PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Lt. Col. Luke Thompson sometimes skims his C-130 cargo plane just 150 feet above the ground, battling smoke, shifting winds and rugged terrain on his way to blast thousands of gallons of gooey pink fire retardant onto the front lines of a wildfire.
"It's kind of like pushing an elephant around on ice," he said.
The Air Force reservist at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is one of about 100 Air Force Reserve and National Guard pilots nationwide certified to fly firefighting missions in C-130s.
As wildfire season begins in earnest, some of these firefighters will be taking to the skies with new equipment that will allow them to drop more fire retardant on the ground and get less of it on the plane.
They're assigned to a Reserve unit at Peterson and to Guard units at Port Hueneme, Calif., Charlotte, N.C., and Cheyenne, Wyo.
For firefighting work, C-130s are equipped with the Modular Aerial Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS — a rectangular web of pressurized tanks and tubes on a metal frame that slides into the plane's cargo bay. The system can rain about 3,000 gallons of fire retardant — a jelly-like mix of water and chemicals, tinted pink to make it more visible — onto a fire line in a matter of seconds.
Up to eight MAFFS-equipped C-130s can be called up to assist a national fleet of 19 privately owned multiengine firefighting tankers, which work on contract with federal agencies. Last year, MAFFS planes made 488 firefighting drops, flying a total of nearly 680 hours.
The squat, bulky C-130s are well-suited to firefighting, said Lt. Col. Courtney Arnold, a reservist and commander of the C-130 squadron at Peterson. Their enormous wings give them plenty of lift, and their four turboprop engines can generate huge amounts of thrust very quickly.
"It's ideal for low-to-the ground, slow-speed maneuvering," Arnold said.
Thompson has piloted MAFFS missions since 1996 and estimates he has flown about 200. In the understated vocabulary that seems common among C-130 pilots, he called the work "fairly challenging."
"There's times when they've brought us in and you're dropping right between the fire and a bunch of houses, and that makes you feel good," he said.
The plane is heavy, lugging the 10,500-pound MAFFS unit plus 3,000 gallons of fire retardant. Keeping the right velocity — a relatively slow 125 to 140 mph, just above stall speed — is difficult but critical.
Pilots also must keep track of a small spotter plane they follow to the drop site, other firefighting planes in the air and radio communication with fire managers. Then there's the smoke outside the window and the ground just below.
"I don't know if scary is the word," Thompson said. "There's definitely times when the hair on the back of your neck is starting to stand up."
The drop itself is usually done with the plane heading downhill because the plane performs better that way, Thompson said: "It's fun because the windshield is full of nothing but hills and rocks."
Then the loadmaster in the cargo bay releases the pressurized fire retardant out the back, giving the plane a little extra thrust.
"It's like getting a kick in the pants," Thompson said.
MAFFS was developed by the military and the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s after some large wildfires earlier in the decade, some of them on Department of Defense land. The system became operational in 1974.
This year, the Forest Service is rolling out the new MAFFS II, designed to get more of the fire retardant onto the ground and less on the plane.
A demonstration during MAFFS training in Tucson, Ariz., in May showed why: A C-130 equipped with the original system lumbered in low over the Tucson airport, water gushing out of two nozzles at the open rear cargo door. Most of it cascaded to the ground, but some swirled up onto the plane's tail.
Another C-130 with the new MAFFS roared by. A single nozzle in the left rear troop door shot a jet of water arcing toward the ground. Little of it got onto the plane.
That's a big deal to Air Force Reserve Capt. Bo Shelton, the operations officer for the C-130 maintenance squadron at Peterson. Fire retardant is corrosive, can do serious damage to the plane's exterior, and works itself into tiny openings.
"Once we come back (from a fire), we're doing two or three weeks of extensive cleanup," Shelton said. "We're hoping that MAFFS II is more efficient."
Another improvement is an onboard compressor that can pressurize the tanks in flight, rather than relying on ground compressors. That gets the C-130s back in the air faster, and they can fly out of fire bases that don't have compressors.
MAFFS missions can add anywhere from two weeks to two months to pilots' duty time each year. Still, Arnold said, there's a waiting list of pilots and crew who want to fly them.
"You feel like you're doing something real and helping someone out, as opposed to the routine training mission," Thompson said.