PORT HUENEME, Calif. - The California Air National Guard has joined in the battle against the Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County.
Two C-130 aircraft equipped with a Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) are being used to drop phoscheck on the fire.
Eight C-130's, which are variants of the Super Hercules aircraft, are based at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Base in Ventura County.
CAL FIRE requested the aircraft to assist in the firefight, just days after the Whitter Fire broke out near Lake Cachuma, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people and destroying numerous structures.
C-130 aircraft are designed for worldwide combat operations, as a military cargo transport for the United States Air Force.
But during periods of high fire activity, and high demand for aircraft, MAFFS can turn the C-130's into firefighting machines. MAFFS is a self-contained system which can be loaded into the Super Hercules, then be utilized for aerial firefighting.
Only the best of the best get to fly on the firefighting missions.
"Not everybody does it. We take the cream of the crop crews, we take the best aircraft we have and we put them into harms way," said Col. Bryan Allen, the 146th Airlift Wing Operations Group Commander.
When, the C-130 is modified with MAFFS for a firefighting mission, the paratrooper door is replaced with a plug which ejects the retardant through a duct in flight.
A massive tank is also placed inside the aircraft. The tank can carry 3,000 gallons of phos-check which can be discharged above the flames in less than 5 seconds. The tank can be reloaded in 15 to 20 minutes, then the aircraft can fly again.
The pilots fly the aircraft at about 130 miles per hour at 150 feet through smoke and flames to create a contingency line to stop the fire from spreading.
"The fire will burn up to it and stop. It takes the ground crews to put the fire out," Allen said.
The entire operation is risky, or a "delicate dance" as Allen described it. Pilots must maneuver around other fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters also circling above the fire, and take direction from the lead planes on when and where to drop the retardant.
The 165,000 pound aircraft can make six to 15 retardant drops per day depending several factors including the distance to the fire and traffic congestion with other air tankers.
Allen said the Whittier Fire mission hits close to home. "Most of the flight crew, staff, maintenance crews and support staff live in town. We grew up here and this is our home," he said. "So to be able to do this aerial firefighting mission here at home is very gratifying."
Allen said the mission could extend over the next several days.
The California Air National Guard also wanted to take the opportunity to remind people not to fly drones during a wildfire. Allen said "A drone can shut down the entire operation," and put lives at risk. He urged people to leave their drones at home.