In a comment below our article about the Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations program, Chris pointed us to this excellent video that introduces firefighting helicopters to young children, saying his two-year old is obsessed with it. It has commercials, but you can skip through most of them after a few seconds.
On Tuesday while at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, I met Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I found him at the large Sikorsky display talking with their representatives about technical issues. Thankfully he was able to carve out some time from his schedule to talk with me.
The agency does not have a Chief Pilot; instead they have three Senior Pilots. The most senior in terms of longevity is Tom Short, who has 14,000 hours of helicopter flight time.
Number of helicopters
The fire department has ten helicopters.
The ships are used for a wide variety of missions: wildfire suppression, hoisting victims, short-haul, medical transport, swift-water rescue, large animal rescue, transporting firefighters, high-rise rescue, ocean rescue, and command and control.
Five of the ten helicopters are Bell 412 ships. Three are the EP model and two are HP.
The other five are Firehawks. Two of those, S-70i models, were received in December, 2017 and are still in the process of being converted.
Converting Blackhawk to Firehawk
The primary tasks to convert a Blackhawk into a Los Angeles County FD Firehawk are to extend the main landing gear in order to install a 1,000-gallon belly tank. The helicopters also have a 30-gallon tank that carries Class A foam concentrate which can be mixed into the main water tank. They also receive hoists, Nite Sun searchlights, and an assortment of radios.
The department began using retractable snorkels in 2001. The collapsable large-diameter hose flattens when rolled onto a spool. There are two major advantages of the retractable snorkel: the aircraft can taxi (without dragging the hose and pump on the ground) and there is no artificial speed restriction (you don’t have to worry about the hose and pump banging against the helicopter in flight).
The snorkel hoses have an electric water pump at the lower end that pumps water up the hose and into the belly tank, filling it in about a minute.
Adding more Firehawks
The department has a plan to get five more Firehawks, but there is no funding for the acquisition.
Their first Firehawk
The department operated a Firehawk for the first time in 1998 when for four months they leased a Blackhawk with a belly tank from Sikorsky.
Single pilot certification
The Los Angeles County Fire Department is the only organization certified by Sikorsky to operate Blackhawks with a single pilot.
For years the department has contracted for two CL-215 or CL-415 scooper air tankers and one Air-Crane helicopter during the busiest part of the wildfire season.
All of the department’s Firehawks are equipped for night-flying after they are fully modified.
Los Angeles County has a population of over 10 million and encompasses 4,000 square miles. The County Fire Department has 163 fire stations.
The Vice President of Coulson Aviation describes the new Chinook and Blackhawk program they are undertaking with Unical. He also updates us on the firefighting aircraft they have working in Australia during the 2018-2019 bushfire season. It was filmed at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.
Photos from the first day of exhibits at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, March 5, 2019. Photos by Bill Gabbert. A few of the photos have captions which can be seen if you hover your cursor over the thumbnail of the image.
Firehawk helicopters are becoming more popular across the wildland fire services, especially in California.
A rather loose definition of a Firehawk is a Blackhawk, a Sikorsky UH-60 or S-70i, usually with an aftermarket 1,000-gallon external water tank for fighting fires, and a suction hose for refilling while hovering.
As far as I know most of the above ships will have external water tanks, which require installing a longer landing gear to raise the ship, making room for the belly tank. Coulson, on the other hand, is installing a version of their removable RADS tank internally, and at least one company, Simplex, for example, has built another version of a removable internal tank. The company had it on display last year in Sacramento and at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta today.
For the record, Sikorsky, the company that manufactures Blackhawks, does not support the use of an internal water tank in the ships. They are not worried about the floor being able to hold it, but are concerned that in the event of a hard landing the tank, especially when full, could pose a danger to the crew. A belly tank, their theory contends, would not threaten the crew as a projectile, but could crush under the aircraft, absorbing some of the energy — not unlike the crumple zone in the front of a well designed automobile.
The unmanned K-MAX supported U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and has demonstrated remotely-piloted wildland fire missions
Today the Kaman Aerospace Group, a division of the Kaman Corporation, announced at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta that they are developing completely new hardware and software systems that control the unmanned K-MAX helicopter.
When the company first built the system 20 years ago they used off the shelf equipment, but since then the technology has leapt far beyond what was available in the 1990s. The redesigned kit will completely replace what was used when K-MAXs delivered thousands of loads of supplies and equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014, carrying more than 1.5 million pounds of cargo, sometimes through areas that would be considered unacceptably risky for human pilots. Typically operating at night, these unmanned missions replaced the equivalent of 900 convoy vehicles and eliminated 46,000 hours of exposure time to IED’s, direct fire, and other threats to our troops on dangerous roads.
“Whether the need is night-time aerial firefighting, resupplying troops in austere environments or delivering critical supplies in support of humanitarian missions, the next generation of the unmanned K-MAX will continue to demonstrate its unmatched readiness and efficiency no matter the requirement,” stated Roger Wassmuth, Senior Director Business Development, Air Vehicles & MRO Division.
By 2020 the company expects to have 10 additional helicopters between the two types.
Coulson Aviation is expanding their aircraft fleet. Until a few weeks ago the company had four C-130 type fixed wing air tankers, one converted Boeing 737 air tanker (with another that is 60 percent complete), and a mixture of five S-61 and S-76 helicopters.
Today Coulson announced a new partnership with Unical Air, a new unit of the Unical Group of Companies. The organizations have joined forces to create a heavy lift helicopter joint venture company that will build and operate Boeing CH-47 and Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk aircraft for aerial firefighting and other markets. Coulson’s expertise in the operation of heavy lift and firefighting helicopters will mesh with Unical Air’s abilities in supply chain, and parts, plus aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and component repair and overhaul (CRO).
“When we met Unical, our companies meshed very well,” Britt Coulson, Coulson Aviation’s vice president, said. “Since both are family owned and extremely passionate about what we do, it was a natural fit to work together. Others that have bought either of these types has struggled with serviceability and parts support and with our partnership we are confident that will not be an issue.”
The capabilities of the helicopters will include night-vision, IFR navigation, and hover filling.
At least some of the newly acquired CH-47s and UH-60s will be outfitted with RADS internal tanks. The basic design of the RADS was created by Aero Union decades ago and features steep slopes on the sides when space allows, to facilitate enough head pressure at the bottom to ensure quick and constant flow. The technology used will enable automated target drops for the night vision goggle firefighting program and will have the capability to adjust flow rates based on speed and altitude. A Coulson helicopter that has been certified in Australia for night drops has been used on a regular basis for the last several months during the country’s 2018-2019 bushfire season.
Coulson has engineered several different sizes of the tanks to enable them to be used in a variety of aircraft, including the C-130 and the 737. The CU-60 will carry up to 1,000 USG, and the CU-47 will carry up to 3,000 USG.
The snorkels used for hover refilling will be a brand new Coulson design, using an electrically-powered pump which will retract into the belly allowing flight to and from the fire with no speed restrictions, along with the ability to taxi around airports or tanker bases.
Instead of the water or retardant flowing through a relatively small opening at the cargo hook, Coulson will modify the bellies of both the CH-47 and UH-60.
“We are cutting the lower skin and adding in structure between the frames, the same way we have done on the C-130 and B-737 to create the optimal, linear door opening”, Mr. Coulson said. “We are also engineering the tank to incorporate the hook which will allow us to longline with the tank installed.”
The helicopters will be type certified and FAA approved, and the models will be renamed.
The helicopters will receive upgraded cockpits, featuring the Garmin G500H TXi synthetic vision displays and Coulson’s touch screen SMART Delivery System Controller for regulating the delivery of the water or retardant.
Coulson-Unical will have a CU-60 and a CU-47 at the HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, March 5 to 7. Both have been painted but have not yet received the internal tank modification. The two ships will be available this year with conventional water buckets. By 2020 the company expects to have 10 additional helicopters between the two types.
The tail rotor of a Bell 412 struck a tree while it was attempting to refill its water bucket February 26, 2019 in the northwest part of Spain. The firefighting helicopter (EC-MAQ) operated by Babcock settled upright in a couple of feet of water in the Narcea River in Belmonte de Miranda, Asturias (map).
Photos show damage to the tail rotor. There were no reported injuries.