Pilots of big firefighting planes practice in Colorado

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By: Hendrik Sybrandy

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Aerial firefighters are making preparations for what could be a busy Colorado fire season.

For the past several days, members of the 302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base have been getting reacquainted with C-130 tankers that may be called in in the event of a major wildfire.

"We fly very low, we have a heavy load, we fly in very hazardous conditions with smoke and flames around so we really want to take the time to make sure we get it right before we're in that really hazardous position," said Lt. Col. Dave Condit, the Wing's Aerial Firefighting Chief.

The tankers are each equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS). It allows the planes to dump 3,000 gallons of fire retardant around fires in just five seconds.

"Our job is to fly out ahead of the fire or along the flanks, along the side and put that retardant there so that the ground crews can come in and they can put out the fire," said Lt. Col. Robert Fairbanks, a C-130 pilot. "We may not be able to slow down the main fire but if we get ahead of it and lay some retardant, we may be able to save a home and that's very important to us."

Fairbanks and other pilots used water instead of retardant on Monday, dropping full loads on a field next to the base as well as in areas of Pike National Forest. There are two C-130's currently prepositioned in Colorado.

The planes don't see firefighting action every year but were busy in 2011, dropping over one million gallons of retardant, much of it to help suppress Texas wildfires.

Condit said April training keeps crews sharp and prevents mishaps later on.

"We have a 40-year safety record with no accidents," he said. "That's really what we're doing out here, making sure that we can live to fight these fires another day."

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