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.

6 thoughts on “MV-22 Osprey as a firefighting aircraft”

  1. Another expensive, very complex aircraft for a mission (fire) it was never designed for. A few years ago I spoke with an A&P mechanic that worked on them and he said the day to day upkeep was very intensive and time consuming.

  2. Actually, the Marine Corps has tested and approved the Osprey for water dropping on fires. A presentation on this topic was made by a Marine who was one of the test pilots on the program at the 2012 international aerial fire fighting conference held in Sacramento, CA. Basically, a long line would be used, just as many other helicopters use for dropping water, to minimize the rotor wash problem.

  3. Right AJ

    This argument goes back to 1993 along with the arguments of the CL 215/ 415 series….

    Write your Congressman and the USAF……like the C27J….you will see how long that idea gets out of the boneyard…if you get my drift

    Like……..NOT anytime soon. I would imagine if the USAF has any say.

  4. Even despite the problems with the MV-22 I think it would be a good idea to have MV-22 as a fire fighter aircraft.

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