The Tiltrotor Firefighter
by STEVE WEINTZ
On June 21, 2008, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel off the central California coast reported multiple dry lightning strikes in the Santa Lucia mountains. Within hours the Basin Complex Fire began its month-long destruction of Big Sur. For three weeks, 5,000 firefighters, myself included, attacked the fiery monster with the support of an aerial armada of firefighting aircraft.
Some day soon, the Marine Corps’ controversial V-22 tiltrotor could join this firefighting team. But we’ll need new ways of thinking to make that possible.
Back in Big Sur in ‘08, Sikorsky Skycranes and Chinook twin-rotor helicopters dropped like giant wasps to dip their hoses and “Bambi Buckets” into the National Marine Sanctuary then soared dizzyingly overhead to bomb and strafe the flames.
Spotter planes guided four-engined C-130s and Electras into water-bombing runs down steep ridges and hillsides, while World War II-era flying boats and converted airliners unloaded vast amounts for fire retardant on the back country.
In the five years since the Basin Complex Fire, California has suffered several more big fires, including this summer’s Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. As older water-bombers age out of service, replacements may never be bought.
Up, up and away
Throughout the West, firefighters and disaster planners are relying more and more on military support to wage aerial battle against the flames. Military rotary-wing assets have been used to fight California wildfires before, but many are about to go away as the Pentagon’s budgets shrink.
Some helicopters are being retired, but the Marines’ fleet of V-22s is still growing, with 360 in service, in production, paid for or planned. Ospreys, which take off and land vertically but cruise like airplanes thanks to their rotating engine nacelles, could take over from some firefighting helicopters.
But not without new strategies. V-22s are fast and available but come with a host of problems stemming from their unique flight characteristics.
I spoke with a man who has given this matter a great deal of thought. Craig Hooper, recently Vice President of Sales, Marketing and External Affairs at shipbuilder Austal USA, in 2010 wrote about the ways the Osprey might be used domestically. Shortly after Hooper published his article, the Marines certified the V-22 to use water buckets and began testing the tiltrotor’s utility in urban environments.
Hooper’s verdict? “The Osprey is only so-so as a water bomber. It can fill and lift a 7,900-pound Bambi Bucket and then haul it to the fire, but that’s not how you want to use this platform.”
The Osprey is more complex and costs more to operate than a conventional helicopter. “When you combine reliability issues with the higher operating and maintenance costs of the MV-22 compared to helicopters,” says Hooper, “it is obvious that the Osprey is not a one-for-one replacement and cannot be shoehorned into a copter’s role. That may be our first instinct, but this aircraft demands an entirely new approach to exploit the aircraft’s longer range and higher speed.”
“The Osprey completely changed the way the Marines fight,” Hooper continues. “As was often said, the Ospreys shrunk Iraq, a country the size of Texas, to the size of Rhode Island with its 300-mile-per-hour cruising speed.”
Any large wildfire will invoke mutual-aid covenants among local and regional fire agencies, but great time and expense are involved mobilizing fire crews from, say, Sacramento or Los Angeles to the Sierra Nevada.
“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.
Drones could team up with the Ospreys to haul equipment the final few miles … and to do the work directly over the fire that the V-22 is not suited to handle. “The Marines have been successfully flying re-supply missions in Afghanistan with their K-Max drone copters, and the K-Max would make a fine water bomber,” Hooper points out. “Less load capacity but potential round-the-clock attack and no risk of losing a pilot.”
The bottom line is that firefighting officials need to get creative with the V-22. But first, officials need to understand what the Osprey can do for firefighters. “That means a lot of education, for everyone from community first responders on up to state fire commands,” Hooper says. “The military’s got to help with this by getting the Osprey in front of local first-responders at Western Fleet Weeks and other events.”