Patent application for MAFFS 2 in 2004

In conducting research for work being done to develop an internal tank for a Chinook helicopter we ran across the patent for the portable, roll-on/roll-off retardant dispensing system that became known as the second generation Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS 2.

MAFFS 2 patent
Illustration from the patent application for what became known as the MAFFS 2 retardant tank system.

The patent application was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by inventors Michael David Hutter, Steven Thomas Marine, Richard Lawnewce, and Ken Woodland in 2004 and was published in 2007.

The tie-in to the Chinook came from the claim in the patent that the system would be suitable for that helicopter as well as a host of other aircraft, including Boeing C-17, Boeing V-22 Tilt-rotor, EADS/CASA C-235/295, and Alenia C-27.

This second generation MAFFS is different from the original invented in the early 1970s:

  • It discharges retardant through the port side paratroop door. This eliminates the need to have the rear cargo ramp door open, preventing corrosion caused by the retardant collecting on various parts of the aircraft, or even coming inside the aircraft through the open door.
  • It has two onboard air compressors for recharging the pressurized retardant dispensing system.
  • A pintel in the dispensing tube can provide a constant flow rate and vary the flow, permitting different coverage levels.
  • Overflow of retardant inside the aircraft while refilling the tank is prevented by the incorporation of an overfill vent and hinged refilling pipe to funnel excess retardant off board away from the aircraft.

The patent was held by Aero Union from 2008 until 2011 after which it was owned by Comercia Bank and later VRB Corp when Aero Union declared bankruptcy. The patent lapsed in January 23, 2015 for failure to pay maintenance fees but was reinstated right away after the fees were paid. On March 19, 2015 it was assigned to United Aeronautical Corp.

In addition to acquiring the MAFFS 2 patent, United Aeronautical Corp also purchased the eight P-3 air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union. Since then they have sold at least one, to Buffalo Airways.

Below are additional illustrations from the patent application.

MAFFS 2 nozzel
MAFFS 2 nozzel
MAFFS2 patent in C-130
MAFFS 2 as installed in a C-130

Private company asking for $5M in donations to bring back P3 air tankers

P3 air tanker
A P3 air tanker makes one of its last drops on the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, July 15, 2011. All contracts for P3’s were cancelled by the USFS a couple of weeks later and the company, Aero Union, was forced out of business. Photo by Kari Greer for the USFS.

A private company has launched a campaign asking for $4,950,000 in donations so that they can begin flying P3 air tankers again.

A company called Orion Aerial Firefighters, with Dale Head as the CEO, is described as “a unique team of engineers, maintenance experts and pilots who are passionate and dedicated to provide effective aerial firefighting service in order to protect lives and assets.” Their stated goal is to return the P3 “as the critical component of the US Forest Service’s national firefighting fleet.”

Mr. Head said “The P-3 drops in terrain that other aircraft have trouble dealing with, and pilots feel that the maneuverability of a turboprop and the relatively short wingspan allows the P-3 to get to places other airtankers just cannot.”

The company is asking for donations through Indiegogo, where as of January 20, 2015 they have raised $1,857 since January 15 toward their goal of $4,950,000. They have 55 days left in their money raising campaign.

In April of 2011 Aero Union, which had recently been bought by new owners, had eight P3 air tankers under contract. By late July that number had been reduced to six when the Federal Aviation Administration found the company was not in compliance with the Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Evaluation and structural inspection program that was mandated by the company’s contract with the U.S. Forest Service.

At that time Tom Harbour, director of the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management program, cancelled the contract, saying, “Our main priority is protecting and saving lives, and we can’t in good conscience maintain an aviation contract where we feel lives may be put at risk due to inadequate safety practices”.

At that time some people described Aero Union as having been run into the ground by the new owners.

Tanker 17 at McClellan P3
Tanker 17 at McClellan, March 21, 2014.

In late 2013 the eight airtankers were purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us in January, 2014, that  the P-3s at McClellan were still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

Buffalo P3
Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways on his purchase of Tanker 22, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One of the P3s was in Canada undergoing major maintenance when the USFS cancelled the contract and it will never fly again. The other seven sat at McClellan near Sacramento until one was purchased in March 2014, by Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, leaving six.

Buffalo purchases a P3

Buffalo P3
Ronald Guy of United Aeronautical congratulates Joe McBryan of Buffalo Airways, March 19, 2014 at McClellan Air Force Base. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Breaking news from the Aerial Firefighting conference. Buffalo Airways just purchased Tanker 22, one of the P3s formerly owned by Aero Union. They intend to use it as an air tanker. This was confirmed by Joe McBryan of Buffalo, who was pleased to say the P3 will live on.

They purchased it from Blue Aerospace/United Aeronautical Corporation.

You might recognize Mr. McBryan from the Ice Pilots reality show on the History Channel.

Update on Aero Union P-3 air tankers

There is still a chance that some of the P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union could see service as aerial firefighters. The company was forced out of business after their U.S. Forest Service contracts were canceled citing safety violations. United Aeronautical (UAC), which primarily deals in aircraft parts, bought the eight aircraft from the bank and then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s.

Aero Union P3s at McClellan 8-13-2013
P3s at McClellan AFB that were formerly owned by Aero Union. Google Earth photo, August 13, 2013.

As we wrote in November, they do not intend to operate the aircraft, but hope to sell them.

Blue Aerospace specializes in providing support and parts for  P-3s, C-130s, F-16s, and T-56s, and they are a licensed distributor for Lockheed Martin and other original equipment manufacturers. Before Aero Union shut down, they provided spares and repairs for their P-3 air tankers.

Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, told us that the seven P-3s that are still at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, California are still “flyable”. He said on a regular basis the aircraft are taxied and the engines are run up. However, there is likely some work that would have to be done to regain approval as U.S. Forest Service air tankers.

When Aero Union ceased operation, one of their P-3s was in the middle of heavy maintenance in Canada. The engines and other parts had been removed. It was, and still is, “in pieces”, Mr. Benz said, and will never fly again. But there is hope for the other seven. He said there has been considerable interest from potential buyers.

In addition to the aircraft, Mr. Benz said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) which can be slipped into a C-130, and the second generation Retardant Air Delivery System, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in P-3s and other air tankers.

To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed a new organization, named Maffs Corp. They intend to provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and if there is a demand, to manufacture new MAFFS2 systems.

 

New owners of Aero Union’s assets intend to sell or lease the P-3s

P-3 Orion air tanker
A P-3 Orion drops on a fire near Cedar City, Utah in 2006. From zionhelitack.blogspot.com

When we wrote on October 15 that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union had been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft, it was unknown what the fate of the planes was going to be. The company that bought them and the other assets, United Aeronautical (UAC), was not disclosing their plans and there was concern among those who would like to see the big four-engine turboprops back in the air that they would be parted out or scrapped. While that still could happen, a new development raises the possibility of a continued life for the P-3 air tankers.

Aero Union logoUAC has partnered with a second company, Blue Aerospace, in an effort to sell or lease the eight aircraft. Blue Aerospace made a presentation last month at the Hercules Operators Council in Atlanta promoting the air tankers, and proudly displayed the Aero Union logo. They intend to:

  • Work with the customer community to ensure that the appropriate maintenance is conducted;
  • Provide legacy support for older systems, RADS II and Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS I); and,
  • Regenerate the capability to supply new fully operational MAFFS II units.

Blue Aerospace said in their presentation, “we are not an operator, but seek to make the highly effective assets of UAC available to those who are”.

A pdf of their presentation can be found HERE.

Over the last few years we have received calls from a variety of people asking where they could buy new MAFFS units or arrange for maintenance or parts for existing systems. So there may be a market for new MAFFS and even the Aero Union P-3s.

There are varying reports of how much work and how many dollars would be needed to bring the eight aircraft back into flyable shape. Six of them were still being used on fires when the U.S. Forest Service cancelled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed. Shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees and eventually sold all of their assets to a bank.

United Aeronautical buys Aero Union P-3 air tankers

Aero Union P-3
Aero Union P-3 taking off from Fox Field in 2007. Photo by Alan Radecki.

Fire Aviation has learned that the eight P-3 Orion air tankers formerly owned by Aero Union have been purchased by a company that primarily deals in supplying and overhauling spare parts for aircraft. United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC), headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought the aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company financial problems. 

The first attempt to sell Aero Union’s assets occurred February 28, 2012, at an auction. While some of the spare parts and other equipment sold, the eight aircraft did not.

It is not clear what UAC is going to do with the P-3s, but being a spare parts and manufacturing facility, it is doubtful they will be operating them as air tankers. UAC owns and operates an active aircraft yard next to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon (at 32.147513° -110.855944°), so the aircraft could be parted out or preserved in long term storage like dozens of S2 aircraft at UAC’s facility. CAL FIRE has 23 S2 air tankers in their air tanker fleet. Davis-Monthan is the facility where thousands of military aircraft go to die become mothballed. Or, in the case of the almost new C-27Js that have been flown there recently, they can be stored until they are transferred to another government agency.

UAC bought other inventory formerly owned by Aero Union, including spare parts packages and ground support items. They also acquired at least some of the intellectual property rights for the Mobile Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS), a self contained aerial firefighting system that can be loaded into the cargo holds of C-130 aircraft. Aero Union built both generations of the MAFFS under contract for the U.S. Forest Service, beginning with the first ones in the early 1970s and the second generation, called MAFFS2, first used on a fire July 15, 2010.

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne
MAFFS2 unit in a C-130 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, showing the two-person loadmaster crew. May 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Eight of the MAFFS2s are used by Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units when needed and called up by the USFS in a surge capacity when the small remaining fleet of large air tankers under contract to the agency are overwhelmed by wildfire activity.

P-3s at McClellan AFB
P-3s at McClellan AFB, Oct. 6, 2012. Google Earth.

Aero Union began in Redding, California in 1960 as Western Air Industries, changed the name to Aero Union, and moved to Chico in 1964. They began acquiring military surplus P-3 Orion aircraft in 1990, beginning with two and later increasing the total to eight. In 2005 a group of investors in the Seattle area bought the company and moved it to the former McClellan Air Force Base at Sacramento in 2010.

Under the new management Aero Union began laying off their staff, which degraded the organizational structure necessary for maintaining the aircraft, built between 1962 and 1965. The U.S. Forest Service canceled their air tanker contract with Aero Union in July of 2011, saying safety inspections were not being completed, and shortly after that the company laid off most of their employees. At the time of the cancellation six of the P-3s were still under contract and being used regularly on wildfires. Today, seven of them are at McClellan and an eighth is in Canada where it was undergoing maintenance when the company shut down.

Air Spray signs contract with CAL FIRE

Air Spray Tanker 482, an L-188, at Chico, California. September 13, 2013.
Air Spray Tanker 482, an L-188, at Chico, California. September 13, 2013.

Air Spray, an air tanker company with headquarters in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, has received a Call When Needed contract from CAL FIRE for an L-188 Electra “Long Liner” air tanker. The company flew Tanker 482 down to California last week, Chico and later McClennan, to get the aircraft and pilots carded by CAL FIRE. The flight crew will be evaluated by CAL FIRE this week.

Air Spray will leave the L-188 at Chico until the weather turns, and when activated on the CWN contract, they will fly a crew down from Red Deer. They may add up to three more L-188s to the contract when the air tankers are released from their Canadian contracts.

Air Spray also operates Turbo Commander 690 “Bird Dogs” or lead planes, as well as some charter aircraft.

The L-188’s air frame is virtually the same as the P-3, a maritime patrol aircraft which has also seen service in its later years as an air tanker; the L-188 has been called a P-3 with windows. Both of them carry about 3,000 gallons of retardant.

Last year Air Spray established a new United States base at Chico and announced that they had acquired a BAe-146 airliner which they would convert into an air tanker in the new facility.

They hired several workers who had previously worked for the now bankrupt Aero Union. Seven of Aero Union’s P-3 air tankers have been parked at McClellan for over a year, with an eighth in Canada. They are still owned by the bank, unsold, due to the very high cost of putting them back into flyable shape. The rumors that the P-3s have been scrapped are not true.

 

Thanks go out to Johnny, Walt, and Jerome.

USFS Chief Tidwell wants to install MAFFS units in the C-27Js

In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chief of the Forest Service Tom Tidwell said the agency hopes to obtain the C-27J aircraft that the Air Force may decide to declare surplus, and the USFS would outfit them with scaled down versions of the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) tank systems that are used in military C-130s. When asked, he said the C-27Js would hold 1,800 gallons of retardant in the MAFFS unit. When used in C-130s, the systems can carry up to 3,000 gallons, during favorable density altitude and fuel load conditions.

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne
MAFFS unit in Cheyenne, showing the 2-person loadmaster crew. May 7, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Some would say that choosing a MAFFS design rather than a conventional gravity powered tanking system is misguided. The retardant in a MAFFS is pumped out by a complex compressed air system and the delivery has been criticized as not being able to penetrate tree canopy as well as a gravity system. A MAFFS would have a much lower retardant capacity since it requires an air compressor, tanks for compressed air, and a complex system of additional valves and piping. All of that extra equipment means less capacity for carrying retardant. It also requires two loadmasters, in addition to the two or three person air crew, to operate the MAFFS, doubling the personnel cost.

I just don’t see the advantage of installing a MAFFS unit in a government-owned air tanker rather than a conventional gravity system. It holds less retardant and does a less than desirable job of retarding the spread of a timber fire.

Sure, you would be able to remove the MAFFS and use the plane for hauling cargo in about a day, but how often during the winter does the USFS need seven cargo planes? It could be used during fire season to haul firefighters, smokejumpers, and fire equipment, but then that makes it unavailable as an air tanker. So you’re either going to use it for hauling stuff, or as an air tanker, but not both.

It should be relatively simple to scale down an Aero Union gravity tank, which has been tested, approved, and used for decades in C-130s, to fit into a C-27J.

Coulson is using an Aero Union designed tank, slightly modified, for the C-130Q they are building right now in San Bernardino. The tank has wheels, and Britt Coulson told Fire Aviation that they can install or remove the tank in about 30 minutes, making it available to haul cargo.

More information about Chief Tidwell’s testimony about air tankers on Wednesday.