Face of Defense: Firefighting Missions Contribute to Pilot’s Passion for Flying
CHEYENNE, Wyo. --
Whether he is barrel-rolling 1,000 feet above the horizon or slowly cruising at 120 knots 150 feet above a pine forest, Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Scofield knows there is no place he would rather be than in the air.
Scofield, an instructor pilot for the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 187th Airlift Squadron, based here, piloted his first aircraft, a Cessna 152, at age 17 and was hooked.
‘There Were No Pilots in My Family’
“I was doing something I thought I could never do,” he said. “There were no pilots in my family, and I thought it was an elusive opportunity reserved for people with aviation backgrounds or lots of money, neither of which my family had.”
More than 29 years later, “Sco,” as his fellow aviators refer to him, is still as in love with flying as he was at 17. He’s seen much of the world through the windshield of a C-130 Hercules, an aircraft he’s been flying for 19 years in the military. A traditional National Guard officer, he pilots an Airbus 320 for a commercial airline carrier, or performs aerobatic feats in his RV8 with Rocky Mountain Formation Flyers when not on military orders.
Scofield’s aerobatic experience gives him a unique perspective on flying Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System missions.
“Flying [MAFFS] in really tight formation requires a very active and constant appreciation for precise flying,” said Scofield, who hails from Greeley, Colorado.
“You’re flying 3 feet away from another airplane,” he added, “so you’re really focused and constantly making control inputs to maintain formation position.”
This year marks Scofield’s 14th year flying MAFFS missions, one of the most demanding non-combat missions a pilot can fly.
“In combat, you might have a couple risk factors in any given mission; in MAFFS you have no less than half a dozen high-risk factors in any sortie,” he said, ticking off factors like: low-level flying, slow airspeeds, formation flying, mountainous terrain, low visibility, and additional aerial traffic.
Even as a pilot with 7,800 flying hours, 800 of them in combat, Scofield said MAFFS operations isn’t something everyone can do, nor should they. MAFFS aircrew only train after obtaining a well-rounded and extensive flying background. Considerations include aptitude, flying hours and quantifiable leadership skills.
“Every pilot training for MAFFS will fly in the right seat [as a co-pilot] for a minimum of two years, even if they are highly seasoned, mostly because the mission is highly demanding and requires extensive experience with crew resource management, communications and risk,” Scofield said.
Air Force Lt. Col. Alan Brown, a fellow 187th Airlift Squadron member and a long-time MAFFS pilot, said Scofield’s ability to retain and apply information is what makes him an exceptional addition to the team.
‘Sco is One of Our Go-To Guys’
“Whether it's systems, regulations, procedures or techniques, Sco is one of our go-to guys in the aerial firefighting community. Couple that with his C-130 experience and his stick-and-rudder skills, and you have one of Wyoming's best MAFFS instructors,” Brown said.
MAFFS is a joint Department of Defense and U.S. Forest Service program designed to provide additional aerial firefighting resources when commercial and private air tankers are no longer able to meet the needs of the forest service. The program was established by Congress in the 1970s.
Four military units fly the mission; Scofield’s home unit, the Wyoming Air National Guard’s 153rd Airlift Wing; the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing in Reno; the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing in Port Hueneme; and the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service that can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100-feet wide. Once the load is discharged, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.