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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – When a wildfire breaks out, it takes an incredible amount of coordination to fight the flames.

From the ground the fire can seem endless, and from the air, there’s often an incredible view of destruction.

One of the teams who standby to assist in the fight is the 302nd Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserves, based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

Each year, before wildfire season gets started, they’re busy converting some of their C-130 Hercules aircraft from military use to firefighting machines.

(credit: CBS4)

(credit: CBS4)

To do this, they install MAFFS, or Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, inside the belly of the planes. Once complete, the aircraft have the capability to carry 3,000 gallons of water or flame retardant.

If called to fight a fire, MAFFS tanks can discharge their contents in less than 5 seconds. When back on the ground, they can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

From the back of the plane, a two person crew monitors the equipment and waits to hear orders as to how much water or retardant to drop.

Lauren Whitney sits at the control panel in the back of a C-130 where crew members coordinate the water and slurry drops while fighting a wildfire from the air. (credit: CBS)

Lauren Whitney sits at the control panel in the back of a C-130 where crew members coordinate the water and slurry drops while fighting a wildfire from the air (credit: CBS)

But knowing when and where to drop is a well coordinated dance in the sky.

A lead plane manned by the U.S. Forest Service flies ahead of the MAFFS unit and they are in constant contact with crews on the ground.

As the lead plane maps out a plan to attack the flames, a spotter plane keeps track of all the air assets.

“What happens is that lead pilot will take us across, describe the target, reference the trees, the rocks, the roads, whatever, so we get a good look at it from a high level. Then we’ll come back around at a low level for the actual drop,” said Air Force Reserve Pilot Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, 302nd MAFFS Program Manager.

Some of the reserve pilots are long-time Coloradoans, making the fight against the flames personal.

“You can’t do enough no matter what. You can’t make the plane go fast as you want it to go. You can’t carry as much retardant as you want because it’s your own community threatened or burning,” said Thompson.


CBS4 Weather Special

– Visit’s Living With Wildfire section.
Latest Wildfire Reports

Wildfire Photo Galleries

– See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.


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