New MAFFS units

Loadmaster Bill Whitlatch operates a new MAFFS 2 unit aboard a C-130J aircraft Tuesday with the Channel Islands Air National Guard. Photo by Stephen Osman, Ventura County Star.

The U. S. Forest Service has accepted the delivery and started training with two new Mobile Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, MAFFS, which will be used in C-130 aircraft operated by the Air National Guard based at Port Hueneme, California. In development by Aero Union since 2000, the two units are the first of a total of eight new systems, called “MAFFS 2” that should be delivered and ready for firefighting by May. These will replace the older units that have been used for a very long time.

The MAFFS 2 are designed to be rolled into the back of C-130 aircraft and hold about 3,000 3,400 gallons of retardant.

MAFFS II air tanker tank
The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) II tank is displayed for the local media during the MAFFS 2008 annual certifying training at Channel Islands Air Guard Station, Calif., May 7, 2008. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen.

Some of the changes in the design include:

  • The nozzles, instead of exiting out the rear loading dock, are routed through a sealed portal (a modified paratrooper door) on the plane’s left side. This makes it possible for the plane to be pressurized; in addition, the crew and the rear door will no longer be soaked by the retardant.
  • The old and new MAFFS use compressed air to pump the retardant out of the tanks. The old system required that the aircraft land to be pressurized by a dedicated air compressor system at a MAFFS base. The new system has on-board air compressors, which will enable the C-130’s to reload the retardant at any air tanker base and refill the air tank on the fly, so to speak. It takes 35 minutes to recharge the compressed air tank after a drop.
  • The retardant is pumped out under greater pressure and velocity. That feature, and the reconfigured side nozzle will result in a denser stream of retardant which will hopefully penetrate timber canopy better than the original systems. This may make it feasible for the pilots to fly higher and faster, adding an additional margin of safety. Pilots hate flying slow and low over mountainous terrain.
  • The new system delivers retardant at twice the coverage rate of the older systems, at “coverage level 8”, or 8 gallons of fluid per 100 square feet, which is the maximum required by the U. S. Forest Service.
  • There is one report that claims the new system holds 400 more gallons, but that is not yet now confirmed. UPDATE: The new single-tank system will hold 3,400 gallons.

MAFFS are operated out of four three Air National Guard bases in California, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Carolina, and a Reserve base in Colorado. ¬†Each unit has two MAFFS, however the base in California has not flown any MAFFS for 2 years since the unit upgraded from C-130E’s to J models, which cannot accommodate the original MAFFS. The new units can be used in either C-130 model.

There has been heavy criticism during the last 2 years from politicians and others about the inability of the California C-130’s to use the MAFFS.

The aircraft can be requested by the U. S. Forest Service after it is confirmed that all commercial air tankers are committed. It takes about 24 hours to configure a C-130 to utilize a MAFFS.

Photo of an older MAFFS dropping the retardant out of the rear door. Air Force photo, by Staff Sgt. Alex Koenig.

The U.S. Forest Service has a web site with information about the development of a MAFFS 2 prototype, but it has not been updated since July, 2006.