After a 13-year hiatus the K-MAX is back in production

KAMAN Aerosystems has delivered 8 of the helicopters since restarting in 2016

K-MAX production

Above: A K-MAX helicopter under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.

After producing 38 K-MAX helicopters between 1991 and 2003 KAMAN Aerosystems fired up the manufacturing shops again in 2016 and delivered the 46th a few days ago. The company has committed to making a total of 15 during this production phase with the possibility of adding another 10 later. The airframes are made in Florida and the final assembly is done in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Like the Erickson Air-Crane, the K-MAX is a purpose built aircraft designed without compromises to do one thing well. Lift external loads. They don’t carry passengers or much internal cargo. In fact there is only room for one person in the K-MAX — the pilot.

K-MAX external instrument panel
K-MAX external instrument panel. KAMAN photo.

From the front it is very narrow, allowing the pilot to easily look straight down at the ground from both windows. While hovering over a target the pilot can see the external instrument panel; critical gauges and annunciators that are always visible during vertical reference flying.

The K-MAX’s on U.S. Forest Service Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads of 4,847 to 5,065 pounds. That translates to about 605 to 633 gallons of water, before the weight of the bucket is accounted for, which would reduce it by one or two dozen gallons. The Incident Command System requirement for a Type 1 helicopter is a minimum of 700 gallons, yet they continue to receive contracts as a Type 1. In 2016 10 of the 36 helicopters on the contract were K-MAX’s. After the reduction to 28 helicopters in 2017 there were 8.

The USFS contract (on page 102) carves out an exception for the K-MAX when used on initial attack:

For initial attack only, Kmax operators are authorized to use any water bucket with a capacity of over 200 us gallons. This allowance is based on the limited storage compartment capacity of the aircraft and the capability of the pilot to unload the bucket when carried. Higher capacity, compact, lightweight buckets are no longer available or no longer supported. Vendors shall switch to a bucket meeting contract specifications as soon as practical, typically after the first fuel cycle.

Lockheed has worked with KAMAN to configure at least two K-MAX helicopters to be remotely piloted or to operate autonomously. They spent months delivering cargo in Afghanistan flying pre-programed missions.

In 2015 the two companies demonstrated an optionally-piloted K-MAX near Boise, Idaho dropping water and delivering cargo.

The hour and a half demonstration included the following missions:

  • Spot drop – 100 feet
  • Spot drop – 55 feet
  • Trailing drop – 55 feet both at the demo area and at the ridge
  • Carousel delivery – 55 feet, two each to the demo area and on the ridge
  • Backhaul Cargo from the ridge – 150 feet
K-MAX Custer SD
K-MAX helicopter at Custer, South Dakota, July 8, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director of Business Development for KAMAN, told us that since the demonstration and the missions in Afghanistan they have improved the technology and are expecting to see the helicopter being used in the future for suppressing wildfires and inspecting or constructing power lines without a pilot in the cockpit.

Mr. Wassmuth said the K-MAX can be purchased for a little over $7 million, which he pointed out, is less than a third of what CAL FIRE expects to pay for each of their 12 new FireHawks, which are running about $24 million in the latest configuration specified by CAL FIRE.

K-MAX under production
A K-MAX under production at KAMAN Aerospace’s facility in Bloomfield, Conn. KAMAN photo.
A K-MAX helicopter drops water on the Comet Fire north of Salmon, Idaho July 28, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
K-MAX Salmon Idaho
K-MAX helicopter at Salmon, ID July 28, 2016. The open doors allow access to various systems for maintenance. The compartment is large enough to store a Bambi Bucket while ferrying. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Revised April 7, 2018 to show that the K-MAX’s on USFS Type 1 helicopter contracts have allowable payloads that are below the ICS minimum requirement for Type 1’s.

2 thoughts on “After a 13-year hiatus the K-MAX is back in production”

  1. Good ideas !
    Too bad each Western state does not purchase 3-4 of these . Hopefully the remotely operated will be available , to take away the arguments about pilot safety !

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