MV-22 Osprey as a firefighting aircraft

V-22 OspreyEric, one of our loyal readers, sent us a link to an article that explores the use of the military MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft as a firefighting machine. The Osprey can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, and then tilts the rotors to fly horizontally at 277 mph.

The article dismisses the use of the Osprey as a direct attack, water-dropping aircraft, primarily for the reasons we outlined in an article we wrote in 2010 (scroll down to see a reprint of that post). But it suggests the Osprey could be useful in other ways to support a firefighting operation.

Here is an excerpt from the piece at medium.com, published October 27, 2013:

“It takes forever to get to a rural wildfire. Let’s use the Osprey to shrink distance and get critical equipment to the front,” he says. “Expensive command and control gear could be quickly transferred from central depots to forward fire bases, and from there other transport would carry them the ‘last half-mile’ to the fire line.”

“The Osprey can reduce the response time for elite wild-fire fighters — smokejumpers or hotshot teams — getting ‘boots on the ground’ faster, with more gear, reducing the time it takes to initially attack wildfires,” Hooper says. “And there’s also the possibility of reducing the cost of initial attacks: more firefighters can qualify for descending a rope-drop than for jump school, at less cost per person.”

Specialized critical assets — too expensive to distribute widely — are another potential cargo. “Air traffic control can get very tricky over a disaster area. Deploying an air traffic control team or a ‘control tower in a box’ would be a perfect example of how the range and speed of an Osprey could … make a big difference.”

But an Osprey with its twin 22-foot rotors creates ferocious downwash, blowing debris around like shotgun blasts. “They need to go into a relatively clean landing zone and then get out—so they may be a better fit moving equipment [near] an impacted zone than, say, doing gritty work inside the disaster area,” Hooper proposes.

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(Below is the article we wrote January 3, 2010 at Wildfire Today)

Osprey. USAF photo
MV-22 Osprey. USAF photo

The MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, is replacing some of the Vietnam era CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters used by the Marine Corps. Since the disastrous wildfires in southern California in 2007, the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps have had an agreement with Cal Fire making it possible to use their military helicopters on fires if Cal Fire is unable to handle the fires with their own aerial assets.

In July of 2008, CH-46E and CH-53E military helicopters made at least 574 drops on fires in California, delivering 217,000 gallons of water.

At first glance, the Osprey might seem like an excellent firefighting tool. It is fast (cruises at 277 mph), could haul 24-32 firefighters, and could carry 1,800 gallons of water externally. But it has never dropped a gallon of water on a fire and it is possible that it never will due to at least two potential problem areas.

Rotor Wash

As you can see in the photo above, the rotor wash or downdraft from an Osprey is extremely strong–far stronger than a conventional helicopter. Rotor wash from a helicopter can cause, and has caused, serious problems when the wind from the rotors spreads the fire in unexpected directions, sometimes doing more harm than good. Marines even worry that Osprey rotor wash may damage or destroy unrecorded archaeological sites in training areas.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the rotor wash creates enough force to knock sailors and aircraft off a flight deck on a ship.

May CAUSE fires

The Osprey’s engines run extremely hot, so hot that the Navy is taking special precautions to prevent the engine exhaust from melting or buckling the aluminum decks of warships. A report from DARPA states:

The deployment of the MV-22 Osprey has resulted in ship flight deck buckling that has been attributed to the excessive heat impact from engine exhaust plumes… Navy studies have indicated that repeated deck buckling will likely cause deck failure before planned ship life.

DARPA has designed a “flight deck thermal management system” which would liquid-cool the deck from below or above while the aircraft are idling or launching. The military has put out a request for proposals for other permanent deck-cooling systems that could be retro-fitted or designed into new ships still on the drawing board.

Wildfire Today reported on May 30, 2009, that an Osprey made an unscheduled precautionary landing in North Carolina and started a 5-acre fire in a wet marsh. We wrote then:

Marines refueled the Osprey but according to WECT.com, upon taking off it “smashed into swamp mud, nose first”. During that takeoff attempt, heat from the engine exhaust started a vegetation fire which did some damage to the exterior of the aircraft.

A news release from the Marine Corp claims:

The grass fire was quickly extinguished by the crew chief, but caused an undetermined amount of heat damage to the aircraft exterior.

But Emergency Management Director Eddie King said the local fire department had to work through the night to extinguish a 5-acre fire, in an area infested with snakes and alligators, that was caused by the incident.

Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.
Osprey hauling a Humvee. U.S. Navy photo.

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(UPDATE October 28, 2013)

On May 31, 2010 an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft being demonstrated by the U. S. Marine Corp at a Staten Island park near New York City injured 10 spectators when the rotor wash sent debris flying. More information.

K-MAX helicopter converted to unmanned aircraft system

K-MAX, side
K-MAX at Custer, SD, July 10, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Of the 38 K-MAX helicopters that were built, eight are on exclusive use contract with the federal government for wildland firefighting. The U.S. Forest Service likes them because they feel like they can claim they are contracting with Type 1 helicopters even though they almost but not quite meet the minimum standards for Type 1 status, and for the fact that they are much less expensive than fully qualified Type 1 helicopters. The eight ships are operated by Central Copters, Heliqwest, Mountain West Helicopters, Rainier Heli International, Swanson, and Timberline.

Two other K-MAX helicopters have been converted for the military by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Kaman Aerospace Corporation into an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capable of autonomous or remote controlled cargo delivery. Its mission: battlefield cargo resupply for the U.S. military. The two ships have flown more than 1,000 missions in Afghanistan and hauled more than 3 million pounds of cargo that would have otherwise been transported by trucks, which are vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. One goal is to save lives by reducing Marines’ exposure to improvised explosive devices on cargo convoys.

The helicopters were sent to Afghanistan in November, 2011 for an initial, limited deployment, but have been extended several times. Naval Air Systems Command has decided to continue using the aircraft there indefinitely.

Unlike Predator drones, which are remotely piloted, K-MAX helicopters follow a pre-programmed route using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, and require human intervention only to get started.

It remains to be seen if UAS or UAV aircraft could feasibly be used on fires to drop water or deliver external loads.

K-MAX, front

Australians impatient to get Air-Cranes into the air

Erickson Elvis in Victoria
File photo of Elvis in Victoria. Erickson photo.

The Australian government has been contracting for Erickson Air-Crane helicopters during their down-under fire seasons since ”Millie” (N223AC) was deployed there in 1997. They seem to have a special fondness for the ships which can carry 2,650 gallons of water, especially since the 2001-2002 bushfire season when ”Georgia Peach” (N154AC) and “Incredible Hulk” (N164AC), were rushed out from the U.S.A on board a Russian Antonov An-124 air freighter to assist with bushfires near Sydney, working with “Elvis” which was already “in the building”.

Their fire season this year has caught the Aussies by surprise, starting in New South Wales weeks earlier than usual — before the contract for the Sky-Cranes begins. While at least two Air-Cranes had already been shipped to the country from Greece by air freighter, not all of the flight crews had arrived when dozens of very large bush fires broke out that so far have burned about 200 homes and caused the death of one person. There is a bit of a controversy going on with some residents not able to understand why the huge helicopters can’t be used to fight fires without a flight crew.

One headline shouted the news:

Critical US water bomber grounded during NSW bushfire crisis

Reports say that by this weekend both Air-Cranes were actively fighting the fires.

Erickson Air-Crane

Type 1 helicopters on contract

Below is a list of the 34 Type 1 helicopters on exclusive use contract this year. They all expire in April, 2016.

Helicopter contracts, Type 1, Exclusive Use

The list was extremely hard to get. We first asked for it on April 16, 2013, hoping to receive it well before the western wildfire season got underway. We were told that the list was only available if we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we did. After many delays, uncounted emails, excuses, and receiving incorrect information, we finally got it yesterday, September 26, five months after asking for it.

It is absurd that this information about how taxpayers’ money is being spent is not easily available to citizens. It is especially stupid, since similar data about air tankers has been available for years on the National Interagency Fire Center web site. We asked the U.S. Forest Service yesterday why the information about helicopters requires a FOIA request to obtain. The spokesperson in Boise we talked to said they would check and get back to us. If we receive an answer, we will post it here.

President Obama’s written policy on open government is very different from that being demonstrated by the U.S. Forest Service.

White House, open government

Pilot killed in logging helicopter crash in Oregon

Logging helicopter crash Oregon
Logging helicopter crash in Oregon. Photo by Linn County Sheriff’s Office.

A helicopter hauling logs for a logging contractor on the Willamette National Forest crashed Monday afternoon, killing the pilot, William Bart Colantuono, 54, of Indialantic, Florida. The incident occurred in a remote area near Idanha, Oregon southeast of Salem. Mr. Colantuono had appeared in the History Channel’s series, “Ax Men”.

From KATU:

The sheriff’s office said witnesses of the crash gave deputies the following account: The helicopter, a 1962 Bell UH1B, was being used to transport logs from the cutting area to a log deck in Idanha. It had just returned after the pilot had taken a 45 minute break.

The helicopter had picked up a load when witnesses reported hearing a loud snapping sound which was followed by logs hitting the ground and it appeared the pilot had released the logs electronically, indicating the pilot knew of a problem prior to the crash.

Witnesses then saw a rotor separate from the helicopter followed by it turning upside down and falling to the ground.

The helicopter is owned by Umatilla Lift Services in Florida. Photo of of Mr. Colantuono.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Colantuono’s family and co-workers.

 

Thanks go out to Ken

Park Police helicopter responds to D.C. shooting

During the law enforcement response to the tragic shooting at the Naval Yard in Washington, DC yesterday one of the the U.S. Park Police helicopters got a lot of air time on the television coverage.

According to reports the helicopter was used to insert snipers onto roof tops, serve as an observation platform, and to remove some non-law enforcement personnel from roofs or other areas. At times an armed officer was seen sitting in the open door. In addition to the video above, photos of the helicopter at the scene can be found at Yahoo and the New York Post.

The National Park Service has the helicopters organized within their Homeland Security Division, Icon Protection Branch, Aviation Unit which was created in 1973 with the acquisition of one Bell 206B Jet Ranger. Now they have multiple ships providing 24-hour coverage, including some twin-engine Bell 412EPs.

Last December we first wrote about the Park Police helicopters and included some photos taken during the response to Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area.

Helicopter assists in rescue of climber on El Capitan in Yosemite NP

From the National Park Service:

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
Climber Rescued From El Capitan

Park dispatch received an emergency call from a climber on the 22nd pitch of the Nose Route on El Capitan on the morning of September 10th. The caller reported that a climber from another climbing team, a three-person group from Spain, had fallen 50 feet while leading the Great Roof Pitch (21st pitch) and had been seriously injured.

A Yosemite rescue team, including Yosemite helitak, was immediately assembled and flown to the summit of El Capitan via Helicopter 551, the park’s contract helicopter. Ranger/medics Ed Visnovske and Chris Bellino were lowered approximately a thousand feet to the injured climber and found that he was in need of medical attention. They also found that he’d landed on his belayer, who’d been injured as well.

The lead climber was packaged in a litter and lowered approximately 2,000 feet with Bellino to the base of El Capitan, where he received further medical care. The team at the summit of El Capitan then began lowering the injured belayer, the third member of the climbing team, and Visnovske approximately 2,000 feet to the base of El Capitan.

During the rescue operations, a thunderstorm developed, making rescue operations difficult. Because of smoke impacts from the nearby Rim Fire, helicopter operations also could not be carried out after 7 p.m. The rescue team at the summit of El Capitan was therefore forced to bivouac overnight and return to the Valley floor in the morning.”