Air Force report says microburst caused crash of MAFFS air tanker

C-130 MAFFS crash, July 1, 2012
C-130 MAFFS air tanker crash, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo

(Update: On November 29, 2012 the Air Force released the full report on the crash. More details are at HERE and HERE.)

A US Air Force report concluded that strong winds out of a thunderstorm caused the crash of a military C-130 air tanker July 1. The accident occurred on the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, South Dakota and resulted in four fatalities. Two crewmen in the rear of the aircraft were injured but survived. Those two were operating the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) in the cargo hold which enables the C-130 to function as an air tanker, capable of dropping up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.

MAFFS C-130 crash, White Draw Fire, July 1, 2012
MAFFS C-130 crash, White Draw Fire, July 1, 2012. US Air Force photo.

The report said a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm caused the crash. During a previous retardant drop on the fire the aircraft experienced a drop in airspeed despite operating under full power. Before the second drop the crew discussed the air speed problem but decided they could adjust to the conditions. The plane crashed on the second drop about five minutes after the first one.

A lead plane flying a half-mile ahead of the C-130 experienced a microburst that pushed it within 10 feet of the ground. According to a news release from the Department of Defense:

The investigation also determined factors that substantially contributed to the mishap included the failure of the Lead Plane and Air Attack aircrews to communicate critical operational information; as well as conflicting operational guidance concerning thunderstorm avoidance.

“If you add all the pieces up, it was very clear they should not have attempted the second drop,” said Brig. Gen. Randall Guthrie, the Air Force Reserve officer who led the investigation. “With all apparent conditions, they should not have gone ahead.”

The Associated Press reports:

“They struggled to keep that [lead] plane flying,” Guthrie said. A second small plane also reported “more than moderate turbulence.”

The crews of those planes failed to alert the trailing C-130 to go around the storm, the investigation found. Instead, the lead plane crew advised the C-130 to drop its load of retardant to lighten the craft to help it climb.

“We felt like they had information and the importance of that information was not passed,” Guthrie said. Those crews later said “they also didn’t really add all those factors up themselves.”

The C-130 dropped the retardant but crashed seconds later, dropping into a lightly-wooded plateau, then into a ravine and breaking apart.

The aircraft that crashed was MAFFS #7 from the North Carolina Air National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing based at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

We are working on obtaining a copy of the full report. We we get it, we’ll update this article with a link.

Killed in the crash were Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, 42, of Mooresville; Maj. Joseph McCormick, 36, of Belmont; Maj. Ryan David, 35, of Boone; and Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon, 50, of Charlotte. The two seriously injured were Chief Master Sgt. Andy Huneycutt and Sgt. Josh Marlowe of Boiling Springs.

UPDATE: links to the report can be found at


Thanks go out to Al

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

15 thoughts on “Air Force report says microburst caused crash of MAFFS air tanker”

  1. Microbursts have been causing crashes since the Wright Brothers. The issue here, if there is an issue … is there an adequate safety margin in the low, slow, heavy flight environment that the C-130 crew is flying in considering they cannot rapidly jettison the retardant load? I don’t have access to their “dash 1” but flying at half flaps at 125 kts or so is definitely on the back side of their power curve. Couple that with no altitude to spare, and you may be working in a tight corner of the flight envelope.

    Maybe someone out there can tell me if C-130’s practice recoveries from near stall using angle of attack indications instead of airspeed? [yes, my Navy background is showing]

  2. I’ll contest a few of the comments above if I may. I agree that the USAF press release seems to point fingers, which is unfortunate. I guess we’ll wait for the formal report, but it seems that issuing a timely warning may have been difficult for a solo Lead pilot if he’s busy recovering from a very close call. We can open Pandora’s Box about the merits of a solo-pilot Lead platform (a silly idea in my opinion, as these folks are routinely overworked and it shows) but let’s shelve this discussion for another day. Similiarly, I wonder how fair it is to assign blame to the air attack crew who may or may not have been exposed to the same descending air as the low-level aircraft and thus may not have even been aware of a microburst situation.

    The main issue at play here is the dispensing system. Not having an emergency dump option has always been a dangerous risk; we did not have to wait for an event like this to come to that conclusion. I think the assumption that a regular airtanker crew would have recognized and averted this situation is a red herring and speaks to a broader political agenda rather than practical facts. The military aviators ARE professional pilots, even the Reserve guys generally fly more hours per year than seasonal airtanker drivers and they are subject to equal or superior meteorological training. Herc drivers are not all A-to-B airline flyers let’s not forget and the recent decade of wars have ensured they’ve had plenty of operational experience.

    I think the MAFFS program is a complete waste of effort (why pull punches?) but not because of any perceived deficiency on the part of the crews. It’s all about the aerosol can delivery of retardant and the poor effectiveness that results. So those of you flying BAe146 airtankers with an arse-nozzle could find yourselves in a very similar situation as this ill-fated crew and there is no sensible guarantee that the outcome would be much different. The accident airplane wasn’t even fully loaded let’s recall – it had four perfectly good & powerful engines with no inherent spool-up delays and still it met an unceremonious end.

    There are plenty of lessons to be learned or reinforced here so let’s not turn this into a military vs airtanker pilot debate. If professional airtanker pilots didn’t ever fly perfectly functioning airplanes into hillsides there may be some room for sanctimonious comments, but we all know that’s certainly not the case in real life. If you are going to sign a petition or raise a stink, focus not on the use of the Air National Guard; focus onstead on the use of pressurised retardant delivery systems that delay the recovery of an airplane from an unpleasant situation and don’t even do the job for which it was designed in the first place.

      1. Thanks DRD, I made the assumption based upon the terminology used in the report. It will be interesting to find out what role the ASM played in the incident, and if anything they did or did not do is deemed a contributing factor. Perhaps many of the details will not be made public, we’ll see.

  3. Cranium – thanks for saying it like it should be said. Instead of blaming Mother Nature it’s so much easier to point out the faults of humans. My thoughts are with the lead plane pilot because I believe he did what he could to get those men out of there.

  4. Agree Mr Coldwater

    BUT Where are those Barons now???

    Did not they have an AD from Raytheon for wing spars and the box area where wings and fuselage meet up and did I not see those USFS type ships in Trade – a – Plane a few yrs back and were those Leads USFS ships and not King Air 90-200 series as they are now from Dynamic, Greenwood , et al??

    Have to agree about the Barions in some respects but have to disagree about sims…..there is technology out there to at least mimic some scenarios.

    Why do you suppose the airline drivers are doing sims every six months? Maybe the good ‘ol USFS and DOI could donate to the cause and get a 3 axis sim and PAY for all sim time in the offf season. Think of the investment that Neptune , Minden, Evergreen, and 10 Tanker LLC and others like Dynamic and the other Leads that maybe have had to send their pilots to the Sim at Flight Safety or Simcom types for recurrency in the KA series……think that would at least keep some skills sharp over the winter season??…….I surely would think so!!

  5. This is where experience and quick decision making cannot be taught in a simulator or from a book. I have followed lead plane pilots into smokey rough air situations always knowing that the airplane they were flying i.e. Baron was well below gross weight, has the ability to climb like and angel and can turn inside tight canyons. However risk verses task accomplishment 1) are we accomplishing an objective (or peeing in the wind) 2. personnel on the ground in trouble? If something starts to occur that we (flight crew) don’t like; smokey very bad visability, weird rough turbulance, the other pilot on the flight deck turning white as a ghost, just maybe we should let the lead know we couldn’t accomplish the drop and set up for another attempt. I have never had a lead pilot be negative when it came to aircrew safety. Tanker flying is very risky business even if you have years of experience and good equipment.

  6. I am a little late

    NIIICE and well said, Cranium.

    I will add that I would imagine there is some real specific training going on at the USAF US Air Natl Guard side of the house and I would be willing to bet the Risk Assessment will be: No flying at 150 ft AGL in or near known thunderstorms especially for non life threatening missions such as timber….. watch carefully

    You can also bet that there is plenty-o- Monday AM quarterbacking on both Lead Plane pilot and on this professinal crew. Granted, they are not career aerial fire fighting pilots, but they are as professional as any aerial fire fighting contract crew out there. The USAF has flight standards as tight or even tighter the FAA PTS standards and SURELY in excess of ANY PTS standards thaty the LMA’s have “created” in the last 20 some years.

    This type of dedicated training mission should come out of every LMA budget especially the use of the simulators at the McClellan or whatever it is called in CA. The MAFF’s crews ought to have carte blanche for the use of the facility.

    There would be plenty of crying at this scenario, BUT when you lose an aircrew ( whether pilot eror or not, WX issues or not) there is ABSOLUTELY NO reason to lose an aircrew OR a C130 over some timber that is threatening futher spread on structures, and especially during a thunderstorm……

    This is definitely afailing of a system that has had plenty of time over 20 yrs + to correct and if you are using National Assets from the military then you (LMA’s) had better have a plan on how you are going to IMPROVE your own airtanker capability or at least pay for the C130 that was lost due to your request and mission tasking.

    The ANG has lost good lives and a good aircraft due this fire season and if I was a combatant commander…I’d be wondering if I would be subjecting my aircrews and aircraft during periods of thunderstorm in or near an known thunderstorm area, especially in a thunderstorm

    We pilots in the civilian world are always reminded in our training in light singles and twins about the repurcussions of microbursts in and around airports during base to final approach and reduced speeds……..exactly the environment these young men were in….only they were too low and too heavy to initiate and sustain any recovery procedure(s) for departure.

  7. I think that they threw the Lead Pilot under the bus here. This accident shows the difference between having professional aerial firefighting pilots and part time firefighting pilots and crews.

    1. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I understand, to dump the retardant load on the MAFFS, the commander must communicate that desire to the loadmaster and then the loadmaster can only dump at the highest selected amount. There is no emergency dump selection that can empty fully the load in less than a second.
    2. When a lead plane pilot says down air abort, that’s all it takes for an experienced aircrew to pop the load and add max escape power immediately. A two pilot crew with years of experience in the fire environment can move more quickly to mitigate the danger. Not to say that they could have necessarily avoided this accident either, but these MAFFS crews are placed in an untenable situation by no fault of their own. If they had the benefit of dedicated mission training and on the job experience with Initial Attack Captains they could easily meet the criteria. This is a failing of the system, not the crews or the lead plane.
    3.The reason the crews hadn’t put it all together is because things change within seconds and what one plane experiences can be exponentially worse only seconds later. The fact that MAFFS crews are not a dedicated force keeps them from having the required focus on a career that takes years of experience. It cannot be simulated or taught theoretically, it comes from years of flying in that specific environment.

    During these fires I saw video of MAFFS doing some pretty sporty drops that should be left to the dedicated firefighting pilots, but they were trying to meet the need and pushed to far to the edge of the envelope for the experience level.

    I appreciate and enjoyed my time with the MAFFS pilots and there is a place for all of the tools in the toolbox. Unfortunately, the lack of leadership has created a situation where we tried to use a crescent wrench instead of a torque wrench with the inevitable result. Blaming the heroes (both the MAFFS crew and the lead plane and air attack pilots) will not focus the blame where it squarely belongs; the administration of the USFS.

  8. With most tanker accidents the airplane goes in (crashes) with the load or attempts to release the load seconds before impact. This unfortunate accident is a classic example. Regardless if your flying a SEAT or something much larger from the time you are aware of a problem and make a decision to release the load, it is at least five seconds (smaller SEAT aircraft) before improved aircraft performance is STARTING to occur.

  9. Agreed. dang near got us in ’96 out by Gallup NM.
    Advantage of having a tank and Jettisoning the load
    DC-7 3000 gallons. Came as close as I want….

  10. The C-130 cannot “jettison” retardant. They have to use the dispensing system to offload the retardant which limits the rate they can get rid of excess weight in an emergency. Other tankers have “jettison” capability and use it to get out of extremis situations. Talk to any CALFIRE S-2 pilot and they will tell you they are very glad they have jettison capability.


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