USA — COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — If you’ve recently seen low-flying planes circling over Colorado Springs, then you’ve witnessed Air Force Reserve airmen preparing for wildfire season.
The Air Force Reserve and U.S. Forest Service held their annual Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) training in southern Colorado April 20-24. At Peterson Air Force Base and the Pueblo Air Tanker Base, air crews practiced flight operations such as dropping potable water on remote target sites on the bases and Pike National Forest.
“Our annual training allows us to stay ready when we do get called up,” Lt. Col. Robert Fairbanks, a pilot with the Air Force Reserve, said Monday. “It’s important because it may be a year since we’ve done this type of flying.”
On a moments notice, the eight MAFFS crews prepositioned in Colorado, California, Wyoming and North Carolina can be called to fight wildfires across the country if civilian firefighters need help.
“Our job is to fly out ahead of the fire, or along the flanks or the side, and put that retardant there so the grounds crews can come in and put out the fire,” Fairbanks said.
Using C-130s equipped with 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, pilots fly close to the fire lines to help suppress wildfires.
“Our combat altitude for low level is at 300 feet,” Lt. Col. David Condit, chief of aerial firefighting for the Air Force Reserve Command, said. “For this mission we’re actually flying 150 feet above ground.”
The low-level flying is considered hazardous, which is why pilots are required to participate in MAFFS training and only the most experience aviators can be a part of the team.
“These are really experienced pilots for the most part,” Condit said, “many with thousands of hours of a career’s worth of flying. But this isn’t typically the missions that they’ve flown throughout their careers so they really need to practice and recertify every year.”
While a busy fire season may be difficult to predict, MAFFS crews say they are ready for whatever the 2012 fire season has in store.
“I hope it’s not a busy fire season because homes are often in danger when we’re called,” Fairbanks said.
The MAFFS program was created in the early 1970’s to support wildland firefighting through the U.S. Forest Service. On a five year average, MAFFS crews have helped suppress about 78,000 wildfires.