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Airborne firefighting-Thai style: Reservists share MAFFS experience with overseas allies.

The C-130 is flying 150 feet above the ground at a speed of 120 knots, carrying approximately 38,000 pounds of equipment and cargo. A second later, 27,000 pounds of water are sprayed out of two giant tubes hanging over the open rear ramp of the aircraft.

Another wet modular airborne firefighting system training run is complete, and the aircraft heads back to base.

This scenario plays out every year somewhere in the United States as U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard C-130 crews train for annual MAFFS certification. But what made the training that took place in January different from previous years was the fact that the C-130 tail flash sported a Thai flag, and the crew members wore Royal Thai Air Force uniforms. Welcome to MAFFS training--Thai style.

MAFFS is specialized equipment that is loaded into the cargo bay of a C-130 and is capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant at one time. Once dropped, the retardant becomes a containment line that works to block the spread of wildfires. The Air Force Reserve is often called upon by the U.S. Forest Service to fly MAFFS missions, typically during the summer and fall wildfire seasons.


Few people would think Thailand--a country most associate with damp, heavy jungle foliage--suffers from wildfire problems. But the weather in some areas of Thailand can be seasonally dry--so dry, in fact, that the government is involved in cloud seeding operations in an effort to promote more rain.

In addition, according to the U.S. State Department Web site, 40 percent of Thailand's labor force is involved in agriculture, and Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice. With so much importance placed on a crop that requires water, it's easy to understand how dry weather and fires would create problems for the Thai people.

In an effort to enhance Thailand's firefighting capabilities, Group Capt. Nimit Kraigratoke, deputy director for the RTAF's Special Task Division, brought the mission of aerial firefighting to the RTAF several years ago.

"I studied aerial firefighting on my own and learned of the MAFFS capability," said Group Captain Nimit. "Then I was able to coordinate purchasing a C-130 MAFFS unit in 2001."

The MAFFS unit is assigned to the 601st Squadron based at Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base in the capital city of Bangkok. Some RTAF members attended minimal training when the MAFFS unit was purchased, but more was needed.

"I wanted to provide good training to our aircrews so they would not have to teach themselves," Group Captain Nimit said, "so we reached out to the experts."

Those experts were members of the Air Force Reserve's 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. Marking a first for Air Force Reserve Command, seven members of the 302nd AW traveled to Thailand in January to conduct a two-week training session on safe and effective C-130 MAFFS operations. They were accompanied by David Stickler, a lead plane and instructor pilot for the U.S. Forest Service.

The training included one week each of classroom and flying instruction. Combined, the Reservists brought 100 years of MAFFS experience to share with their Thai counterparts.

"Our crews are intent on studying and learning from the experience of their instructors," said Special Group Capt. Thawonwat Chantanagama, deputy director of the RTAF Directorate of Operations, during the MAFFS training opening ceremony. For the RTAF, a special group captain is the equivalent of a U.S. brigadier general.

"We intend to train to U.S. Air Force standards," said Lt. Col. James Steward, MAFFS C-130 pilot and chief of flying safety for the 302nd AW, as he created training folders for each RTAF aircrew member at the onset of training.

As the training transitioned from classroom work at Don Muang RTAFB in Bangkok to flight training at Phitsanulok RTAFB in north central Thailand, the Reservists gained an appreciation for the skill of the RTAF crews.

"We are all impressed by the skill and dedication of the Thai aircrews," said Colonel Steward, as he stood next to an immaculately clean RTAF C-130H aircraft.

"In the United States, MAFFS pilots are led to the fire and told where to drop the retardant by a U.S. Forest Service lead plane," Mr. Stickler said. "In Thailand, they don't have lead planes, so the C-130 pilot has to understand fire behavior."

Mr. Stickler and Colonel Steward spent valuable time between training flights reviewing fire behavior and what the safest and most effective approach to aerial firefighting is for various circumstances. To help the RTAF crews visualize the tactics during classroom training sessions, various objects and strips of colored paper were used to represent such things as mountains, fire, structures and fire retardant.

"That was very creative, and I think it helped drive the training home," said Lt. Col. Corey Steinbrink, mission commander and C-130 MAFFS pilot.

By the third day of aerial training, the RTAF crews were "doing the mission on their own, with our assistance, as opposed to us teaching them everything," Colonel Steinbrink said. "They have a good understanding of the MAFFS mission."

"They already understand the checklists well," said Chief Master Sgt. James Riley, chief loadmaster with the 302nd AW. "We have even been able to discuss some emergency response checklists with them."

As training came to a close, both the Thai and U.S. Airmen felt the time coordinating the event was worth the investment.


"We very much appreciate the training," said Squadron Leader Promrob Chanchom, C-130 pilot with the 601st Squadron and a former U.S. exchange officer stationed at Dyess AFB, Texas. "We got a lot of experience, a lot of ideas and the big picture of firefighting."


"This training is really useful to MAFFS for the Royal Thai Air Force," said Special Group Captain Chantanagama during the closing ceremony. "This course can strengthen relationships between the United States Air Force and Royal Thai Air Force."

"The outpouring of support from our hosts has been amazing," Colonel Steinbrink said. "All the crews we trained have been receptive and knowledgeable but also very willing to learn, listen and ask questions. We hope to continue the relationship with the 601st Squadron and the firefighting mission in Thailand."

(Captain Ritchie is assigned to the 302nd AW public affairs office at Peterson AFB.)

RELATED ARTICLE: Trip to Thailand a happy homecoming for chief loadmaster

By Capt. Jody Ritchie

James Riley was 4 years old, sitting at the dinner table in his Chicago home, when he first heard the word "Thailand."

His father had just received a U.S. government job offer at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in central Thailand and was asking his family if they wanted to go.

"I had no idea where Thailand was, but everyone else wanted to go, and I followed the lead," said Chief Master Sgt. James D. Riley, now chief loadmaster with the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

At the time, there was no way he could have known how that dinner conversation would change the rest of his life.

Chief Riley spent the next six years, 1967 to 1972, living in Thailand, learning the culture and language in true immersion fashion during his impressionable childhood years as he attended a Catholic school in Bangkok. He has experienced things few Westerners can relate to, including living for three months amongst monks in a Buddhist temple.

Since moving back to the United States, he regularly returns to Thailand. His first trip back was as a teenager when he spent the summer on an island catching crabs for a friend's restaurant. Since 1994, Chief Riley has made more than 15 trips back to his former home, averaging about one visit per year.

Chief Riley said that when he was a child, his family moved around a lot. The six years he lived in Thailand was the longest he spent in any one place.

"This is home," he said. "There are parts of Thailand that haven't changed since J lived here and parts that are more modern. I love the diversity."

Not surprisingly, Thailand played a significant role in Chief Riley's career.

"My neighbor worked on DC-3s at Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force Base and would occasionally bring me to work with him," he said. "Climbing around on that DC-3 was what sparked my interest in aviation."

Thirty-seven years later, with more than 6,000 hours of flying experience under his belt, Chief Riley was standing on the same flight line. This time, the circumstances were a lot different. He was now responsible for training his RTAF counterparts on flying the unique, challenging and demanding mission of C-130 Hercules airborne firefighting.

As an Air Force Reservist assigned to the only Reserve unit qualified to operate the modular airborne firefighting system, Chief Riley has 18 years experience with the MAFFS mission and was putting that experience to good use helping a people and a nation that holds a special place in his heart.

Chief Riley's MAFFS experience, along with his Thai language skills, led to him being handpicked to participate in the two-week MAFFS training conducted by the 302nd AW.

"It's an absolute honor to come back in an official capacity and help the Thai people," said Chief Riley as he stood among a group of RTAF members. He then effortlessly switched to Thai and laughed with his new RTAF friends.

"Without a doubt, this is the highlight of my 27-year Air Force career."

The DC-3s that set a youngster on his career path have since been relocated from Don Muang RTAFB. But as luck would have it, they are now located at Phitsanulok RTAFB, which is where the flying portion of the MAFFS training took place. Standing on the flight line at Phitsanulok, Chief Riley looked at the polished white, blue and gold DC-3s and wondered which one was the aircraft that changed the course of his life.

"They've been upgraded, but these are the same planes," he said.

"Chief Riley exemplifies how the unique background and experience of a Reservist can make a difference not only for the Air Force, but the United States," said Lt. Col. Corey L. Steinbrink, MAFFS training mission commander and MAFFS C-130 pilot with the 302nd AW. "What we are doing here isn't just about a flying mission; it's about strengthening ties between the U.S. and our oldest ally in Southeast Asia, and he's been an important part of the mission."

(Captain Ritchie is assigned to the 302nd AW public affairs office at Peterson AFB.)

Story and Photos by Capt Jody Ritchie
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Author:Ritchie, Jody
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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