by Stephen Bryen
CEO, SDB Partners LLC
[Editor’s Note: Since this was written early on July 2nd, 2012, the Air Force has decided to ground ALL C-130’s used in firefighting pending a review of the latest accident.]
An Air Force C-130 attached to Northern Command crashed on Sunday night, July 1st, while on a firefighting mission in South Dakota. The reason for the crash remains to be determined. The plane belonged to the Air Force National Guard based in California –eight of the aircraft have been equipped with a system called MAFFS –Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System–which can spray some 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.
MAFFS is a successful system and the C-130′s supported by the Guard and the Air Force are well maintained. The models with MAFFS are the C-130E and the C-130H. The C-130H first entered service in 1956, and the C-130E entered service in 1962. Even though the airplanes were manufactured over a number of years, those in service are old.
The main vulnerability of all C-130′s is the wing structure and cracking in the wing box has been a major problem for many years. When these cracks appear, the entire wing box must be replaced –work that takes a long time and which costs millions of dollars.
An older model, C-130A, in private use had its wings shear off in a fire fighting operation in California.
In the United States fire fighting is typically done by private companies who provide services to the U.S. Forest Service. Many of the aircraft are old and maintenance is an issue. The Air National Guard and the Forest Service, with MAFFS, hoped to solve part of that problem by making the National Guard C-130′s available by having a modular, removable kit for C-130 E’s and H’s that otherwise performed cargo operations.
Today the Air Force is under pressure by the Air National Guard units around the country to retain the C-130′s smaller brother, the C-27J. Using C-27J’s for fire fighting would make great sense and MAFFS can easily be adapted to them.
The C-27J is a twin engine aircraft, but it uses exactly the same engines and has a cockpit very similar to the modern C-130J (that is not used for fire fighting). But the really special feature of the C-27J is the wing.
Unlike the C-130′s which have a single spar wing that puts all the stresses on the wing box, where cracking is a problem, the C-27J has a triple spar wing that has never had a cracking problem (it is the same wing design as the venerable G-222 that saw some 30 years of service in the Italian Air Force).
It is true that the C-27J carries less than the C-130 –but not that much less. Other than specialized “only use” fire fighting aircraft, the C-27J is a capable cargo and support aircraft already combat proven.
We cannot do without modern fire fighting aircraft -and we already own C-27J’s. What we don’t want is another accident, risking the lives of our pilots and crew members. We never want to see a crash where the wings come off.
(A video of the C-130A crash can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A4QZAxrb28 )