Colombia begins a MAFFS program

Above:  A Colombian Air Force C-130H makes a water drop at Apiay Air Force Base in Colombia, March 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Colombia is now on the list of countries that are using Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) to help firefighters on the ground.

Yesterday, March 29, in a ceremony at Apiay Air Force Base near Villavicencio the Colombian government officially took possession of a new MAFFS II retardant delivery system. A C-130 with the new hardware made two demonstration drops with water in front a crowd of dignitaries, many of whom made speeches, including Colombia’s Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas Echeverri.

Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas Echeverri
Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas Echeverri speaks at the MAFFS ceremony March 29, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
It is the first of the second generation MAFFS to be sold outside the United States. The U.S. Forest Service has eight MAFFS II’s that can be slipped into a C-130 converting it in a matter of hours to a 3,000-gallon air tanker. 

A private company, MAFFS Joint Venture based in California, purchased the intellectual property from the now bankrupt Aero Union (that designed and built the MAFFS) and is now manufacturing the second generation systems for sale around the world, with the one in Colombia being their first one delivered. Bradford Beck, the President and COO of MAFFS, said they have a second unit in production for an undisclosed buyer.

C-130 Colombia
Colombian C-130 in which the MAFFS was installed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Mr. Beck said there are nine MAFFS 1 units outside the U.S. — Brazil, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey each have two, and there is one in Thailand.

The main differences between the two versions is that the MAFFS II has onboard air compressors, the retardant exits the aircraft through the paratroop door on the left side rather than out the rear cargo ramp, it has the ability to inject foam concentrate, it can produce coverage levels 1 through 8, and it is more controllable for split drops (starting and stopping the flow). The coverage level refers to the number of gallons per 100 square feet.

Colonel Rodrigo Zapata of the Colombian Air Force said the MAFFS unit will primarily be based at the very busy El Dorado International Airport near Bogota at 8,300 feet above sea level, but it can work out of lower elevation airports as needed. They will be installing a fire retardant plant at El Dorado.

Major General Jorge Borbon said the Air Force has been using helicopters with water buckets for decades, but they have never used fixed wing aircraft to drop water or retardant on wildfires.

We have many photos that we will add later, as well as videos of interviews with key players, including the Colombian Minister of Defense.

More air tankers en route to Chile

The extended drought and a siege of wildland fires has brought to light the fact that Chile does not have any large air tankers or an infrastructure for supporting the aircraft. However the bomberos (firefighters) have done an outstanding job creating a very elaborate temporary water system for refilling the 747 SuperTanker at Santiago. Now that the the aircraft has been in the country since January 25 and proven to be a valuable tool in the firefighters toolbox additional air tankers are reportedly enroute to assist those on the ground. Most of the following information is preliminary and subject to change.

Russian Ilyushin IL-76

IL-76TD air tanker
IL-76TD air tanker. Photo by Shahram Sharifi

There is no doubt at least one Russian IL-76 is en route but we have not confirmed the number. It appears there will be two of the planes with a slip-in 11,574-gallon tank (43,812 liters) with each aircraft bringing two helicopters in their cavernous cargo holds. Instead of working out of Santiago along with the 747 it may be based at La Araucanía International Airport, also known as Temuco Airport, in southern Chile.

On July 1, 2016 an IL-76 working on a fire in Russia was reported missing. Two days later the wreckage was found. Ten people died in the crash.

Brazilian MAFFS

maffs c-130
The first version of a MAFFS with retardant exiting out of the rear cargo ramp. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Koenig.

An aviation publication in Chile, TallyHo, is reporting that the Brazilian Air Force is sending a C-130 with a slip-in Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). From the description, it must be a MAFFS Version 1.0 since it has multiple retardant tanks, no built-in air compressor, and the retardant exits through two tubes sticking out of the rear cargo ramp. Brazil is also bringing a second C-130 carrying a compressor and portable water tanks.

(UPDATE 1446 January 30, 2017: the Brazilian C-130’s arrived Sunday and are expected to move to Concepción today.)

Coulson’s Tanker 132

air tanker 132 at Avalon
Air tanker 132 at Avalon during the 2015-2016 Australian fire season.

Coulson’s Tanker 132, an L-382G commercial variant of the C-130 platform, has worked in New South Wales Australia during their last two summer bushfire seasons. Their current contract began September 6, 2016 and was extended for a month and since then has been extended week by week. Amid reports in Chile that T-132 was going to be working in the country, we checked with Britt Coulson who told us that their company has been contacted about sending one of their C-130 class air tankers to Chile but they are still under contract. He said “it’s really heating up in Australia” and it seems unlikely they will release them. The company’s Tanker 131, a C-130Q, is also under contract in Australia, in Victoria.

Air-Cranes

There has also been talk about bringing in Air-Crane helicopters, but nothing is confirmed yet.

MAFFS transferred from North Carolina to Nevada

loading MAFFS
Airmen of the North Carolina Air National Guard load the Modular Airborne FireFighting System into a C-130 belonging to the Nevada Air National Guard. Photo September 7, 2016 by 1st Lt Monica Ebert.

Earlier this month in Charlotte the 145th Airlift Wing of the North Carolina Air National Guard finalized the transfer of their Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) mission to the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing. On September 7 the equipment was loaded into a C-130 from Nevada Air National Guard and arrived at Reno the next day.

The previous week the Nevada Airlift Wing had completed its first training activation operating the U.S. Forest Service’s MAFFS. The other MAFFS units are at Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Channel Islands in California.

loading MAFFS
Airmen of the North Carolina Air National Guard load the door to the Modular Airborne FireFighting System into a C-130 belonging to the Nevada Air National Guard. Photo September 7, 2016 by 1st Lt Monica Ebert.

The USFS has 8 MAFFS units that can be slipped into a C-130 in just a few hours, converting it to a 3,000-gallon air tanker. Usually two of the units are at each of the four bases, but one is now being temporarily used in an HC-130H that was transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.

loading MAFFS
Airmen of the North Carolina Air National Guard load the Modular Airborne FireFighting System into a C-130 belonging to the Nevada Air National Guard. Photo September 7, 2016 by 1st Lt Monica Ebert.
maffs nevada
The first 152nd C-130 equipped with U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System arrived September 8, 2016, at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno. The unit completed its first fire fighting mission as co-pilots augmented with the Air Expeditionary Group the previous week. The 152nd was selected to become the new MAFFS unit in April.

Reno Air National Guard unit begins training with MAFFS

Above: The first 152nd C-130 equipped with a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne FireFighting System arrived Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno. The unit completed its first fire fighting mission as co-pilots augmented with the Air Expeditionary Group the previous week. The 152nd was selected to become the new MAFFS unit in April. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Emerson Marcus September 8, 2016.

The Air National Guard unit at Reno completed its first training activation operating the U.S. Forest Service’s Modular Airborne FireFighting System last week and the first of the unit’s C-130s equipped for MAFFS arrived at the base Thursday, September 8.

In April the Reno 152nd Airlift Wing became one of the four bases designated to operate MAFFS units. They are replacing the 145th Airlift Wing of North Carolina that is transitioning from the C-130 to the C-17. The other MAFFS bases are at Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Channel Islands in California.

The USFS has 8 MAFFS units that can be slipped into a C-130 in just a few hours, converting it to a 3,000-gallon air tanker. Usually two of the units are at each of the four bases, but one is now being temporarily used in an HC-130H that was transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.

In recent weeks, 12 aircrew of the 152nd activated as part of the Air Expeditionary Group fighting wildland fires in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.

The AEG – made up of military C-130 units operating MAFFS – flew 142 sorties, 125.5 flight hours, dispensing more than 3.5 million pounds of retardant on 165 drops during the month-long activation that began in early August.

“Nevada crews have fully embraced the MAFFS mission and are committed to getting full up as quickly and safely as possible,” said Col. David Herder, deputy AEG commander. “They have been stepping in to get training with the other units whenever possible. They have been a welcome addition to the MAFFS community.”

This fire season effectively started the 152nd’s co-pilot certification clock. Co-pilot certification could be completed prior to the 2018 fire season when the unit would enter certification as aircrew commanders. Once the aircrew commander certification is complete, they then begin certification as flight instructors and could begin autonomous fire fighting missions.

“The actual drops have been challenging and exhilarating,” said Lt. Col. Tony Machabee, acting 152nd Operations Group commander and the first member of the unit to co-pilot a MAFFS mission. “It’s a great feeling to see your immediate results whether we are dropping a protective line of retardant between the fire and someone’s property or dropping ‘mud’ (retardant mix) directly on flames leaping from the tops of trees in an effort to slow the fire’s progress.”

Two additional MAFFS aircraft activated

The California Governor’s office has activated two Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems aircraft. The C-130s will be supplied by the Channel Islands Air National Guard base in southern California. Earlier this month the National Interagency Fire Center activated two other MAFFS from the Wyoming Air National Guard at Cheyenne. Initially they were staged at Boise.

Governors have the authority to activate MAFFS aircraft within their states at the three Air National Guard bases that have the units at Channel Islands, Reno, and Cheyenne. The Air Force Reserve MAFFS at Colorado Springs is a different story, however.

The just-activated C-130s were expected to be available Wednesday evening and could be used on the 25,000-acre Blue Cut Fire near San Bernardino.

Two military MAFFS air tankers mobilized

MAFFS air tanker
File photo. Members of the  302nd Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado push a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne FireFighting System unit onto a C-130 designated as MAFFS 5, Aug. 2, 2015. It takes about three hours to load and then configure the MAFFS unit in a C-130 aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico)

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho has mobilized two Department of Defense C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne FireFighting Systems (MAFFS) to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in the western United States.

The two C-130 MAFFS will be provided by the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, based out of Cheyenne, and the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The aircraft will initially work out of Boise and are expected to be available to fly wildfire suppression missions by Wednesday, August 3.

MAFFS are intended to supplement the contracted air tanker fleet to provide surge capacity when there are not enough large air tankers to fill the requests from fire incident commanders on going fires and initial attack on emerging fires.

MAFFS are portable fire retardant delivery systems that can be inserted into military C-130 aircraft to convert them into large air tankers which can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant on wildfires.

MAFFS air tanker visits Andrews Air Force Base

Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units can install a Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) in a C-130 in a few hours when a surge capacity of air tankers is needed. But rarely do you see a MAFFS aircraft in the eastern United States.

I was surprised when I ran across the photo below of a MAFFS air tanker at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C.

The 302nd Airlift Wing (Air Force Reserve) at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs sent one of their C-130s outfitted with a MAFFS unit to the Air Force Reserve Command’s ‪‎C-130 Special Mission‬ fly-in at JB Andrews on Wednesday.

MAFFS at Andrews

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Frank.