By Richard L. Hilderbrand
The Modular Airborne Firefighting System (MAFFS) program is a joint effort between the US Forest Service and Department of Defense (DoD). The USFS owns the MAFFS equipment and supplies the retardant, while the Department of Defense has provided the C-130 aircraft, pilots, maintenance, and support personnel to fly the missions since the 1970s.
The current MAFFS II is configured for deployment using the C-130 aircraft, with installation requiring less than an hour. The system carries up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant which can be discharged using 1,200 PSI air pressure in a matter of seconds. The system can provide a fire line 60 or more feet wide and about a quarter mile long.
The USFS had used bulk retardant drops from older aircraft; however, improved dispersal systems did not exist and the USFS had a continuing need to provide assistance to ground personnel on a fire, especially for initial attack. At the same time, the A/A45Y-1 spray equipment was in use in Vietnam during Operation Ranch Hand. In April 1970, the DoD suspended the use of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) herbicide, due to the presence of the toxic contaminant dioxin in the defoliant. In addition, in 1973 the Paris Peace Accord ended direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These events left military spray equipment looking for a mission.
The search for a mission led to a proposal by FMC (previously Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation) that the DoD spray equipment be modified for use by the USFS to drop retardant in wildfire suppression. In 1971 Arnold Adams (equipment development specialist for FMC) met with Jim Hickman (USFS, Washington Office, Division of Aviation and Fire Management) as staff liaison for equipment development. Numerous meetings and review of the existing spray equipment at FMC in San Jose, CA, followed to determine applicability to wildfire use. With positive initial evaluation by Hickman and Adams, the proposal was elevated through USFS, Department of Agriculture, USAF, and DoD. A meeting of senior officials was held at the Pentagon for a complete review and the program was given final and unanimous approval by the Departments.
Following the initial proposal and production of the first MAFFS unit by FMC, the USFS turned to Aero Union Corp. for the manufacture of the operational MAFFS. On October 17, 1972, Dale Newton of Aero Union Corporation of Chico, CA, was awarded patent 3,698,480 on the basic MAFFS type system. This included the method and apparatus for retardant use from a large capacity main slurry storage coupled by means of fluid transfer pipes to a lower capacity slurry dispensing tank positioned aft of the main tank in the doorway of the aircraft’s cargo doors. This patent envisioned a plane such as the C-130 for operation and using engine operation to provide compressed air to disperse retardant.
Bill Waldman of Aero Union provided the description of the development of the MAFFS to the current configuration. The original MAFFS was in four components to be loaded individually with filling and pressurization being completed on the ground. The compressor was driven by a VW engine and took many minutes of ground time to charge. Support bases were selected, equipment gathered, and pilot training on operational procedures of wildfire suppression was conducted. USFS pilots, several of whom were ex-military, and contractor pilots were utilized. Much of the training was done at the USFS National Training center at Marana, AZ. The MAFFS era had begun!
An improvement of equipment by Aero Union led to a diesel engine for air compression and a trailer with all four components to be loaded as a single unit to the C-130. Due to air and retardant characteristics the original design created more of a mist than a liquid dispersion that exited directly out of the aft ramp. Major modifications were needed to achieve the dispersal of the dense retardant as a liquid by pressurized air with nozzles exiting the ramp and pointing downward from the aft ramp of the C-130. Aero Union designed and produced the MAFFS II which is in current use. Nine units were produced with two assigned to each MAFFS-capable military unit and one spare, of which one was lost in the crash of MAFFS #7. MAFFS II was designed with one discharge nozzle exiting the aircraft from the left jump door, full capability to charge the system in the air, and a capacity of 3000 gallons. In addition, the trailer system was improved to allow rapid loading and unloading of the C-130.
Aero Union also developed a version of a retardant tank known as the Retardant Aerial Delivery System (RADS). Coulson Aviation purchased the intellectual property rights to RADS-1 in 2012 and has improved the RADS system, making several versions including the 4,000-gallon RADS-XXL and claim a 1600 gallon/second dispersal rate and reduced equipment weights.
A private company, United Aeronautical Corporation (UAC) headquartered in North Hollywood, California, bought P-3 aircraft from Comerica Bank which acquired Aero Union’s assets following the company’s financial problems. UAC then partnered with Blue Aerospace to market the P-3s. Steve Benz, the Blue Aerospace Vice President for Business Development, said UAC and Blue Aerospace now have the Aero Union intellectual property for both generations of the MAFFS and the second-generation RADS, RADS2, a gravity assisted, constant-flow retardant tank system which has been successfully used in air tankers. To handle the MAFFS and RADS2 business, the two companies formed an organization named MAFFS Corp. They provide parts and service for existing MAFFS units, and are manufacturing new MAFFS II systems. (For more information on the MAFFS II see Ten things to know about MAFFS military air tankers.)
CRASH OF MAFFS 7
An unfortunate event in the history of MAFFS was the crash of MAFFS 7, at the time operated by the North Carolina Air National Guard. The C-130 crashed on the White Draw Fire, July 1, 2012, as the result of a microburst of turbulent air out of a thunderstorm. A plane on a previous drop had lost air speed but had recovered and the lead plane for the drop that crashed had been pushed within ten feet of the ground. The investigation also determined that other contributing factors were the failure of the lead plane and air attack aircrews to provide adequate operational guidance on the approach to the drop. A significant characteristic is that while many retardant aircraft can “jettison” a load, the C-130 MAFFS are limited to dispersing the load which requires more time and distance than a jettison.
USFS pilot Bill Allred was a frequent lead plane pilot and describes the role of the lead plane as essential for MAFFS flights for safety, efficiency, and economy. The following is Allred’s description of the operation of the lead plane when flying with MAFFS C-130s:
The USAF pilots are in a foreign world and talk a different language than the fire fighters. The MAFFS pilots depend on the lead plane to communicate how to enter the congestion of the fire traffic area and provide headings, escape routes and where to make the retardant drop. The lead plane also communicates with the ground to be prepared for the MAFFS aircraft. In addition, the lead plane frequently picks up the MAFFS when they approach the fire and leads the MAFFS planes over the drop area. The economy is that the expensive retardant planes, such as the MAFFS and the supertankers, are best used to transport retardant from a base to the fire. Any minutes spent loitering over a fire is not only a safety concern but is tremendously expensive per minute. Most MAFFS pilots are comfortable with formation flying and follow close behind the lead plane.
The first lead planes were T-28s or T-34s that had been obtained from military surplus. The planes were replaced with Beechcraft Barons and then King Air Turbine aircraft. The first USFS lead plane pilot was Gar Leyva who was always identified as “Lead 1” while other pilots were identified by aircraft tail number or an assigned identifier.
AN OVERSEAS MISSION
Allred recounts that two MAFFS aircraft of the Wyoming ANG and 24 personnel were sent to Indonesia in October 1997 for six weeks to provide support during an extreme fire season. Farmers were accustomed to burning for agricultural purposes but in this particularly dry year the fires went up the hills and out of control. MAFFS liaison plus USFS personnel including two lead plane pilots and MAFFS mechanics flew commercial air to meet the MAFFS C-130s. The MAFFS met the crew members in Surabaya, East Java, where water drops were successful in firefighting. Initial water drops only had access to water sources which proved to be corrosive to the aircraft and retardant was eventually shipped to Indonesia for use. MAFFS resources were then moved to Jakarta for additional missions. Attempts at drops in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, which was a two-hour flight one-way from Jakarta were prevented by dense smoke. A US Navy pilot in a King Air had flown an undersecretary-of-state to Borneo to watch those missions. Efforts were then directed to South Sumatra, where the MAFFS were successful in suppressing fires around settlements and in Way Kambas National Park. The actual contribution of the retardant drops to control the massive fires is uncertain; however, the press was good and reports of the great success of the mission were returned through the chain-of-command and, purportedly, to the White House briefing room.
The Air Force Reserve operates a pair of MAFFS C-130 aircraft with personnel out of the 302 Airlift Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, and three Air National Guard units in Wyoming, Nevada, and California each provide two. These are the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, Cheyenne; the 152th Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard, Reno; and the 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard, Port Hueneme. The MAFFS provide a surge fire-fighting capability – a service that has been used frequently in recent years in support of ground personnel.
The MAFFS can be activated when commercial air tankers are stretched thin and upon the request from the the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID. The six National Guard aircraft can also be activated by the Governors of the three states in which they are based. The MAFFS operating plan can be found at fs.usda.gov.
The MAFFS program is a very visible and beneficial program for the departments involved and presents an exceptional opportunity as a cooperative effort with favorable public relations for all involved.
Richard Hilderbrand, Ph.D., was a Smokejumper in the mid 1960’s and is a Life Member of the National Smokejumper Association. He was on fires in the Northwest US and Alaska. He has personally seen TBM aircraft return with tops of trees in their wings and has seen retardant drops from many aircraft. He has jumped from a Ford Tri-motor, DC-2, DC-3, Twin Beech, Grumman Goose and other jump aircraft. Special thanks are due to Jim Hickman, Bill Ruskin, Bill Allred, Bill Waldman, Bill Gabbert, and Steve Whitby for their contributions and review! In addition, I thank the many websites referenced in the text for their information; however, any errors are the responsibility of the author.