302 Airlift Wing Airmen Embody Agile Combat Employment Via Aerial Firefighting

Story by Staff Sgt. Laura Fitzmorris

In January 2022, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., signed the service’s first doctrine publication on Agile Combat Employment, presenting expeditionary and multi-capable Airmen who can accomplish tasks in a contested and combat environment.

At the 302nd Airlift Wing, Airmen have been operating under the ACE construct for decades through their Modular Airborne Firefighting System mission, according to Lt. Col. Richard Pantusa, 302 AW chief of aerial firefighting.

“For the purposes of current and future readiness needs, the method in which we deploy, operate, maintain, and sustain, very closely follows the definition of Agile Combat Employment as it pertains to tactical airlift,” said Pantusa. “Using the Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21 as a guide, I would argue that MAFFS operates in a highly agile posture with a very light footprint.”

MAFFS is a capability of U.S. Air Force C-130s that uses standard C-130 aircraft as large air tankers that deliver water or fire retardant to support wildland fire suppression efforts. Every year, millions of acres of wildlands in all climates throughout the United States experience fire activity. Aircraft of many types have been proven effective at mitigating the effects of wildfires when they encroach on property, developed areas and natural resources, according to Pantusa.

Maj. Gen. Bret Larson, 22nd Air Force commander, expressed that the MAFFS mission is one of the most critical capabilities 22 AF provides to the American people.

“While most of the things we do in 22nd Air Force are designed to take the fight to our enemies, the firefighting, aerial spray and weather reconnaissance missions are designed to protect American lives and property,” said Larson. “The highly experienced and trained Airmen who conduct the MAFFS mission are pioneers in agile combat employment. The skills they employ in protecting lives and property translate directly to the skills they need to defend our nation against a near peer competitor.”

Reservist pilots and loadmasters assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing drop potable water over Hayman Fire burn scar during their annual aerial wildland firefighting training and certification with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, May 13, 2021, Pike-San Isabel National Forest, Colorado. The 302 AW and 153rd Airlift Wing C-130 Hercules aircraft, equipped with the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire System, began their weeklong training and certification out of Jeffco Airtanker Base, Colorado, where they conducted training drops with potable water at nearby Arapaho/Roosevelt and Pike-San Isabel National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Justin Norton)

In a typical year, the Air Force is called on to help for roughly 6-8 weeks. When the National Interagency Fire Center identifies the need for MAFFS aircraft, four selected C-130 wings share the workload in answering the call, only one of which belonging to the Air Force Reserve – the 302 AW in Colorado. The remaining three wings are Air National Guard based out of California, Nevada and Wyoming.

“In 48 hours or less, those aircraft and crews can be at any location in the United States,” said Pantusa. “They typically base at an established air tanker base, alongside aircraft of the contracted fleet, and are dispatched to fires in the same manner as the contracted private air tankers.”

Once NIFC has requested MAFFS assistance, multiple levels of agencies with a vast array of specialties are needed to answer the order. At a strategic level, the NIFC passes the request to a defense coordinating officer to route the request for validation through U.S. Northern Command, the combatant command for all defense support of civil authority’s missions. USNORTHCOM then tasks First Air Force (Air Forces Northern) to stand up an air expeditionary group in the same manner as any deployed location.

One of many agencies tasked with assisting in the MAFFS mission is the 302nd Maintenance Group.

“The minimal-overhead maintenance team normally used for a MAFFS deployment is an ideal prototype for employing a structure of multi-capable Airmen in an austere environment,” said Col. Jordan Murphy, 302 MXG commander. “Whereas a normal maintenance deployment package is structured toward depth of experience with each career field performing their core duties, a MAFFS deployment package functions like a small-unit, elite team. In this construct, maintenance specialists receive training and execute tasks cross-functionally. It’s not uncommon during MAFFS for crew chiefs to learn and assist with specialist tasks, or vice-versa.”

Airmen from the 302nd Airlift Wing load a Modular Airborne Firefighting System unit onto a C-130H aircraft on the Peterson Space Force Base flightline Apr. 21, 2022. A MAFFS unit can discharge its load of retardant – 3,000 gallons weighing 27,000 pounds – in less than five seconds. (U.S. Air Force photo by Laura Fitzmorris)

All mission planning in regards to MAFFS must be done rapidly with flexibility in mind. Teams could be launched to a fire that started minutes ago, or a large complex fire that has had aerial operations over it for months.

“From takeoff to effects delivery, our aircrews and maintainers are operating at the edges of the aircraft’s envelopes,” said Pantusa. “Takeoff performance is usually defined as maximum gross weight, at high density altitudes, where climb performance is critical. Airspace is usually highly congested from takeoff through landing.”

Due to the nature of fire retardant, MAFFS crews must execute their drops between 150 and 200 feet above the treetops, at between 120 and 130 knots of airspeed.

“There is typically heavy smoke in the air that restricts visibility and aircrews must adapt to changing fire conditions to ensure that they are operating safely. All of these skills are core to what the Air Force needs in their warfighters,” said Pantusa. “Should a need arise to employ tactical airlift in an ACE-based method, I believe MAFFS experts should be the first to answer the call.”

Most of the wing’s career fields are heavily involved in the deployment of a MAFFS team. The reserve deployment readiness cell communicates all tasked unit type codes and plans logistical needs. 302 MXG recalls tasked aircraft and immediately begins all required aircraft preparation tasks. 302nd Operations Support Squadron’s aircrew flight equipment personnel adjust the required survival and emergency equipment on the aircraft specific to the MAFFS mission.

“When the aircraft are ready, the wing’s 39th Aerial Port Squadron inspects and transports the MAFFS tanks on specially-built trailers to the aircraft and assist 731st Airlift Squadron loadmasters and maintenance personnel in loading and installing the MAFFS systems,” said Pantusa. “Meanwhile, 302nd Operations Group identifies crewmembers, support personnel and overhead staff positions to include mission commander and AEG staff, who will be the first to mobilize and ensure that all of their go/no-go issues are resolved.”

302 AW financial management works within the 48-hour timeline to coordinate all facets of operation and maintenance funds, pay, travel and per diem funding streams. They also work with U.S. Forest Service finance officers to ensure that all funding streams are accurately recorded, rectified and reimbursed in a timely fashion.

Concurrently, 302 MXG works with the AEG and RDRC to fill tasked mobilized deployment UTC lines, which include maintenance officers and supervisors, crew chiefs, specialists and required cargo for transport. This cargo typically includes aircraft maintenance tools, high-risk spare parts and aerospace ground equipment. RDRC prepares the joint inspection timelines and coordinates the transport of non-aircrew personnel to the location of the mobilization.

“Numerous other organizations within the wing can also be tasked, depending on the location that MAFFS aircraft will be based,” said Pantusa. “This can include the 302nd Logistics Readiness Squadron who engage in providing last-minute travel arrangements, supply issue, 302nd Communications Flight personnel to provide mobilized communication needs and public affairs to inform the community of our operations.”

The Reserve Citizen Airmen who are part of the MAFFS team are ready and willing to execute the mission at a moment’s notice.

“They are unparalleled in their commitment to the mission,” said Pantusa. “Never in the 49-year history of MAFFS has the Air Force been unable to answer the call, and that is because of the dedication and sacrifice of all the members of our team.”

The 302 AW provides ready, resilient Airmen to support COCOM requirements, according to Col. Christopher Zidek, 302 AW commander, and they do that through tactical airlift and combat support under a full range of operating conditions.

“Our MAFFS mission uniquely demonstrates the capability to rapidly lift and shift resources when and where needed and, in a peer fight, maneuvering with speed, agility and lethality will be foundational for victory,” said Zidek. “I’m very proud of the work our 1300+ Airmen do to support MAFFS and our nation’s defense.”

AerialFire Staff
AerialFire Staff
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