Fired Up: Watching the Black Forest burn inspired Reservist to become MAFFS loadmaster
By Staff Sgt. Frank Casciotta
/ Published August 02, 2018
Annie had just found a decent vantage point to get a better look at the infamous Black Forest fire as it was burning near her hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2013 when she spotted an aircraft dropping a line of bright orange retardant on the outskirts of the wildfire.
At the time, she had no idea that she would be flying as part of the crew in one of those aircraft herself one day.
“I just remember thinking, ‘they are doing that firefighting mission. That has to be the coolest job ever,” said Staff Sgt. Annie Lepillez, one of the 731st Airlift Squadron’s newest Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System-qualified loadmasters.
Joining the Air Force Reserve was the furthest thing from Lepillez’s mind when she graduated from college in 2011 with a degree in aviation. Her plan was to be an air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration, but that was not to be.
“Unfortunately, I graduated while there were budget cuts that resulted in a three-year hiring freeze,” she said.
She ended up working odd jobs until having a conversation with her brother-in-law, who at the time was an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft pilot.
“He said, ‘if you’re going to look into enlisting I recommend anything that will bring you close to an airplane,”’ said Lepillez.
Taking his advice, she met with a recruiter who set up a meeting with Reserve loadmasters at the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
While meeting with the loadmasters, she connected the dots and realized these were the people dropping retardant from the C-130 during the fire she saw.
“I thought to myself, ‘you’re kidding me, that’s something you can do?’” she said.
About four years and more than 900 flying hours later as a C-130 loadmaster, Lepillez is now among those qualified to fly on MAFFS missions after the annual MAFFS recertification training sponsored by the U.S.D.A Forest Service held at McClellan Reload Base in Sacramento, California, April 22 through 27.
Lepillez was on her second MAFFS training sortie of the day when the pilot let the aircrew know they were headed back to base. Her instructor walked over, fist-bumped her and handed her their squadron’s MAFFS patch. She completed her certification.
“That was such an awesome moment,” said Lepillez, who was named the Air Force Reserve Command 2016 Enlisted Aircrew Member of the Year. “I’m so grateful just to be able to take part in a mission like this.”
Becoming a MAFFS-certified loadmaster is strictly voluntary. Before loadmasters are considered for the position, they must have at least 750 flying hours and be evaluated by the entire aircrew, which includes a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and other loadmasters already MAFFS-qualified.
“MAFFS loadmasters are our most experienced and highly qualified,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Freeman, a 731st AS evaluator loadmaster and Lepillez’s MAFFS instructor.
Freeman, who flew missions during the Black Forest fire, has been flying MAFFS missions since 1991 and has helped train more than 100 loadmasters on MAFFS throughout his career.
“It’s very challenging. The learning curve is more like a 90 degree angle than a curve,” said Freeman.
Typically, loadmasters are responsible for loading, securing and escorting cargo and passengers before and during flight. They calculate proper weight distribution for cargo and oversee the safety of any passengers. On a MAFFS mission they fill that same role in addition to and making various adjustments to the MAFFS unit during flight and ensuring it releases retardant as needed. They are also in charge of overseeing the refilling of the MAFFS unit.
“The co-pilot is actually the one who presses the button to drop the retardant,” Lepillez said. “Our job is to make sure everything else is good to go as far as having proper air compression, making sure the hydraulics are functioning and using the control panel to set the amount of coverage we will drop on the pass. We also make sure the emergency dump system is ready as well just in case something malfunctions.”
Lepillez is a traditional reservist and when she’s not serving her country at the 302nd AW, she’s busy managing her own small busines in Colorado Springs selling and making fresh crepes. She says her inspiration for the business comes from having spent time in France while growing up and making crepes on Sunday mornings with her family.
(Casciotta is assigned to the 302nd AW’s office of public affairs.)