MV-22 Osprey evaluated for fighting fires

MV-22 Osprey with bucket
MV-22 Osprey with bucket. DOD photo.

The Marines have conducted some tests to determine how feasible it would be for the MV-22 Osprey to fight wildland fires. As you may know, the Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft capable of vertical or short takeoff and landing. When airborne, it can cruise at over 300 mph, can carry 24 to 32 troops, or 15,000 pounds of external cargo.

In March, 2011 the Marines tested the Osprey with a 900-gallon Bambi Bucket suspended from 50-foot and 100-foot ling lines attached to the rear cargo hook while flying at up to 90 knots. After the tests, they came up with the following recommendations:

  • Maximum airspeed with bucket empty – 90 KIAS
  • Maximum airspeed with bucket full – 90 KIAS
  • Maximum airspeed when dumping – 50 KIAS
  • Max angle of bank- 30 degrees AOB
  • Use of Automatic Release Mode is prohibited.
  • Bambi bucket should be positioned to the 6 o’clock position of the aircraft prior to takeoff or landing.
  • Aircrew shall continuously monitor load for oscillations or unusual load movement.

The report can be found here (2.6MB).

However, there are some issues that would stand in the way of the Osprey fighting fires, such as the very powerful rotor wash that has injured people nearby, the extreme heat that comes out of the engine exhaust which has started wildland fires and damaged flight decks on ships, and the high cost of $83,256 dollars an hour.

We have written a number of articles at Fire Aviation and at Wildfire Today about the MV-22 Osprey, and its suitability for fighting fires.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Ross.

CAL FIRE: an air tanker over a fire in 15 minutes

drop by an S-2T
drop by an S-2T
A drop by an S-2T on the Jesusita Fire near Santa
Barbara in 2009

On Wildfire Today we have referred many times to our prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

The Los Angeles Daily News has an interesting article about the recent 1,952-acre Colby Fire east of Los Angeles. Much of the article covers preparedness and the aggressive response to the fire. The article quotes Fire Captain Mike Mohler, saying:

“We can have an air tanker over a brush fire anywhere in the state in — at most — 15 minutes.”

This week CAL FIRE took the very unusual step of contracting for two DC-7s to be available so that they could begin rotating their 23 S2-T air tankers in for annual maintenance, while still maintaining initial attack capability during the extreme drought conditions in the state.

The U.S. Forest Service sometimes has few if any air tankers in the state, even during the conventional fire season, to protect the 20.8 million acres of land in their 18 California National Forests. They have come to take for granted the CAL FIRE S2-Ts which will, when asked, respond to fires on National Forest land if they are available. But, perhaps turning over a new leaf, on Saturday the Forest Service hired one of the DC-10 very large air tankers to stand by at Santa Maria, and they have had a couple of P2Vs available in southern California in recent days.

Below is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Daily News article:

…Fire Capt. Mike Mohler, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the danger posed by wildfires in a time of drought cannot be underestimated.

“We’re seeing unprecedented weather conditions,” he said. “Already this year, just since Jan. 1, CalFire has responded to 150 fires statewide that have burned 600 acres.

“At the same time last year, we had only 25 fires spanning 40 acres.”

LACoFD is monitoring weather conditions “basically every hour,” added Tripp, because 2013 was the driest year in 135 years of record keeping, and offshore winds are further sucking moisture out of the chaparral, turning it into tinder in the foothills from San Bernardino County to Malibu.

Already, LACoFD has decided to lease the Super Scoopers for at least another seven weeks and CalFire has activated its fixed-wing tanker base in Chico — seven months earlier than usual.

CalFire also refused to furlough personnel at four “air attack bases” across the state that normally don’t operate in the winter. As a result, Mohler said, “We can have an air tanker over a brush fire anywhere in the state in — at most — 15 minutes.”

Air tanker fleet beefed up in California

DC-7 air tankers at Paso Robles Air Tanker Base
Two DC-7 air tankers and an S-2T air tanker at Paso Robles Air Tanker Base, January 19, 2014. CAL FIRE photo.

There is an extremely rare site in the photo above, at least in recent years — two DC-7 air tankers on active duty at an air tanker base in California. CAL FIRE has arranged for them to be on contract so that their 23 S-2T air tankers can rotate in for their annual maintenance. The wildland fire season in the state does not appear to be ending, so they had to do something to provide the needed maintenance for their airborne firefighting fleet while the fire danger remains high.

The state of Oregon routinely uses DC-7 air tankers, but the federal government stopped contracting for them a number of years ago.

Air Tanker 66 at Paso Robles Air Attack Base
Air Tanker 66, a DC-7, at Paso Robles Air Attack Base, January 19, 2014. CAL FIRE photo.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service in recent days has had a couple of P2V air tankers on duty. Yesterday Tanker 910, one of the two DC-10 11,600-gallon air tankers operated by 10 Tanker Air Carrier, was brought over from Albuquerque to be available at Santa Maria, California.

DC-10 air tanker landing at Santa Maria Air Tanker Base
DC-10 air tanker landing at Santa Maria Air Tanker Base January 18, 2014. USFS cell phone photo.

Tanker 160 photographed at the retardant grid test

Tanker 160 retardant grid test December 13, 2013
Tanker 160 retardant grid test, December 13, 2013. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Jeff Zimmerman took this photo of Aero Flite’s Tanker 160, an Avro RJ85 which was converted into an air tanker by Conair. It was shot during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California December 13, 2013. More photos and a video of Tanker 160 at the grid test can be found HERE. The test involves dropping retardant over a grid of hundreds of cups, intended to measure the volume and consistency of the pattern when it hits the ground.

Last year Aero-Flite received a contract for two Avro RJ85 air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, went through the same tests last week.

Tanker 101 dropping retardant at the grid test

Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87
Tanker 101, an MD-87, during the grid retardant test, January 15, 2014. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman. (click to enlarge)

Jeff Zimmerman took this excellent shot of Erickson Aero Tanker’s T-101, an MD-87, dropping retardant during the grid test at Fox Field in southern California January 15, 2014.

Erickson Aero Tanker received a contract for two MD-87s air tankers from the U.S. Forest Service as part of the agency’s next-generation air tanker program.

You can see more of Jeff’s photography at his site. Thanks Jeff.

Video of CL-415s scooping, up close and personal

CL-415 scooping at Santa Fe Dam

CL-415 scooping at Santa Fe Dam

CL-415 scooping at Santa Fe Dam

The images above are screen shots from the videos below, which were shot at Santa Fe Dam on Thursday. In addition to being the Incident Command Post for the Colby Fire at Glendora, California, east of Los Angeles, it has been the scooping point for the two CL-415 water-scooping air tankers working the fire. Los Angeles County Fire Department has been contracting for scoopers every fall for many years. In 2013 the contract was scheduled to end in December, but because of the drought and very dry fuel moistures the County extended the contract.

Being directly below the aircraft just after they lifted off the lake with full loads was not the safest place to be. Probably the pilots were wishing the folks with the cell phones were not there.

Below is one more screen shot from one of the videos.

CL-415 very close Colby Fire

Forest Service to enlist help of Coast Guard to manage C-130 airtankers

A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709
A Coast Guard C-130H, No. 1709, October, 2008. This is one of the seven C-130Hs being transferred to the USFS. Photo by Bob Garrard.

Until now the U.S. Forest Service has never had to manage a fleet of 22 medium and large transport aircraft. But in the coming months the agency that was created to grow trees will be reminded of the phrase, “be careful what you wish for”, as they become the owners of seven large four-engine C-130H transport planes and 15 smaller C-23B Sherpa transport planes “given” to them by the Coast Guard and the Army. The Forest Service is still going to grow trees and clean toilets in campgrounds, while taking on this air force of 22 very expensive aircraft.

Transfers to take place no later than February 11

The legislation requiring the transfer of the aircraft required that both the C-130Hs and C-23B Sherpas be transferred within 45 days after the bill was signed, which makes February 11, 2014 the last day for the transfer to take place. The C-130Hs will go first to the Air Force which will arrange for maintenance, upgrades of the air frame, and the installation of the retardant system. Then the Air Force will transfer them to the U.S. Forest Service. The Sherpas will be transferred directly from the Army to the USFS by February 11.

Last week a USFS employee with knowledge of how their aviation section is organized told Wildfire Today that up to that point the agency had not made any decisions about an organizational structure that would manage this air force within the agency. Individual short-term tasks were being handed out one at a time, while multiple functional areas were trying to get involved, lobbying for their piece of the pie.

Initially bringing the 22 aircraft into the agency will be extremely complex and time-consuming, with FAA approvals, inspections, evaluating, painting, writing then awarding contracts for maintenance and pilots, deciding on a tanking system, contracts for installing tanking systems, avionics, etc. And, something the USFS has not done well, developing a comprehensive PLAN of how to manage the aviation assets now and in the future. The Air Force will do some of this, other than the planning, before the actual final transfer of the C-130s to the USFS (the Sherpas will not receive retardant tanks), but the Forest Service has to be involved in the decision making. Then, after the 22 aircraft are completely up and running, managing the programs on a continuing basis is not simply a part time job for one person.

Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center, told us today that the agency, at this point anyway, plans to use a Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO/CO) model for the seven C-130H aircraft. The government will own them and the maintenance and operation will be handled by private contractors. The 15 Sherpas will be owned by the Forest Service — some will be flown by USFS pilots and others by contractors. All of the Sherpas will be maintained by private industry under contract, similar to how the existing four C-23A Sherpas are maintained. You could call this GO/CO-GO I suppose.

Coast Guard to assist with managing C-130Hs

We were surprised to hear from Mrs. Jones today that a joint U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Forest Service program office will provide logistics, operations, training, higher level maintenance, and support for the C-130H aircraft. The Coast Guard has been managing a fleet of C-130s since 1959, using them for long range search and rescue, drug interdiction, illegal migrant patrols, homeland security, and logistics. They have 24 older C-130Hs which are being upgraded with new center wing boxes and cockpit equipment with new multi-function displays. In 2008 they began replacing some of the C-130Hs with new C-130Js; they have six now with three more on order. All these numbers were valid before the Coast Guard agreed to send seven C-130Hs to the USFS if the Coast Guard could get the 14 almost new C-27J aircraft from the military that had been earmarked for the Forest Service.

Before we heard that there was going to be a USFS/Coast Guard collaboration, we asked a former fighter pilot for his opinion about how the C-130Hs should be managed. Gary “Bean” Barrett was a Navy Captain, the Commanding Officer of an adversary squadron and of a GO/CO squadron of heavy aircraft:

I would recommend standing up an organization like a composite group. One single individual in charge of the entire group [no rule by committee … it won’t work]. Since there are mission differences between C-23’s and C-130’s the group commander should probably have two “squadrons” under him. One for C-23’s, one for C-130’s and perhaps one or two maintenance squadrons depending on how the USFS choses to organize themselves. I am familiar with both the USAF concept of independent maintenance squadrons and the Navy concept of an integrated operational squadron with its own maintenance department. Either can work with contract maintenance but either way, the group commander has to “own” the program budget and the maintenance and the operations programs and the COTAR has to work for the group commander. When maintenance is directly involved in producing sorties instead of off in another state independently “fixing airplanes” the entire process seems to work better. Heavy or Depot level maintenance should be a separate contract.

Modification of the C-130 is a big hurdle since there is no military equivalent modification but I would think that it would be far easier to incorporate the tanker mod into a mil based maintenance program than to be forced to operate C-130’s under the FAA FAR’s. and the FAA C-130Q type rating.

C-23B Sherpas

The Sherpas have been stored at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for an extended period of time but have been under a maintenance contract and could be put into service fairly quickly. While at Fort Sill, on a regular basis they have been started, run up to 80 percent power for five minutes, systems have been cycled, and the aircraft have been taxied. No scheduled maintenance has been performed so they may be due for some routine work. The USFS will need to run the Sherpas through the Smokejumper Aircraft Screening and Evaluation Board (SASEB), which is the focal point for all interagency smokejumper/paracargo aircraft, much like the Interagency AirTanker Board evaluates air tankers. Other items on the to-do list include painting, avionics, removal of any unneeded military equipment, and ensure conformance with the FAA Certificate, but since they will not be used as air tankers, retardant tank systems will not have to be installed.

C-23B. Department of Defense file photo.

Ms. Jones said the C-23B Sherpas will be used to deliver smokejumpers and cargo and to perform other wildfire support missions. They are capable of carrying up to 10 smokejumpers or 30 passengers and up to 7,000 pounds of cargo. The C-23B Sherpas will replace all four U.S. Forest Service owned C-23A Sherpas and the DC-3T currently used for smokejumper missions. The additional aircraft will eventually replace contracted smokejumper aircraft and support other fire missions. They expect to begin using two of the newer Sherpas in 2014 to drop cargo and will begin using it in 2015 to deliver smokejumpers.

The C-23B Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp which can be opened during flight which could be used for paracargo or by smokejumpers, both of which would be new to the USFS. The C-23A Sherpa has a rear cargo ramp, but it does not open in flight.