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

MAFFS unit in Cheyenne

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.

12 thoughts on “USFS Chief Tidwell wants to install MAFFS units in the C-27Js”

  1. Forget the C 27J program operated by the Feds and their bug sprayers (MAFFS). Let private industry continue to rise to the needs of protecting our natural resources. A C 27J with MAFFS would be a “fuel specific” air tanker, effective only in grass and light brush fuel types. The cost of this program would be more than contracting FIVE (5) VLAT’s annually!

    1. Modifying C-27’s for a gravity system in the same way that Coulson is modifying their C-130 would seem to be the most effective use of the platform. Not only in terms of potential retardant capacity, but also with regard to complexity. The more complex the system, the more that can and will go wrong with it. Maintenance down time with a MAFFS-type system will always be greater than just about any other alternative.

      The only question I have when it comes to modifying a C-27 for gravity delivery, is whether there are any aircraft subsystems (hydraulics, electrical, etc.) under the floor that would make such a modification much more difficult and costly. That likely isn’t a problem, but I wonder what their reasoning is for preferring a MAFFS system?

      As for the crew requirement, I suspect the design of the MAFFS II system accounted for the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units’ desire keep the same crew complement, and thus keep their crews happy (and paid). There is no reason for having two loadmasters with the new system other than to artificially keep the same crew ratios in each C-130 unit for the added money that brings. If the USFS were to redesign the system for the C-27, I could easily envision a three-man crew as standard. That’s still more than any other commercially operated tanker, but less than that required for the current generation MAFFS C-130’s.

      Bottom line, there are many ways to skin a cat, but it sure seems like a mini-MAFFS system would be foolish. That platform could make a fantastic tanker, if they did it right.

      1. Good points, Jason. Minden, when converting their BAe-146, found that in order to cut a hole in the bottom of the aircraft for the tank doors, they had to re-route hydraulic lines and other components.

        1. Yep…sometimes the hardest way is the only way. It’s been a long row to hoe, but I think the tuff choice will pay off in the form of a great product.

    2. The gov’t owned, contractor operated concept is not a great idea. The FS has been stymied by political will with no proper funding for not only a quality aerial suppression program (as evidenced by previous administrations and congresses’ apathy towards modernizing the air tanker fleet) but also to increase engine and hot shot crews nationally. It’s time for Congress to stop penny pinching fire fighting to in capability.

      Heard from more than one source last summer that they were not convinced that Neptune’s (T-40) pressurized tank system delivered retardant effectively.

      1. I’m not quite sure what the tank design is because Neptune won’t let certain crews see their tank, but I don’t think it’s a pressurized tank. It’s a gravity tank that utilizes cabin pressure to aid the flow…pressure assisted.

      2. The govt. owned, contractor operated vision has a pretty good working model that the Forest Service could rely upon…. the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (yes their TRUE name) aka as “CAL FIRE”.

        Just my 2 cents.

  2. I’m with Johnny C on this one.

    Sounds to me like Tidwell is playing PR politics, with maybe a little of empire-building…it isn’t about how functional a solution is, but more that the federal govt is being seen as “doing something” (where have we heard that before?).

    Your average Joe doesn’t know or understand, or even care, about canopy penetration or 1800 gallons vs. density-altitude, but he understands a multi-engine plane spewing red stuff over a threatening fire, and has reason to cheer and say “that there’s a good use of my tax money.”

    1. There is, as I understand, floor issue with the C-27J. systems and
      structure are in the way. But this is just from someone who flew them
      in the “Stan” .. I agree with the above comments..
      A mini MAFFS is not going to be a Panacea. period..

  3. If the C-27’s must be used, then how about considering using the legacy MAFFS I units. Or a modification of them to make them fit in C-27 (if that’s possible). They were 10,000 # units empty when used in the C-130 but they are 5000 # lighter than the MAFFS II units and still can hold 3000 gal. Although, they will require ground air compressor units and are not gravity drop systems, but with two nozzles out the ramp, they have a wider swath and decent coverage. Also, they are already paid for and are in storage. The MAFFS I units were in the good condition and had been mostly reworked prior to us turning them in for the MAFFS II units.

  4. GOCO works real well: CalFire !

    COCO works too: Oregon contracting Butler’s DC7’s

    Maffs don’t work: too thin, too light. Just ok for light fuel.

    gravity/Constant flow..Rads is the only efficient drop system. Period.

    Iinitial Attack works: each State should have their own IA fleet.

  5. Tidwell needs to sit down with each one of theses operators and I mean handle the tools, work side by side with the mechanics and pilots for ONE solid week of training……then take those folks from USFS contracting and get them into the hot sun and hangars for a little one on one with the aviation professionals of the world……..

    That education in itself would show, maybe to a few, what the world is really like out there, outside of the 4 wall environment!!

    THEN and only then will the Beltway trained folks understand the true depth of these operations

    Educable and trainable…not necessarily the same words in DC

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