Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Osprey becoming final line of firefighting defense: Cal Fire will use the military’s tiltrotor aircraft to battle blazes -- but only when all other resources are exhausted

Cal Fire is welcoming the addition of a new firefighting tool, the MV-22 Osprey aircraft, whose rotors allow it to take off like a helicopter – eliminating the need for a runway – and fly like an airplane. But this last-resort, water-dropping aircraft has some noteworthy limitations.

Still, a demonstration of the Osprey’s water-dropping capabilities at Hemet-Ryan Airport in February impressed Cal Fire officials and the Marines, and it will become available to Cal Fire to fight wildfires starting in May, said Travis Alexander, Cal Fire division chief for tactical air operations.

The MV-22 will be able to respond from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Camp Pendleton within 24 hours to fires in Cal Fire’s San Diego Unit. Requests for the Osprey to fight fires in the Inland Empire and elsewhere must go through the Department of Defense and could take 96 hours to be approved.

The aircraft would be called in only when all other Cal Fire resources are tapped out and flames are threatening lives or high-value places such as hospitals, roads or water-treatment plants, Alexander said.

“I couldn’t be happier that California and the Marine Corps are working together to apply this new piece of technology now rather than later,” said Craig Hooper, who has advocated adapting the Osprey for firefighting use on his maritime blog, NextNavy.com. Hooper also researches security issues for a private consulting firm, Gryphon Scientific, and is a frequent commentator on defense and homeland security affairs.

Cal Fire’s use of military aircraft is not new. Many of its airplanes and helicopters are adapted from military designs for civilian use, or are former military aircraft themselves. In addition to the Osprey, which went into service in 2007, the military can send the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion to fires. That helicopter can lift 16 tons for 50 miles and be used to drop water from a bucket.


At the Feb. 11 demonstration in Hemet, members of the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 165 hooked a bucket capable of carrying 660 gallons of water to a 100-foot tether. After the bucket was filled at Diamond Valley Lake, the pilot made two dry runs, flying the aircraft around the drop area, before making four runs where he dumped water on the targets.

“Today’s evolution answered all the questions for Cal Fire,” George Shinrock, program manager for Fire Emergency Services Marine Corps Installations West, said in a Marines news release. “If the need arises and they request our assistance, we’re very confident the MV-22B will perform the mission with great success.”

Cal Fire wanted to see whether the Osprey could accurately drop water despite the wind, or downwash, generated by its rotors.

“The use of the 100-foot-long line with a minimum distances of 70 feet from the bottom of the bucket was sufficient to mitigate any downwash,” Alexander said.

And therein lies one of the issues in using the Osprey to fight fires.


The Osprey’s top speed is more than 300 mph, as fast as Cal Fire’s S-2T retardant-dropping airplanes, and it can carry four crew members and 24 troops. In comparison, Cal Fire Super Huey helicopters can travel 125 mph and carry a pilot and 10 passengers. The Osprey’s 660-gallon bucket holds twice the water as the Super Huey.

“If I can get there twice as fast and (carry) twice as many resources, I think that could be a good use of resources,” Hooper said in an interview.

But those attributes come with a price.

“Powerful rotor wash from the Osprey’s two Rolls-Royce engines is far stronger than the wash from conventional helicopters,” Hooper wrote on his blog in 2011. “During a water drop, all the extra downward-shooting air can fuel the forest fire and do far more harm than good.”

Hooper also noted the Osprey’s engines run so hot that the Navy had to have pilots rotate their engines so the exhaust wouldn’t blow in one direction and melt a ship’s flight deck.

That heat, Cal Fire’s Alexander said, makes the Osprey impractical for transporting firefighters and equipment when it would have to land in forest areas.

“There is no perfect platform (firefighting aircraft),” he said. “They all come with their pluses and minuses.”

Yet Hooper urged Cal Fire not to give up on the Osprey as a transport aircraft, saying noting the Osprey will be based in California for decades.

“Let’s try to overcome these operational challenges so this Marine Corps asset can help in a disaster,” he wrote.


Hooper said he’d like to see more military technology adapted for firefighting use, including:

• The Navy’s surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone called the Global Hawk. It can stay aloft for long periods of time and has sensors that can quickly transmit needed data to firefighters.

• A Lockheed Martin unmanned helicopter known as the K-MAX. It can deliver cargo, detect hotspots and drop water from a bucket.

“These assets help you sense what’s going on and help you get information to where it’s needed quickly so you can act upon it, and by acting prevent the disaster from happening,” Hooper said. “That’s a big thrust of interest in the military, and it would be neat to take that development thrust and apply it to here at home. But it is hard for first responders to get a chance to access these new capabilities until after a disaster has already gotten out of hand.

“The challenge for Cal Fire is to figure out how to use these platforms,” he said.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.pe.com

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