PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
It was 1993 when the 302nd Airlift Wing received the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System mission from the Air Force Reserve’s 943rd Airlift Group, March Air Force Base, California. The MAFFS mission provided aerial firefighting support to largescale, wildland fires by laying down lines of fire retardant to aid in the suppression of fires – assisting the ground firefighting containment efforts.
This special mission was transferred due to a change in the the California reserve group’s flying mission and would become an additional mission to the 302nd AW’s C-130 tactical airlift mission.
The Department of Defense MAFFS mission was congressionally established in the 1970s to assist the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and is an interagency cooperation between several entities. Federally, the 302nd AW belongs to the Department of Defense but works alongside the U.S. Forest Service and National Interagency Fire Center when activated to provide MAFFS support.
As the only Air Force Reserve wing supporting MAFFS, in 1993 the 302nd AW joined three Air National Guard C-130 wings who were already doing the mission. They included the 146th AW based at Channel Islands Air National Guard Base, California, the 145th AW based at Charlotte, North Carolina, and the 153rd AW based at Cheyenne, Wyoming.
“The arrival of the MAFFS units was very interesting,” said Tech. Sgt. Tanya Keller, 302nd Maintenance Group plans, scheduling and documenting. “Just the whole concept of being able to put this big holding tank [MAFFS system] in the aircraft where it had a section toward the back where the loadmaster would sit with the controls to drop the retardant.”
Keller went on to describe how in order to operate the MAFFS system C-130 Hercules aircrews had to open the ramp and door of the aircraft while in flight for the two system nozzles to stick out of the back of the aircraft.
“The challenge with that was because of the wind and air currents you got a lot of blow back so we got a lot of intrusion of the retardant material into our elevators and vertical stabilizers,” Keller said. “Clean up was a chore.”
Not long after taking up the new special mission and completing their first training and certification with the U.S. Forest Service, Reservists from the 731st Airlift Squadron and 302nd Maintenance Group were called to their first MAFFS activation. They responded to Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center, California, Oct. 28, 1993, along with C-130s and crews from the 146th AW and the 153rd AW. Together they dropped over 1.7 million pounds of fire retardant, according to the 302nd AW’s print publication, the Front Range Flyer, November 1993 edition.
The 302nd Airlift Wing’s first Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System activation is documented in the Reserve wing’s print publication, the Front Range Flyer dated October 1993. Their first activation was to Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center, California, along with C-130s and crews from the 146th AW and the 153rd AW. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tiffany Lundberg)
“In the first several years, my fondest memory is the people,” said Master Sgt. Thomas Freeman, 731st Airlift Squadron instructor MAFFS loadmaster who has been part of the MAFFS mission throughout its tenure at the 302nd AW. “Everybody coming together for one thing, everybody had their eye on the ball. When you’re out there and see the smoke in the air you know that there are houses burning so everybody puts their head down, gets together and gets the job done.”
The program has undergone some changes to include the replacement of the U.S. Forest Service MAFFS units.
In 2009, the U.S. Forest Service replaced the Legacy MAFFS units with the MAFFS II system. The new system is a self-contained system that allows access to more reload bases, reduces required personnel and therefore allows more drops per day.
“Now with the MAFFS II units, the delivery system changed to go out the paratroop doors with sealed delivery mechanisms where it wasn’t coming back in,” said Keller. “There is still a little bit just from spray but we don’t have near the corrosion and issues we had with the Legacy MAFFS units.”
For Lt. Col. Brad Ross, 302nd Operations Group MAFFS operations chief, “The biggest change was the structure of the program. Today, when MAFFS is activated we become part of the [MAFFS] Air Expeditionary Group establishing standardized organizational structure and command relationships. Now when you look at how each of the four wings operate it’s very similar, it’s like flying with someone from your own unit.”
The MAFFS participating wing line up changed in 2016. The 145th AW’s mission changed to C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and the National Guard Bureau announced the MAFFS mission would be picked up by the 152nd AW in Reno, Nevada in 2016. Today, the 152nd AW is the newest of the four wings supporting MAFFS.
Over the last 25 years, Air Force reservists of the 302nd Airlift Wing through rigorous training and dedication to the mission have aided in countless fires supporting firefighters to save homes and lives in multiple western states including Colorado. Additionally, according to MAFFS AEG statistics from 1993 to 2017, when federally activated, the four wings have dedicated over 8,900 sorties, 22.9 million gallons of retardant dropped and 9,600 flying hours to MAFFS.
“It is a rewarding mission for us to be a part of because we have an immediate effect and an immediate response to be able to prevent or mitigate the effects of a wildland fire,” said Ross. “Since we are prone to those events in this area of the country it is important to have those assets here and available when we are needed.”
A C-130 Hercules assigned to the 302nd Airlift prepares to depart Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, July 29, 2017. Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System “5” is one of two aircraft call-signs assigned to the 302nd AW that provides support when activated through the Department of Defense, U.S. Forest Service and National Interagency Fire Center by laying down containment lines of fire retardant during large, wildland fires supporting ground fire suppression efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Stephen Collier)
Editor’s note: This story is part of a 302nd AW Public Affairs series recognizing the 302nd AW’s MAFFS mission during the 25th anniversary year of the wing’s support to this special C-130 mission at Peterson AFB, Colorado.