Airborne Awesomosity

Modular Airborne FireFighting System

A C-130 military cargo plane drops thousands of gallons of retardant on the Waldo Canyon fire west of Colorado Springs

Wild fires are raging in Colorado, in case you didn’t know. One of the tools that has been called into action to help contain these fires are US Air Force Reserve C-130s equipped with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System.

The MAFFS program was started in 1970 after the 1970 Laguna Fire exposed the inadequacy of the nation’s airborne firefighting resources. FMC Corporation was contracted to assist the US Forestry Service, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves in the development and testing of a modular system that could convert a Lockheed C-130 into a tanker aircraft.

MAFFS loading into a C-130.

The system that was developed includes 5 pressurized tanks that can hold a total of 10,000 L and all the associated systems. Included in the associated systems is a 1200 psi compressed air tank used to blow the retardant out of the tanks when activated. The on-board systems are palletized and designed to go onto any C-130E or -H equipped with the USAF 463L cargo handling system. Ground equipment includes an air compressor to recharge the air tank while the fire retardant tanks are being refilled. It takes 8 minutes to refill.

When discharged over a fire, the MAFFS forces the retardant out through two tubes routed out the aft cargo door. It takes 5 seconds to discharge, creating a fire barrier that is a quarter mile long by 60 feet wide.

In 2007, a new generation called MAFFS-II was delivered to the USFS by Aero Union, who built all production MAFFS units. This upgraded system has a 13,000 L capacity in one large tank, and the air compressor is on-board the aircraft, reducing the time to reload. A special plug that goes in the paratroop drop door on the side of the cargo bay is used rather than the tubes exiting the cargo bay. This allows the aircraft to remain pressurized during operations.

When you’re watching coverage of these and other fires, and you see the venerable C-130 dropping the reddish-orange fire retardant you can turn to your wife/husband/best friend/drinking buddy/random stranger and tell them all about the MAFFS and impress them. Or something.

[Image Credit: Reuters, Public Domain]

  • $kaycog

    I didn't get to see these planes in person, as I live about 60 miles South of Colorado Springs, but I did see them TV's live coverage taking off to spray retardants on the fire. They are very impressive, indeed, and gave me goosebumps.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      The Evergreen 747 Supertanker uses similar techniques. Met one of the design engineers on a camping trip about 3 years ago.

      With a capacity of 20,500 US gallons (77, 600 liters), it is the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world

      • $kaycog

        How interesting. It's really huge………and beautiful.

        • CaptianNemo2001

          I wish i could remember how many tanks it has but i remember it all being modular so that you can hold several different type of chemicals since each module can be used separately. And since it was modular you can remove the tanks and put normal seating back in the plane if you want to between fire seasons.

        • That's what she said.

          • $kaycog


          • CaptianNemo2001


  • Deartháir

    In British Columbia, where there are a whole heaping hell of a lot of accessible lakes and one big accessible ocean, they use water-bombers instead. While they don't hold anywhere near as much liquid as the C130, they have the advantage of speed. If the lake is relatively nearby, the water-bomber can fly over the fire, drop its nearly 7,000L of water in about a second, dip into the lake, completely refill its tanks in about 10 seconds, and fly back to drop another 7,000L. During the massive forest fires near Kelowna and Kamloops a few summers ago, the water-bombers were able to drop roughly ten loads of water for every one load of fire retardant.

    <img src="; width="600">

    Yet both were needed, and both were extremely crucial. Why? Because the Herc's retardant stops the advancing fire, while the Waterbombers help put the fire out. Also, the Herc's slower delivery means that it would create a line of fire retardant, while the Waterbomber's sudden blast of water would eliminate fiery hot-spots. Two different tools that compliment each other rather than competing.

  • I keep reading about the shortage of tankers we're experiencing this year, while huge fires rage. There are a bunch of C130's in mothballs at the Davis Monthan AFB Boneyard in Tucson. It makes me wonder why the Air Force doesn't de-mothball a few of them and install these systems? That way, there would be more than enough tankers to go around.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      0 red tape
      1 expensive
      2 takes lots of time
      3 1+2 = 3
      4 lack of labor to put pieces together
      5 more red tape
      6 fire season will be over before planes are ready

  • texlenin

    Hmmmmm……wonder if an Ekranplan could
    be converted to do this kinda work?

  • CaptianNemo2001

    Doesn't a Ekranplan just use ground effect to "fly" across the water and thus cant really fly as we know it.

  • burbfrolovon

    hell yeah!!! )