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Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System

In the 1970s, Congress established the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) Program to aid the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. When all other civilian air tankers are activated but further assistance is needed, the Forest Service can request the aid of the U.S. Air Force's MAFFS units.

MAFFS units fit inside C-130 airplanes without requiring structural modification. This allows the units to be loaded on short notice. One Air Force Reserve and three Air National Guard locations participate in the MAFFS Program.

The 302nd Airlift Wing in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the only AF Reserve unit and the Guard units include the 153rd AW in Cheyenne, Wyo., the 145th AW in Charlotte, N.C. and the 146th AW based at Channel Islands, Calif. The 302nd has two of the MAFFS units and the different ANG units have two units each for a total of eight nationwide.

Crews who fly MAFFS missions participate in annual recurrency training. Each wing is required to have five certified crews for each MAFFS unit. The 302nd AW has more than 10 qualified crews.

MAFFS units can drop either water or fire retardant. The retardant is made of 80 to 85 percent water, 10 to 15 percent ammonium sulfate, a jelling agent, and red coloring. The red in the retardant helps pilots see where they have dropped previous loads. Along with retarding the fire, the retardant acts as a fertilizing agent. Because the MAFFS discharges the agent in a mist, the fire retardant does not cause damage to buildings.

It takes approximately two hours to load a MAFFS unit onto the C-130. C-130s drop retardant from an altitude of about 150 feet. A MAFFS unit can discharge its load - 3,000 gallons weighing 28,000 pounds - in less than five seconds. The retardant covers an area one-quarter of a mile long and 60 feet wide. After the plane discharges its load, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

In February 2009, a new generation MAFFS unit was declared fully operational. Known as MAFFS II, the system was evolved into a single-tank platform. This enables MAFFS II to be internally pressurized, reducing the amount of ground support personnel needed as well as allowing more firefighting missions to be flown in any given day.

Other additions to the system include the removal of one of the discharge tubes, as the tubes were reduced in number and moved from the back of the aircraft to the port troop door of the C-130. This reduces the amount of retardant spraying on the tailend of the aircraft, significantly reducing the threat of corrosion to the transport.

The 302nd AW flew the AF Reserve portion of the mission in 1993. Since that time, the 302nd has been called to fight fires every year but one. The longest activation was the summer of 2004 when the wing was called to action on May 23 and released Sept. 9. The 302nd has fought fires in most of the western states, but 2002 was the first year they fought fires in its home state of Colorado.

Reservists from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., deployed to Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station, Calif., in October 2007 in support of wildfires that destroyed homes and displaced thousands of California residents. The 302nd contributed two Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, or MAFFS-equipped C-130 aircraft and associated personnel and equipment. Four other modified C-130 aircraft for MAFFS support came from the 145th AW, Charlotte, North Carolina, and the 153rd AW, Cheyenne, Wyo. Aircrews and maintenance specialists and ground support teams from Peterson logged 27 sorties for a total of 38.2 flying hours. The Peterson crew made 29 air drops during the 14-day operation. Their crews dropped 75, 121 gallons (or 683,601 pounds) of retardant from their (two) C-130 aircraft.

In 2008 the 302nd AW was the lead wing of MAFFS operations. Col. Bob Chapman, Wing Vice Commander was the commander of the 302nd Air Expeditionary Group, leading MAFFS operations in southern California from June 25 through August 5. The 302nd provided 33 percent of the overall aerial fire fighting effort with a record 184 MAFFS sorties, 254.4 flying hours, 188 drops and 4,662,840 pounds of retardant released to contain fires.

MAFFS is a mission that highlights interagency cooperation. The 302nd belongs to the Department of Defense, yet works in concert with the Department of Interior and the USDA. This cooperation has resulted in more than 30 years of accident free work, both on the ground and in the air.

(Current as of August 2009)