MAFFS units called up to assist with northwest fires


MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne, April 30, 2014, MAFFS numbers 0, 1, and 3

Two Department of Defense C-130s have been called up to help fight massive fires in Washington state and Oregon, the National Interagency Fire Center announced on Saturday morning.

Read more about the northwest fires from Wildfire Today. 

The two planes, equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS), were deployed from the 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne. The portable retardant units loaded onto the C-130s can carry up to 3,000 gallons of retardant. They can discharge their entire load in a matter of seconds.

The MAFFS units will initially be based in Boise.

Read more about the MAFFS units from Fire Aviation.


USFS C-130 air tankers projected to be retrofitted by FY 2018

Coast Guard C-130H No 1719

A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1719, one of the aircraft to be transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service. Photo taken October, 2008 by Rico Leffanta.

The seven C-130 aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the U.S. Forest Service are expected to be converted to air tankers by Fiscal Year 2018, which begins October 1, 2017. Chief of the USFS, Tom Tidwell, provided this information in a brief update on the retrofitting project Tuesday morning in a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In addition to the lengthy delay in outfitting the aircraft to fight fires, Chief Tidwell said the earliest even one of them will be available to firefighters will be late in 2015. And by then that single aircraft will not have been fitted with a conventional internal gravity-based tank system, but it will be saddled with a 3,000-gallon slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Most firefighters will tell you that retardant converted to a mist by the pressurized MAFFS equipment is not as effective as a conventional gravity-based retardant tank system in suppressing fires, especially in penetrating tree canopy.

In the hearing today Colorado Senator Mark Udall brought up the C-130 subject when he asked the Chief if he was concerned about the progress of the retrofitting project. Chief Tidwell said he will remain concerned until he sees them flying over fires. He did not say why the conversions are going to take four years.

For anyone who has been looking forward to the seven C-130s bolstering the atrophied air tanker fleet, this is disappointing news.

In January a spokesperson for Senator John McCain, the Senator who wrote the amendment that requires the transfer of the aircraft, said two of the seven C-130Hs would not require major maintenance and could be available as air tankers in 2014 after they are converted to air tankers. The other five may need extensive work, including replacement of the wing boxes which can take 10 months in addition to programmed depot maintenance which takes 6 to 7 months. In January we wrote about the wing box replacement and other maintenance that will have to be completed on the aircraft.


Update on Forest Service C-130 air tankers


The paint design that has been approved by the Forest Service for the seven C-130s that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the Forest Service.

It will probably be a year before any of the seven C-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard, to the Air Force, and finally to the Forest Service will be seen dropping retardant on a fire. Tom Harbour told us last month that he expects at least one to be flying by 2015.

The aircraft all need various levels of maintenance and it is thought that at least five will have to have the wing boxes replaced, a 10-month project that costs around $7 million each. Then the retardant systems will be installed. The Air Force, the agency overseeing the work on the aircraft, is expected to issue a solicitation for bids on the retardant system within the next two to three months. The Forest Service is working with the Air Force to write the specifications, which will reflect some of the language in the existing air tanker contracts, and information that the agencies have learned about retardant systems over the last 50 years.

The Forest Service is partnering with the Coast Guard for training and higher level, or Depot level, maintenance for the C-130s. The discussions within the Forest Service have been that the logistics, support, routine maintenance, and pilots for the C-130s would be provided by contractors, making it a government-owned/contractor-operated (GO/CO) program.

But no solicitations have been issued for these services. The Forest Service’s recent track record for awarding aerial firefighting contracts can lead one to an assumption that contracts for a GO/CO operation will not be awarded any time soon. Three USFS air tanker contracts have been officially protested in the last two years. Two of those were sustained by the GAO — the recent sole source contract and the original attempt to issue contracts for next-gen air tankers, while the third, filed by Neptune, was dropped five months before the company received the sole source award in December.

It could take longer to award the contracts than to refurbish and retrofit the C-130s. We would be very surprised if it happens by the end of this year.

After the contracts are signed, it could take quite some time for the contractors to ramp up to procure equipment, and to hire pilots, mechanics, and other employees to provide the services. If the pilots have no air tanker experience or qualifications, that will be another issue that has to be overcome. However, there is probably a large pool of ex-Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve C-130 pilots. Some of them may even have prior Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) experience. In fact, Coulson has hired several pilots with MAFFS experience to fly their recently converted C-130Q air tanker.

The good news is that it is much easier to find and hire a C-130 pilot with recent experience than it is to find a P2V pilot that has flown the aircraft recently.


Annual MAFFS training at Cheyenne

MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne

MAFFS aircraft at Cheyenne, April 30, 2014, MAFFS numbers 0, 1, and 3

Yesterday I visited the Wyoming Air National Guard facility at Cheyenne Regional Airport during the annual training and certification/recertification for the Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) units from Cheyenne, Wyoming and Charlotte, North Carolina. Each unit supplies two C-130H3 aircraft that can carry the 3,000-gallon fire retardant system when they are needed to help suppress wildfires, supplementing the United States’ atrophied fleet of large air tankers which has declined from 44 in 2002 to 9 this year.

The training includes classroom and airborne sessions, actually dropping, in this case, water, however, very strong winds required cancellation of the practice drops Wednesday. They hope the weather improves so they can get off the ground today.

MAFFS unit

Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard stands at the rear of a MAFFS unit inside a C-130H3. Loadmasters sit in the two chairs to the right of Col. Brown. The retardant is pumped out of the pipe in the lower half of the orange paratroop door. The upper pipe in the door allows outside air to enter the tank as the retardant exits, if compressed air is not used to push the retardant out of the tank.

MAFFS unit Alan Brown

Lt. Col. Alan Brown, of the Wyoming Air National Guard, is seen near the two air compressors at the front end of a MAFFS unit. If the compressors are working properly, which is not always the case, it takes about 30 minutes to refill the two compressed air tanks, which push the retardant out of the tanks. A specially-built ground-based air compressor sometimes meets the MAFFS aircraft at their temporary base and can refill the tanks in about 14 minutes.

Lt. Col. Alan Brown

Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard holds a MAFFS retardant release control.

In the photo above and the video below, Lt. Col. Alan Brown of the Wyoming Air National Guard shows and explains how a hand-held control can be used by the loadmasters in a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tanker to release the 3,000 gallons of fire retardant, if for some reason the pilots, who normally trigger the release with an identical controller, are unable to perform that function. The video was filmed by Bill Gabbert for on April 30, 2014 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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Deicing an air tanker

Deicing MAFFS 8 Cheyenne

Deicing MAFFS 8 at Cheyenne. @AEGMAFFS photo.

That is something you don’t see every day — deicing an air tanker. Some overnight snow at Cheyenne required deicing on the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or MAFFS, air tankers that are in Wyoming for training, certification, and recertification this week. C-130s from Charlotte, NC, and the base at Cheyenne are participating. These National Guard units each provide two C-130s, a portion of the eight that can be called up nationwide, if the atrophied United States air tanker fleet, down to nine now, needs supplemental aircraft. 

Ground MAFFS training at Cheyenne

Ground training for MAFFS crews at Cheyenne, April 28, 2014. AEGMAFFS photo.


Robins Air Force Base supports MAFFS aircraft


MAFFS Cheyenne

A MAFFS unit inside a MAFFS 8, a Charlotte, North Carolina Air National Guard C-130 at Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 5, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We ran across the following article in an Air Force newsletter published June 21, 2013 at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.


Robins supports fire suppression capabilities

jenny.gordon at

While the Black Forest, Colo., fire was small when it started June 11, it eventually scorched more than 14,000 acres and took the work of more than 600 people to get it under control.

The Air Force was among those listed to help.

It’s efforts included the use of the U.S. Forest Service-owned program known as MAFFS, or Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system that fits inside special C-130 aircraft without requiring structural modification, which allows them to be loaded quickly.

At the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, one of its missions is programmed depot maintenance of C-130s. In all, four Air Force units have aircraft equipped with the firefighting system, including the 302nd Airlift Wing, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.

The MAFFS program is supported in another way at Robins by way of engineering support and troubleshooting.

“Our responsibility is to ensure the air-worthiness and safety of the C-130s using the MAFFS system,” said Barry Bunn, Tactical Airlift Division chief engineer.

That responsibility includes making sure the equipment is safe and in proper working condition, including its tubing and tanks.

A small team of engineers here can go out to an aircraft to test the equipment, but most of the oversight is done through up-front design reviews and testing which ensures the system can operate safely and is properly secured within the plane.

A recent example of a project was the addition of grounding wires to the MAFFS-equipped C-130s. When fire retardant is discharged out of the system, a nozzle extends. To err on the safe side, previous restrictions had been placed on how close a plane could fly to a thunderstorm. This is important because there are times when a plane may have to fly near a storm in order to quickly get to a fire.

The new grounding wires now provide additional safety measures which allow the aircraft to safely fly closer to storms as needed.

Robins also successfully performed a permanent modification to radios that are used on the aircraft when communicating with emergency personnel and Forest Service.

The project involves 32 aircraft, and provides a standardized installation, according to Robert Siperko, C-130 Modification program manager.

Aircraft that use MAFFS will soon be equipped with the same layout for all radios; all the wiring will be the same and radios will be installed in the same location.

Two Air Force Reserve Command C-130s and air crews from the 302nd Airlift Wing supported the Colorado firefighting efforts out of Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., earlier this month.


Air Force evaluates MAFFS activity in 2013

MAFFS and Chinook on Black Forest Fire June 12, 2013

Military aircraft, a C-130 MAFFS and an Army CH-47 Chinook, work the Black Forest Fire at Colorado Springs, June 12, 2013. Photo by Travis Leland.

The Air Force held a three-day after action review earlier this month to evaluate the use of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, or “MAFFS”-equipped C-130 aircraft in their fire suppression role this year. Below is a report from Mary McHale, AFNORTH Public Affairs.


12/10/2013 – TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Representatives from across the United States wildfire fighting enterprise met for a three-day after action review of the 2013 season Dec. 3-5 at the Heritage Club at Tyndall AFB, Fla.

During his opening remarks welcoming the group, Lt. Gen. William Etter, CONR- 1 AF (AFNORTH) commander, praised their efforts of the past season and encouraged the participants to engage in candid conversations about how to improve current practices and procedures.

“This meeting is really needed because this is such an important mission,” Etter said. “It’s vital we continue to refine our lessons learned and this gathering is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

According to Col. Al Wimmer, A3 director, this was one of the busiest modular airborne firefighting season in 41 years of operations.

“This After Action Review is a vital step in closing out the season for MAFFS,” said Wimmer. “The team in attendance not only captured lessons but applied them in the form of revised publications, orders and deployment plans for the upcoming season. The Air Component often acts as the central point of focus, bringing together many different groups from the whole of government to make a mission happen for the American people.”

After the initial greetings, participants broke into working groups for the rest of the meeting to study and discuss those lessons learned and develop a way ahead for the 2014 season.

“It was three days packed full of activities and hard work from everyone,” Lt. Col. Dawn Junk, meeting facilitator from the AFNORTH Operations Directorate. “The results of everyone’s hard work produced positive way aheads.”

At the outbrief for Etter, she presented those way aheads. Primary among them was using incident awareness and assessment assets during an event because there’s such a large variety of variables that apply to their use.

“We studied this carefully and determined we need to come up with a systematic, across the board process to present this option,” Junk said. “We want to develop a concept of operations that clearly presents the capabilities of an IAA asset, no matter its source or whether it’s manned or unmanned.”

Other group accomplishments included reviewing the AFNORTH operational order and training requirements as well as examining the financial elements of the season.