Military cargo planes practice fire retardant drops in Boise

C-130 above Boise
Posted at 6:01 PM, Apr 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-27 22:10:33-04

The skies above Boise will be busy this week with military aircraft practicing for fire season.

The huge cargo planes are outfitted with a special firefighting system. It's vital the pilots, their lead planes, and ground crews have a chance to train before the fire season explodes.

Last year was one of the worst fire seasons on record. And that has put a lot of pressure on the country's eight military firefighting planes.

"Last year was unprecedented and we had almost 100 days of non-stop firefighting, particularly in Northern California," said National Guard Pilot Major Jeremy McNally.

The huge, four-engine Hercules C-130 cargo plane that he flies can be fitted with a special tank system called MAFFS — or Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System. It allows them to drop close to 3,000 gallons of retardant on a fire. But, it's a complex procedure that needs to be practiced to be safe.

"When it comes to training we like to start the season off strong," said flight engineer Cameron Pieters, "We get a lot of sorties in, try to simulate as many different types of drops as we can. This lets us control the risk, where on a fire you never know what you're going to get."

So plan to see a lot of C-130's making passes above the Boise Airport this week and dropping loads of water off in the distance for practice.

"It's very important we have this every year," said Kim Christensen, deputy assistant director for Fire Operations at the US Forest Service. "It's a great opportunity to work with our military partners."

The pilots must have 5 years in the C-130 although most have much more. They drop retardant at extremely low levels, guided to the fire by a smaller and faster pilot plane. And global warming has made their job even more dangerous.

"They're getting much larger and much more intense," said McNally. "The conditions are getting much more challenging."

Last year, all eight MAFFS C-130's were in use, and dropped 2.5 million gallons of retardant. It's a sight that means the world to the crews on the ground, and those they are putting their lives on the line to protect. Huge plumes of black smoke at the Boise Airport today had nothing to do with the MAFFS training. Boise Fire was practicing fighting aircraft fires at their special facility east of the airport.