For Sameshima and his crew, the devil is in the details, and experience tells him that missing his mark could potentially end up costing people their homes and possibly their lives.

“Do you see the peak that I’m flying over right now?” asked Aaron Knobloch, a U.S. Forest Service lead plane pilot and the current guide for the C-130 crew.  “OK, now look down to the left. You’ll see a small string of green trees that run into a meadow. The meadow is going to be your target.” Flying toward the landmarks, Knobloch radios in, “This is the line – start right here,” and a short stream of smoke is released behind the King Air 90 as a visual marker for the tanker crew. The C-130 glides near the residual smoke. Sameshima listens as the co-pilot next to him says, “Ready, ready, drop,” and triggers the MAFFS to release its load of 3,000 gallons of water in a line on the forest floor below. Last season, that was Sameshima’s job. Now, after gaining enough experience and making the required number of drops, he has advanced enough in his training that he’s qualified to fly in the left seat as the C-130’s pilot.

MAFFS’ aircrew, lead planes and other mission essential personnel recently sharpened their skills during a four-day MAFFS training event hosted by the Forest Service and North Carolina ANG, which was primarily held in Greenville, South Carolina, and four nearby forestlands. Flying together gives both the C-130’s crews and the lead plane’s pilots a chance to speak the same language, said Maj. Dan Courtright, a copilot with the Wyoming ANG’s 187th Airlift Squadron, “They will be able to discover their differences and work through those difficulties in a training environment, where the mission is simulated and there’s no fire,” he said. “That communication can pay big dividends when the actual fire season starts.”

The Forest Service began utilizing Air Force aerial support fighting fires in the 1970s after a blaze in Long Beach, California, exhausted all the efforts of the commercial tankers generally called upon for this mission. In response, four Air Force wings have committed to annual MAFFS training, ensuring they are available as a secondary line of defense. There are eight MAFFS units loaned by the Forest Service, which are seasonally equipped in C-130s from the Wyoming ANG’s 153rd Airlift Wing, California ANG’s 146th AW, North Carolina ANG’s 145th AW, and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd AW at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. When needed, the Air Force tankers assist ground firefighting efforts by dropping retardant to build containment lines around the edges of the wildfire to slow the growth and intensity of the flames. Under normal circumstances, MAFFS will not be used to drop retardant or water directly onto a fire. C-130s with MAFFS capabilities have dropped more than 9 million gallons of retardant in support of wildfire suppression missions in the last decade, according to the Forest Service. It’s a mission the C-130 aircrews take to heart. Because it’s often close to home, it’s easier to relate to what they are protecting each time they fly out with MAFFS. “You start to see all the terrain, the mountains, the fire, and then you start seeing structures, and you realize the significance of what you’re doing … trying to get out there to save people’s houses,” Sameshima said.

“As a military member, we do a lot of combat missions overseas, and you know you’re fighting that kind of war, but what makes MAFFS exciting for me is that you’re actually helping people in your local communities,” he continued. “That’s probably one of the most significant things about it that I really enjoy — helping out folks back home.” Though much of the MAFFS mission is aerial, there’s still a lot of work that can only be done back on the ground. While the C-130s dropped their lines and navigated through difficult terrain, back on the flightline in Greenville, a mixture of contractors, maintainers and Forest Service rangers patiently prepared to play their parts in the training.

A large, emptied container that usually houses MAFFS hoses and equipment became a makeshift break-shack for those whose jobs kept them continuously on the flightline. Several yards away in the grass, other C-130 aircrew and maintainers sat back under a white canopy set up for them by the Forest Service. Of those scattered about, some made use of their spare time to relax and decompress, while others studied or caught up on paperwork. When the aircraft land and taxi to their pits for refueling and other levels of maintenance, ground activity is abuzz. Once the C-130s and lead planes take off though, the waiting begins. It is similar to sitting around at a fire station waiting for the bell to go off – it may be relaxing now, but once that alarm sounds, everyone is prepared to go from “zero to 60” in an instant. Sitting on a spare hose in the shade of the MAFFS container, one man eagerly awaited the C-130s’ return. Brandon Webb, an assistant county ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service, is a veteran when it comes to fighting fires on the ground and knows exactly how it feels to be near a blaze while working to contain it. “You can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it,” Webb said. “You feel the fire drawling in your ear. It’s just a sense that without being there, it’s hard to explain.  It gets intense, it really does. You hear the roar of the burn – you know, that snap, crackle, pop, a lot of people like to say. Just being there, you can hear the intensity of the fire almost like a train, like a roar.” Many times over the past 12 years, the ranger found himself dispatched to wildfires, where he pulled duties ranging from heavy equipment boss to the “infantry of wildland fire forces,” also known as handcrews. However, this year marks the first he’s been able to participate as a member of the MAFFS team. Being partially responsible for an aircraft that not many people outside of the military get to work with, Webb said he felt honored, and in the beginning, a little intimidated. When he martialed in his first C-130, the singular mantra going through his head was a repeated phrase of, “Don’t mess up; don’t mess up.” He knew the level of trust these pilots were putting in him, and he was determined to look out for their airplanes as though they were his own. “There are so many steps to it,” Webb said. “Martialing them in, you can’t bring them in too fast; you can’t bring them in too slow. There’s a certain level of precision. Knowing the aircraft and (the pilot’s) job — he wants to get in, get out, and then get back to the fire. And you want to get him in as quick as you can, but know there are precautionary measures all along the way that you have to take.”

Once the aircraft landed, Webb raced to refill the MAFFS units with water. Alongside him, Air Force maintainers scurried to put on the external power and get the C-130s refueled. The maintainers’ day began even before the sun crept up as a thin line of light on the eastern horizon, but to their credit, they looked anything but tired. “You’re out here doing 12-14 hours a day, and I think people take a lot of pride in what they do, so long days don’t matter to us,” said Master Sgt. Danny Lawing, the 145th Maintenance Operation Flight maintenance operations center superintendent.  “It’s just a matter of getting the mission done and making sure our crews have safe aircraft to fly every day.” The level of experience present within the MAFFS mission is high. Though Lawing joined the MAFFS mission in 1990, he said he definitely isn’t the “old guy” on the team. In fact, many of the maintainers on his team have also been working in the field for more than 20 years. Due to the unique nature of the Guard, Airmen are able to stay in one location for a long period of time and become experts in their specific mission set. The years the maintainers and aircrew spend working together can also form a strong bond of community and friendship, which in turn can make each Airman more cognizant of the quality of their work. For the MAFFS maintainers, they know their job is about more than welding parts and turning wrenches to keep C-130s air bound; it’s also about keeping their fellow Guard members safe.

“When you’ve got your friends that you’ve known for years flying on these airplanes … we can’t leave here knowing there’s a problem,” Lawing added.  “We’re going to work until it’s fixed. It’s the most important thing we do.” All the work and preparation put in by the aircrew and ground troops may be put to the test, and soon. By the time July and August roll around, much of the western United States — including Washington State, Oregon and California — are expected to have above normal potential for wildfires, according to the 2015 National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlooks. Each fire is significant. What seems like a small fire from the air can be devastating for the person whose house is right next to it, and the men and women performing the MAFFS mission recognize they might just be called as that person’s last line of defense. Fighting a fire is similar to fighting a war, Knobloch said. “The more resources you have to fight that war, the faster the campaign is going to go. The same thing holds true in the fire world — not exactly, but pretty close. The more assets we can bear on that situation, the faster we’re going to get it under control.” Over the course of the MAFFS training, a variety of different jobs were polished to reflect consistency in tactics, safety and efficiency, for both the Forest Service and their Air Force counterparts. Together, they know they can make the difference between containing a fire or one raging out of control.