Jan 12, 2011 9:48 PM by Zach Thaxton

C-130 conference brings Hurricane Hunters, oil-spill busters

Peterson Air Force Base is hosting a first-of-its-kind conference this week, bringing together crews from three different types of massive C-130 cargo planes which are called on by civilian authorities to respond to natural disasters.

The C-130 Spercial Missions Conference is being hosted Wednesday and Thursday by the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson, equipped to utilize C-130s to drop fire retardant in the path of wildfires.  Dubbed the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS, Peterson-based C-130s are loaded with twin tanks of fire retardant capable of dropping 3,000 pounds of the gooey material in five seconds.  Air Force Reserve pilots who command the difficult operations are required to log at least 4,000 fight hours before even beginning the certification process for MAFFS.

Visiting from out-of-town for the conference are the "Hurricane Hunters" from Mississippi and oil-spill busters from Ohio.

The "Hurricane Hunters" from the 403rd Airlift Wing  out of Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi are called on to fly directly into hurricanes to gather important data about the storms from directly inside them.  The flight into the violent storms can be, as one might predict, incredibly turbulent.  "It'd be something like driving a really rough road," said Lieutenant Colonel Jason May, Commander of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.  "Lots of potholes.  Lots of turbulence."  Crew members on-board the customized C-130s drop specialized data-gathering equipment directly into the clouds from an elevation of 10,000 feet and then report that data back to the National Hurricane Center.  The data is used to help track the path and intensity of the hurricanes to determine potential landfall zones, information which is then used to decide areas of coastline that should be evacuated.  "Our statistics show that we had helped them predict better accuracy up to 20 to 30 percent," said Lt. Col. May.  The improved accuracy helps reduce the amount of coastline and inland areas that should be evacuated, which can save tens of millions of dollars in crucial emergency funds for small communities and large cities.  The data gathered by the Hurricane Hunters is helpful, but can never be 100 percent reliable.  "With every hurricane, you don't know what you're going to get until you're out there," said Lieutant Colonel Jon Talbot with the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron.  "They're dynamically-changing beasts.  They change hour to hour."

It was a busy summer for crews with the 910th Airlift Wing out of Youngstown, OH.  They spent much of it flying 150 feet off the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, dropping detergents to dissolve massive oil slicks released in the BP oil disaster.  Their C-130, dubbed the Modular Aerial Spray System, or MASS, is equipped with specialized nozzles that spray the detergents onto the surface of the water.  In the case of the Gulf oil disaster, the MASS flights released 5 gallons of chemicals per acre to try to dissolve the thick oil.  "At first, it seemed like an incredibly daunting mission," said Major Phillip Townsend.  "You'd see slicks 15 to 20 miles in length."  The MASS C-130s are used for other purposes, too.  Following hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the specialized C-130s sprayed insecticides to kill mosquito infestations.  "We'll apply approximately a half-ounce of chemical over an acre area," Townsend said, "so it's a very, very small amount for an insecticide mission."

Regardless of the mission, the purpose is to utilize the resources of the U.S. government to assist civilian agencies when disaster strikes.  When Forest Service planes can't stop the spread of a wildfire, skimmer boats can't contain oil spills, or forecasters can't determine the path of a hurricane, that's when these Air Force Reserve units are called.  Their conference this week is an opportunity to share vastly different experiences, though utilizing essentially the same enormous aircraft.  "It's all about making us more efficient at what we do, but keep doing the same thing," said Lt. Col. May.


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