MAFFS training begins in California

(Updated at 7:49 p.m. MDT, May 3, 2016)

The 146th Airlift Wing posted this video today — slow motion footage of a water drop.


(Originally published at 7:02 a.m. MDT, May 3, 2016)

Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) aircraft and personnel from four bases are gathering this week for their annual training. They are being hosted by the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Ventura County, California, the 146th Airlift Wing. Each base can mobilize two C-130 aircraft with the slip-in fire retardant system. Usually they will send a third C-130 on each deployment with additional equipment and personnel.

Last week the Channel Islands unit tested their MAFFS.

We will update this post during the week as more information becomes available.

MAFFS crews gearing up for annual training

This year the annual certification and refresher training for the Modular FireFighting System (MAFFS) crews from all four Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases will take place at one location, the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Ventura County, California (map) beginning May 1. That will begin the transition for the Reno base that recently became a MAFFS unit, a process that is expected to take three to five fire seasons according to the National Guard Bureau. The other two MAFFS bases (other than Reno and Channel Islands) are at Cheyenne and Colorado Springs.

The 146th Airlift Wing, below, is based at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in southern California.

MAFFS moving from North Carolina to Nevada

Above: MAFFS 8 and 9 at annual training in Cheyenne April 30, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) mission that has been assigned to the North Carolina Air National Guard is being transferred to the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing. The base at Reno-Tahoe International Airport will transition to obtain the ability to supply two C-130s equipped with the slip-in 3,000-gallon retardant tanks. It will be one of the four bases that can each supply up to two C-130s as part of a surge capacity when the privately contracted air tanker fleet is overtaxed. The other three are in Cheyenne, Colorado Springs, and Ventura County California.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Great Falls Tribune:

The North Carolina unit is converting from C-130s to C-17s and that prompted the National Guard to evaluate existing C-130 Air National Guard units for a suitable replacement for the MAFFS mission, according to the National Guard.

The Great Falls Tribune also reports that some Montana politicians were very disappointed that the MAFFS were not relocated into their state. They may be assuming that the location of the units implies suddenly greatly enhanced aerial firefighting resources. But the fact is when they are activated, which can take up to a couple of days, more often than not the aircraft are deployed to a far-away base. However, the governors with MAFFS assigned to their state Air National Guards (California, Wyoming, and now Nevada) have the authority to activate the MAFFS within their states. Other activations require a national-level approval process. The units in Colorado Springs are operated by the Air Force Reserve.

Until the crash of MAFFS 7 on July 1, 2012 there were nine of the slip-in MAFFS units (which included one spare) that can convert a C-130 to an air tanker in a few hours. Now there are eight, and one of those is being used temporarily by the U.S. Forest Service in an HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard. The plan is to use that one unit until conventional gravity-powered retardant delivery systems are installed in at least one of the seven HC-130Hs formerly owned by the Coast Guard. But that process, first started July 29, 2014, is stalled. That means a maximum of only seven military aircraft outfitted with MAFFS units can be activated. In 2015 the North Carolina unit was the base with only one MAFFS.

Lt. Col. Alan Brown inside a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 with a MAFFS unit. Photo by Bill Gabbert, April 30, 2014.
Lt. Col. Alan Brown inside a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130 with a MAFFS unit at Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Bill Gabbert, April 30, 2014.
This year the annual certification and refresher training for the MAFFS crews from all four bases will take place at one location, the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Ventura County, California (map) beginning May 1. That will begin the transition for the Reno-based personnel, a process that is expected to take three to five fire seasons, according to the National Guard Bureau.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean and Dave.

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

Not all Forest Service aircraft are FAA type certified

HC-130H paint design
This is the US Forest Service approved paint design that will be used on the seven HC-130H air tankers acquired from the Coast Guard. The aircraft will be maintained and operated according to Coast Guard guidelines, rather than Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

After the Governor of Montana wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Agriculture complaining about what he called “nonsensical restrictions” that prohibit the use of the state’s five UH-1H helicopters on U.S. Forest Service protected lands, we started looking into the root of the problem. The former military helicopters are actually owned by the USFS, and are leased to the state under the provisions of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program which require that the helicopters be maintained in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. But the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) apparently does not hold FAA Airworthiness Certificates for the helicopters.

However, the USFS does not maintain all of their government owned aircraft in strict compliance with FAA regulations.

When we asked the USFS why the agency does not allow the non-certificated Montana aircraft to be used on USFS lands, Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Jones, told us:

The Forest Service and the State of Montana Department have different standards and regulations to which each must adhere. Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety.

The USFS and the rules governing the loan of FEEP aircraft require the Montana helicopters to be maintained and modified according to FAA standards. Since these requirements are not met, the helicopters can’t be used on USFS fires.

Even though the USFS requires compliance with FAA procedures for their contracted air tankers and helicopters — and the state of Montana’s aircraft — the following USFS aircraft are not FAA certified, nor will they be:

  • Tanker 118, the HC-130H acquired from the Coast Guard that has been dropping retardant on fires this summer using a Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS). Neither the aircraft or the MAFFS have ever been certificated by the FAA.
  • The other six HC-130H aircraft that are being transferred from the Coast Guard to the USFS.
  • Four C-23A Sherpas used for smokejumping and hauling cargo.
  • Two AH-1 Cobra helicopters.
  • The eight MAFFS units used in military C-130s for fighting wildfires, and the modifications made to the C-130s so that they can use the MAFFS.

After the seven HC-130H aircraft are finished with their heavy maintenance and air tanker retrofitting, they will be owned by the USFS and maintained and operated by contractors. But they will not be brought under the FAA umbrella, according to Mrs. Jones:

The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting mission is a Public Use mission in government owned aircraft. The Forest Service maintains airworthiness on Tanker 118 in accordance with Coast Guard maintenance standards, and the Coast Guard maintains engineering authority.

The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130s used to drop retardant with the MAFFS are maintained, modified, and operated according to military procedures.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS solicitation for the Next-generation V. 2.0 air tankers, issued November 26, 2014. From Section C:

Aircraft shall conform to an approved type design, be maintained and operated in accordance with Type Certificate (TC) requirements and applicable Supplemental Type Certificates (STCs). The aircraft shall be maintained in accordance with an FAA approved inspection program and must include an FAA approved Supplemental Structural Inspection Document (SSID), Structural Inspection Document (SID), or Instruction for Continued Airworthiness (ICA) for the airframe structure, as applicable with an ICA and Airworthiness Limitations Section (ALS) approved by the manufacturer (or equivalent) and the FAA for the airtanker role.

The USFS is not the only federal agency operating former military aircraft that bypasses the FAA. Others include the Coast Guard, NASA, and NOAA.

We asked a person in the commercial air tanker industry (who did not want their name disclosed) about the USFS not following FAA procedures:

The FAA governs the largest fleet of commercial aircraft in the world and are looked upon by foreign agencies as the golden standard. They can certify an A380 to pack 700 people but cannot certify a restricted category airtanker? The USFS is hiring a ton of ex-military people who all stick together with their other Air Force buddies and think the military is the be-all-end-all.

I think it would be fair to argue that the FAA knows much more about airtankers than the Air Force or the Coast Guard. The USCG maintenance program is not setup for an airtanker mission profile, nor is the USAF. I talked to the FAA guy who was on all the calls with the USFS about this program and he was in disbelief when they finally made the decision not to have any FAA involvement.

Two additional MAFFS air tankers activated

The National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho has mobilized two additional Department of Defense C-130s equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS).

The 153rd Airlift Wing of the Wyoming Air National Guard based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the 145th Airlift Wing with the North Carolina Air National Guard based in Charlotte, North Carolina will each provide one C-130 equipped MAFFS.

They will join two other MAFFS C-130s that were activated August 2 from the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The two Air National Guard MAFFS from the Channel Islands base in California that were deployed on August 2 have been deactivated.

Photos of activated MAFFS aircraft

MAFFS air tanker
Members of the 39th Aerial Port Squadron along with C-130 loadmasters assigned to the 731st Airlift Squadron push a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System unit onto a 302nd Airlift Wing C-130 [MAFFS 5], Aug. 2, 2015. It takes about three hours to load and then configure the MAFFS unit in a C-130 aircraft. MAFFS units were loaded onto two Air Force Reserve C-130s in response to the U.S. Forest Service MAFFS activation in support of wildland firefighting efforts in California and the Northwestern U.S. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Federico)

The military is always proactive in publicizing their activities when they support fighting wildfires —  which is great. Taxpayers like to see how their money is spent. As expected, photos have been released of the C-130s that have been loaded with the self-contained, transportable firefighting apparatus that can be inserted into the cargo bay of the aircraft in just a few hours. The equipment, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, is called a Modular Airborne FireFighting System.

Four of the C-130s have been activated. Two from the California Air National Guard at Channel Islands, and two from the Air Force Reserve at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

These photo captions were written by military personnel.

MAFFS air tanker
A C-130J Super Hercules, [MAFFS 4]assigned to the California Air National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing, taxis to a reload “pit” to take on nearly 3,000 gallons of fire retardant at McClellan Air Tanker Base in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 4, 2015. The aircrew received a tasking to provide support to the growing Rocky Fire north of San Francisco, which had consumed approximately 65,000 acres as of Aug. 4. The crew was joined by three other C-130s from both the 146th AW and the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Airlift Wing to combat the Rocky Fire. The aircraft contain the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System which allows them to support wildfire containment in conjunction with fire crews on the ground. The 146th AW is based in Channel Islands, while the 302nd AW is stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Stephen J. Collier)

Two additional MAFFS air tankers activated

MAFFS WY ANG nozzle 6-24-2012
Senior Master Sgt. Jack Goeken, loadmaster, 187th Airlift Squadron, Cheyenne, Wyo., prepares to load a U.S. Forest Service Modular Airborne Firefighting System II nozzle onto the troop door connection on a Wyoming Air National Guard C-130, June 24, 2012. Photo by Staff Sgt Natalie Stanley

Minutes after writing that the Governor of California activated the two California National Guard Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFFS) air tankers, we learned that the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise mobilized two additional MAFFS which will be provided by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

They will initially be based in McClellan Airport at Sacramento, California, and are expected to be available to fly wildfire suppression missions beginning Tuesday, August 4. The MAFFS activated from Colorado will supplement two other MAFFS that were activated late last week by the Governor of California from the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard located in Port Hueneme.

This makes a total of four MAFFS that are now or will soon be activated, leaving three more that could be available at bases in Wyoming and North Carolina.

The interagency agreement between the USFS and the Department of Defense requires that MAFFS be operational within 48 hours. However they usually have responded within 36 hours of the initial request.

More about the 2009 introduction of the second generation MAFFS units.