Military cargo plane crews in Ventura County preparing for double duty as airborne firefighters
Huge C-130 transport planes are modified with special equipment during peak wildfire season to provide surge firefighting capacity for the U.S. Forest Service.
A massive C-130 military transport plane is firing up its four engines.
There are a half dozen of the huge C-130’s on the tarmac at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station at Port Hueneme.
While the skies have been overcast recently, soon we’ll have day after day of sunny, hot weather. The air and ground crews are on hand for a special training mission, preparing them for the upcoming wildfire season.
"Right now we have two units...four aircraft...training for our upcoming fire season. We call this spring training," said Major Kyle Zust, with the Reno Air National Guard. "We get our proficiency back, and all of our air crew current before we go out to the real environment during a fire."
There are two C-130’s here from the Nevada Air National Guard, and two from the Wyoming Air National Guard.
The primary mission for these crews is to fly military and humanitarian cargo missions around the world. But, during wildfire season, special equipment known as MAFFS is installed on the planes, so they can serve as air tankers. The planes can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant during a single flight.
Major John Miller is a C-130 pilot, with the Nevada Air National Guard. This is his fourth season flying one of the converted C-130’s as an air tanker.
'This is kind of of a special system, as compared to the civilian air tankers you see out there that are purpose-built," said Miller.
The MAFFS unit are rolled into the plane's cargo bay, and after about a day of work, the aircraft is operational as an air tanker. At the end of high fire season, the unit is removed so the plane and crew can resume cargo carrying duties.
The Air National Guard planes serve as a backup during peak wildfire season. The U.S. Forest Service will use its aircraft, as well as local, state, and private contractors first. But, when multiple fires are burning, sometimes it’s not enough. The C-130’s provide critical surge capacity.
Kim Christensen is the Deputy Director of Operations with the U.S. Forest Service. "It's critically important to have this resource available," said
Christensen. "It augments our capabilities when our aircraft and commercial aircraft are fully committed." She says the training is important to make sure that when the government and military crews work together during the crisis, everyone is in synch with each other.
During this training session based at Port Hueneme, the crews are going to ground school, and getting in practice missions. The flight crews are making practice water drops in the Angeles National Forest. It’s also a chance for ground crews to practice quick turnarounds refueling, and reloading the planes with fire retardant.
Miller talks about what it’s like when it’s the real deal, and they are operational. "Depending on the size of the fire, you might be over a hundred miles away and you can just see these massive fire plumes going up to 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 feet," said Miller. "You definitely respect the fire."
He said piloting air tankers requires a much different type of flying, with the aircraft going much slower, and closer to the ground than usual.
Zust, with the Reno Air National Guard, said it's emotional work. "You have people coming up to you asking hey...do you fly those big gray airplanes? And, they start tearing up, saying 'You saved my house'."
In May, some C-130’s based in Colorado, as well as some home based in Port Hueneme will take part in another one of the trainings intended to get flight and ground crews ready for the upcoming wildfire season.