Big Wind Is The Meanest Firefighting Tank You Ever Saw

Twin jet engines mounted on tank treads

As the Iraqi army retreated at the end of the first Gulf War, they took the term “scorched Earth policy” quite literally. Kuwaiti oil wells were set alight en masse, creating towering infernos that blackened the sky.

As it turns out, extinguishing a burning oil well is no easy feat. In the face of this environmental disaster, however, a firefighting team from Hungary made a name for themselves out on the desert sands, astride a jet-engined tank named Big Wind.

Sheer Power

Big Wind was not the first of its kind, but a successful development of a concept first pioneered by the Soviet Union. Decades before, the Soviets had experimented with fitting MiG-15 jet engines on the back of ZIL-131 trucks. With a pair of water nozzles bolted up just above the jet exhaust, a powerful blast of water and air could be used to effectively fight large fires. This idea became popular in the Hungarian oil industry, particularly after one example was used to put out a fire at the 168 Algyo oil well in 1968.

Big Wind on the ground in Kuwait, extinguishing a burning oil well. Credit: Getty Images

Decades later, in 1991, oil company MB Drilling was  putting the finishing touches on an advanced version of its own design in a town some 50 miles southeast of Budapest. Big Wind, as it came to be known, was built on the chassis of a Russian T-34 tank dating back to World War II. In place of the original gun turret, it instead sported a pair of Tumansky R-25 turbojets, as used in the MiG-21 fighter jet and producing 27,000 pounds of thrust. Each engine was then fitted with three water nozzles each, capable of delivering up to 220 gallons of water per second. It was finished right around when Kuwait was desperate to extinguish hundreds of burning oil wells, and so was quickly deployed to the country via aerial transport.

The mechanism behind its firefighting power is simple. Oil blasting out of a wellhead is under pressure, and the primary flame is a good 15-30 feet clear in the air. The intense blast of water and air helps cut off the supply of oil to the flame, while also helping to suck huge amounts of heat out of the atmosphere and surrounding area. With the air around the burning wells reaching temperatures of 650 °F, and the sand below heating up to 1300 °F, it wasn’t enough to simply put out the fire, either. Big Wind would continue to spray for a full 20 minutes after extinguishing the flames, ensuring the oil didn’t autoignite upon splashing back down on the scorching hot ground.

Operating the machine is no mean feat. A crew of three operate Big Wind, with a driver nestled inside the front of the machine responsible for crawling it towards the fire at its top speed of 3 mph, chosen to avoid damaging the relatively delicate jet engine platform above. At the rear, a second operator is charged with controlling the jet engines and water nozzles. The third member of the crew walks alongside roughly 15 feet from the tank, issuing commands to the others via a set of wired controls. The crew all wear flame-resistant gear to protect themselves from the immense heat, and gloves to avoid burning themselves on the tank’s controls when within 40 feet of a blaze.

Water for the operation was sourced from the Arabian Gulf, with saltwater pumped in using oil pipelines running in reverse. Reservoirs were dug specifically for the purpose, feeding Big Wind with thousands of gallons of water a minute with the help of huge diesel-powered water pumps.

Gallons of seawater were pumped into reservoirs to feed fire fighting apparatus charged with extinguishing the well fires in Kuwait. Credit: Getty Images

Inside, the driver received commands from outside, via LED arrows that would light up to indicate the fire chief’s desired direction of travel. Similar methods are used to instruct the rear operator on when to fire up the jets and water. Each crew member also has a dead-man switch system, which they must acknowledge regularly to indicate their safety during an operation.

Following the fire chief’s orders, the machine is then positioned as close as 25 feet to the burning well, and the R-25 jet engines fired up to their safe maximum of 70% throttle at ground level. Then, the water nozzles are engaged and the burning well is quickly snuffed out. Once extinguished, and the area cooled off for 20 minutes with plenty of additional water, Big Wind is then reversed out of the area and the difficult work of capping the damaged well can begin.

Where Are They Now?

In its original form, Big Wind put out nine burning oil wells in Kuwait, more than many teams that were working with the more traditional method of blowing out well fires with the use of high explosives. The tank was captured in action in the IMAX film Fires of Kuwait, with Rip Torn narrating the action as the Hungarian crew battled the flames.

These days, however, the machine rolls around on the chassis of a more modern VT-55 recovery vehicle, which shares its platform with the later T-55 tank. The vehicle was mothballed after further years of work, placed in storage at Tokol airport until around 2013, before it was resurrected by Hungarian oil company MOL Group to once again undertake its original purpose.

The practice of fighting fires with big jet engines hasn’t really caught on widely. It’s all but useless for anything urban, where the powerful blast would cause excessive damage and injuries. Outside of the Hungarian oil subculture, the practice has been largely ignored by those more familiar with explosive techniques or the simple application of tons of water with conventional pumps and hoses. Regardless, Big Wind remains as one of the most impressive fire fighting machines ever built, and that title will likely not be challenged for some time to come.

78 thoughts on “Big Wind Is The Meanest Firefighting Tank You Ever Saw

    1. It says sea water, so not drinking water. Just the cost of pumping the water to the location which I am assuming to be seriously below the cost of the well down time and lost oil, not to mention the environmental cost of having that oil burn up. I get that it will burn up or get converted to polymers anyway, but at least it will have a use instead of heating up the air and sand surrounding the well.

      1. Depends where the comma is:

        “Each engine was then fitted with three water nozzles each, capable of delivering up to 220 gallons of water per second.”

        Is that 220 gallons per nozzle, per engine, or in total?

        1. You’re basically doubting that the comma is really in the right place. Because with the comma in its current place, there is no doubt that it means: in total.

          If the comma would be after the ‘nozzles’, then it would mean 220 gallons per nozzle.

          I’m not saying that the comma is in the right place… But I assume it is. :)

  1. As geeky cool as the idea of mounting two jet engines on an old tank chassis is, I do feel the accolades of this machine are misrepresented. Of the 732 oil well fires in Kuwait, 90% of them were put out with just sea water. They repurposed the Kuwait oil pipeline and pumped sea water back to fight the fires. Of the teams, one of the later arrivals has the largest record of extinguishing 180 wells, mostly with just sea water. And to poo-poo on high explosives? Yeah, that wasn’t used all that much, but but when sea water or Big Wind both failed, the only means of putting out a stubborn fire was explosive suffocation. No, they didn’t have to dynamite every last oil well. Big Wind was indeed interesting, but not exceptional at affecting its intended job.

  2. And then there are the two completely opposite, but both quintessentially American approaches: 1. Just blow it up real good, like Red Adair did so successfully so many times. And, 2. Extreme precision robotic horizontal drilling through several miles of rock (and underwater), to pin-point hit the well pipe underground and seal it off, like the Deepwater Horizon fix.

    1. To be honest, for a non american, this article is barelly understandable. Except for the unit of time, noting make sense.
      Don’t start with “Imperial unit is more partctical”, did anyone ever had 40 feet to measure a lenght ? You are better of using girafes

      1. Get a f***ing life it’s a pop science piece on an american blog whose primary audience is americans, if you want to use kilodingdongs per gigasmoot in your whitepaper nobody’s stopping you

        1. Also not American here. Living in one of the 66 other English speaking countries.

          Would love metric (or conversions) in these articles for the 95% of countries who don’t use imperial.

          <3 HaD

          1. I am American, and after being trained in childhood to use metric, I didn’t use it again until I got into the military (surprise!) and later, tech and engineering. I have noticed that more and more people are using it here, as we interact more with people internationally over the internet. I fully expect the traditional Empirical system to fall out of favor in my lifetime.

      2. You do realize your foot doesn’t have to hold still to be used as a measuring device, right? Use a stick and mark the toe each time and you can get some crude measurements with your foot, and even call them feet. :) Metric is clearly best, but your argument was based on a complete lack of thought.

          1. Indeed. The author of this article, Lewin, is an Australian (like myself) who would have grown up using Metric/SI units at school.
            I can only surmise he uses Imperial units in his articles to target the largest group of Hackaday readers in the US and make them feel at ease. Whether he leaves the units as-is or carefully converts, I have no idea whether it’s his own choice or HaD/sponsor policy (I suspect not?).

            But we are used to this phenomenon here. As a software developer I’ve had to many many times use US spelling in code, and also convert the results of internal use of SI calculations to display as Imperial. It’s just par for the course to be able to market software in the US.

          2. In response to below; as an engineer, I took it upon myself to become familiar with a variety of unit systems. It’s a modern world and people communicate in a huge variety of ways. Thus, sometimes we go metric, sometimes imperial! Sometimes we don’t fill up an article by writing every number in every conceivable unit system, sometimes we do. Always a balance.

          3. Plenty of limeys saying ermmahgad its not in liters I don’t understand!! We regularly use both measurements and most people I know have no problem switching. If you can’t do the conversion in your head all you need to do nowadays is say Hey Google or Siri and it will convert for you.
            Almost every post here using one measurement units has the others complaining they can’t wrap their noggin around it. If you work on cars in US you will have a set of tools for both and many American cars have metric fasteners! Is it 13mm or 1/2″ 7/16 or 11mm 9mm or 3/8. When looking at used cars you can tell the DIYers that couldn’t tell the difference and just chewed the fastener to hell using wrong socket or wrench. Don’t buy that car, trust me they probably never measured anything either let alone used a torque wrench on anything!

        1. So the term ‘foot’ is technically incorrect.

          According to what you say, it should be ‘footstickmarksminusone’. So 40 footstickmarksminusone.

          Minus one, because you start out by marking your heel and toe, and then continue only marking your toe until you’re where you need to be. So you’ll be counting one mark too many (counting 41 footstickmarks for 40 footstickmarksminusone).

          Metric is best solely because it circumvents all these kinds of discussions, so that everyone can focus on the thing that counts: the measurement, it’s length, and it’s consequences. :)

        1. Oof, weight measurements in Stones are even worse… 14 pounds in a stone? You had to invent a whole new counting system for that, metric stones with base-14 decimals.

          10 st 10 lb = 10.7 stone = 150 lb
          10 st 13 lb = 10.9 stone = 153 lb

          But if you write 10.7 stone, everyone using stone for measurement will think it’s 10 st 7 lb. And so be 3 lb off.

          So 10.7 stone is actually interpreted as 10 st 7 lb, which is 147 pounds.

          And if you count in stones, it goes like this:

          10.0 st
          10.1 st

          10.12 st
          10.13 st
          11.0 st
          11.1 st


    2. Amen. Imperial units can die in an (oil well) fire. I’m an American and whenever someone gives me lip about using metric I ask them why they prefer using the measurements imposed on us by our British colonial overlords instead of the ones developed by the French allies who helped us overthrow them, haha.

    3. I started reading the article not taking care of the numbers as I more or less have an idea of the scale of the units, but continuing reading there were so many units of measure that I started to feel dizzy and I went straight to the comments to see if I was the only one. More and more people specify the measures in the International System of Units (SI) if the main article uses another system and I would have expected a tech site read by people from many places like Hackaday to do the same. Is as simple as 1300 °F (705°C)

  3. It is neither Hungarian or Soviet invention. It is called SR 114 Turbojet (SR = Steagul Rosu Plant – “Red Flag” Plant”.

    It was invented in Romania but our great and beloved leaders threw every piece of history to trash. Others recognized the value of all those inventions and took them as their own, then perfected them. Here is a documentary of Rompetrol Oil Drilling Company about a general presentation of the device. If you have someone speaking the ancient vampire tongue, ask for an accurate translation. Or hit “CC” and see what you get:

    Also see the documentation here – first prototype tests were performed near Bucharest (take text and paste it to google translate):

    ” As a matter of fact, at the end of the * 80’s, a special installation was built to extinguish the fires at the wells, an installation equipped with an R-37 turbojet engine, an installation known as Turbojet.

    Such an installation made a sensation in Kuwait by successfully extinguishing the burning wells by the retreating Iraqi army in the summer of 1991 – it was offered for export under the name JET-TR-96. The maximum engine running time was 43 minutes, which was controlled from outside the cab by a remote control attached to a 100 m long cable. A jewel of a specialized car that attracted the eyes and envy of many! A 100% Romanian project! It was not the only one because Aerostar made such an installation on the Liebherr / 8 × 8 platform, the extinguishing installation using the Tumansky R-13-300 engine on the MIG-21, with afterburner. As far as I know, the only copy produced has reached Petrom… if they still have it – it’s called JET-RAF. Offf… how great we were and how miserable we became! We still use such installations in limited numbers, as far as I know. Technical Decontamination Truck / ADT, Personnel Decontamination Truck / ADP – decontamination capacity 150 people / hour, both on the Iveco platform, the installations are produced by Romtech / Sibiu. The company is a supplier of Ministry of National Defense, Civil Protection, Antiterorism, Ministery of Internal Affairs, economic users). APRA-40, still in use today, uses both original Soviet missile engines and Romanian variants once produced at the Military Base Tohan / Brasov, variants equipped with proximity or impact rocket engines.”

    I am sorry, but your article is not accurate. It just presents some company that took something and presents it as its own.

    1. Thank you, I was genuinely lost reading this piece. I understand 70°F, and an oven is maybe 300-450°F but does it scale linearly compared to celcius? No clue. A human is 100-300 pounds so 7000 is 20-60 human-weights-worth?

        1. Speaking as a human, I find metric to be incomprehensible for humans. It is nice that you have 100 centimeters in a meter, but what is a meter. A foot is about the length of my foot. 15 feet is about 15 times the length of my foot or 180 times the length of the first knuckle of my thumb. Metric is awesome for exact measurements, especially when performing calculations that may start small and may end up large but when it comes to dealing with “human scale” objects or rough estimations you cant beat a measuring system that is based on the human body.

          1. > but when it comes to dealing with “human scale” objects or rough estimations you cant beat a measuring system that is based on the human body.

            This is sooooooo stupid…
            Did you know a meter is just a little less than 3 feet and with a bit of training one’s step size is one meter too?
            It’s just a question how accustomed you are to the system used.
            But one has the advantage of being “systematically” better in several literal senses and you can still use it “with ‘human scale’ objects or rough estimations” (probably just as easily too).

            Every time this stupid argument comes up I’m asking my self if DSAmericans are just born with a creativity handicap, rendering them incapable of imagining other humans doing the same stuff with SI units and the metric system (and not needing a ruler and calculator in every conversation).

            Negative opposite example:
            Thanks to the DSA’s citizens insisting on believing they live in the best country in the world since divorcing the UK and intentionally not adapting to SI units (and the metric system) many citizens in ‘metric’ countries are still more used to tv/screen diagonals and bike wheel diameters in inches. :-(

          2. DSA? As in Democratic Socialist Americans? As in, the largest socialist group in America with all of 92,000 members (out of the 330 million of us)?

            Anyway, isn’t this whole discussion really about one’s ability to memorize some simple (even if rough) math to do the conversions? Or perhaps one’s refusal to use one’s brain in such a way?

            And a meter is a little *more* than 3 feet – it’s 3.281 feet.

            Of course we think we live in the best country in the world. Shouldn’t everyone think that about his/her/their country? And if not, shouldn’t they (be free to) leave and live elsewhere?

          3. 100mm = 1cm. 100 cm = 1 meter. 1000 meters = 1 kilometer.

            It’s that simple. Is 15 feet about 15 times the length of all people’s foot? “you cant beat a measuring system that is based on the human body.”. It’s already beat because everyone’s foot is a different size.

          4. A meter is the maximum distance between your ellbows, and also a slightly long step. A centimeter is the with of your smallest fingernail. A decimetre is the width of your hand. Just measure yourself, to find plenty of metric reference distances all over your body. 10 m/s² is acceleration due to gravity. 100 kPa is atmospheric pressure. 10,000 km is a quarter circumference of this planet. The metric system very nicely rekates to common human and planetary measures.

          5. Tony, if it’s so simple, how did you get it wrong? 10mm = 1cm. Engineers only use cm if they are required to, because 1/100 doesn’t make sense when everything else is in powers of 1000. So we’ve found our own subset of SI. There were a number of things that got messed up in the development of SI, just like they get messed up with almost every cooperative effort among humans.

          6. @Bruce Gettel
            DSA is the inverted reality of USA (Divided States of America)
            And I don’t just mean that because of divides between humans but because of gigantic differences in many laws between all parts of the DSA.

            I don’t think just remembering some basic math formulas is enough.
            Just watched [Nicklas Means] talk about the Eiffel Tower (#LeadDev) and he said something about 71 feet or something.
            I had no idea what height he was talking about.
            Okay, it’s not in the hundreds of meters or below 10m but that’s not much.
            Had he said 21,5m I’d immediately have had a pretty good idea of how high that is.

            I assume it’s kinda like that for most peoples (regardless of feet or meters)

            Jup, I borked that feet meter conversion up in text (knew 3 feet are less than one meter).

            >Of course we think we live in the best country in the world. Shouldn’t everyone think that about his/her/their country?

            NO! Of course not. No one should think that. Thinking that kinda means you (not specific individuals but overall) don’t need to improve anything, look at how other countries do stuff and so on.

            >And if not, shouldn’t they (be free to) leave and live elsewhere?
            What? So when you don’t think your country is the best you shouldn’t live there?
            If you think your country could be better, needs changes/improvements you should just move out?
            Is that what you mean?
            It would explain quite a lot on why I think the DSA are at most a 2nd world country (among other things).

      1. The scales align at -40. When it hits -40 in Antarctica, nobody asks which scale. ;) There are 180 degrees F between the freezing (32F) and boiling (212F) points of water VS 100 degrees C.

        Fahrenheit (a Dutchman) based his scale on the freezing temperature of a solution of brine made from a mixture of water, ice, and ammonium chloride. The Rankine scale has its 0 at Absolute Zero, then goes up in degrees the same size as Fahrenheit. Currently it’s 463.67 Rankine outside here.

    2. Just to be *really* pedantic, it would be more appropriate to measure the thrust in Newtons, rather than kilos, because it’s a force, not a mass. Also, as the number is only given to one significant figure (probably because it’s just an approximation), there’s no need to give several decimal places of precision.
      So, 7000lbs of thrust is about 30MN

    1. I swear Gerry Anderson must’ve been a spy or something as so many of his machines look like stuff the Russians or Americans built during the cold war.

      I frickin’ loved Thunderbirds.

  4. There was a guy who sent a video of his genius idea to some officials, regarding the oil fires. With the idea of making money on it. Turned out they watched the video and never replied to the ‘genius’ but build his design anyway.
    It was like putting a giant chimney on top of the oil well, and then blowing gas into it from the bottom or something so the fire would die out. Apparantly it was widely used and very cheap compared to OP’s machines.
    The genius didn’t get a dime. Can’t find the sources on it anymore tho. Will look further.

  5. “saltwater pumped in using oil pipelines running in reverse.” –> I can’t even begin to imagine the corrosion sustained by this device during this event, unless it was specifically engineered to withstand saltwater, which is no easy feat.

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