Video helps children learn about firefighting helicopters

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.

The video features Los Angeles Fire Department’s Leonardo AW139 intermediate twin engine helicopters. The department has six helicopters, four AW139’s and two Bell Jet Rangers.

Thanks Chris!

14 things to know about Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations

Tom Short
Tom Short, a Senior Pilot with Los Angeles County Fire Department, at the Sikorsky display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

Chief Pilot
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.

Multi-mission
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.

 Los Angeles County Bell 412
Three of Los Angeles County Bell 412 helicopters. LACFD photo.

Bell 412s
Five of the ten helicopters are Bell 412 ships. Three are the EP model and two are HP.

Firehawks
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.

Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopters
Three of Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopters. LACFD photo.

Retractable snorkel
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).

Water pump
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.

Contracted aircraft
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.

Night-flying
All of the department’s Firehawks are equipped for night-flying after they are fully modified.

Bonus
Los Angeles County has a population of over 10 million and encompasses 4,000 square miles. The County Fire Department has 163 fire stations.

Interview with Britt Coulson about their firefighting Chinooks and Blackhawks

Britt Coulson blackhawk helicopter
Britt Coulson with one of their recently acquired Blackhawks.

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.

If you are having trouble viewing the video, you can see it on YouTube.

Firehawks are trending in the wildland fire service

helicopters firehawk
New Los Angeles County FD Firehawks. Photo by LA County FD. March, 2018. At that time it still needed to swap out the landing gear and have the belly tank installed.

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.

The earliest Firehawk that we are aware of was used in 1998 when Los Angeles County leased one with a belly tank from Sikorsky for about four months. (I’m sure someone will correct me if there’s an earlier occurrence.) Since then many of the newly acquired firefighting helicopters have been, or will be, Firehawks. CAL FIRE has signed contracts and expects to have 12 brand new converted S-70i ships within three years. Their first fully modified aircraft should arrive in June. Other examples of Firehawks include — Los Angeles County’s five (not all are fully modified yet), San Diego Fire Rescue has a one (but it is not yet fully modified), Ventura County has started converting three HH-60L Blackhawks into Firehawks, and Coulson is partnering with Unical to convert about 10 UH-60 Blackhawks. There are also other companies that have various configurations of Blackhawks with tanks.

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.

 internal Blackhawk tank
Simplex internal Blackhawk tank.Seen at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.
 internal Blackhawk tank
Seen at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

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.

Kaman developing next-generation of K-MAX unmanned aircraft system

The unmanned K-MAX supported U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and has demonstrated remotely-piloted wildland fire missions

K-MAX helicopter unmanned
Part of the Kaman and K-MAX display at HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, March 5, 2019.

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.

In 2015 a remotely-piloted K-MAX demonstrated for wildland fire officials how an optionally piloted helicopter could drop water on a simulated fire and haul cargo in an external load.

K-MAX remotely piloted dipping water
A remotely-piloted K-MAX helicopter refills a water bucket during a demonstration October 14, 2015 east of Boise, ID. K-MAX photo.

The system being developed will have the capability to fly either manned or unmanned missions. Kaman expects to offer the redesigned kits for old and new K-MAXs in 2020.

In 2016 Kaman restarted production of the K-MAX after a 13-year hiatus.

“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.

Coulson adding UH-60 and CH-47 helicopters to their fleet

By 2020 the company expects to have 10 additional helicopters between the two types.

Coulson-Unical CU-47 CU-60
Coulson-Unical CU-47 and CU-60 in Atlanta.

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).

Coulson-Unical CU-47 helicopter
The first Coulson-Unical CU-47 lands in a remote area east of Albuquerque February 24, 2019. Coulson photo.

“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.

Coulson-Unical CU-47 helicopter CH-47
The engineering design for the water/retardant delivery system on the Coulson-Unical CU-47. Coulson image.

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.

Coulson-Unical CU-60 helicopter UH-60
The engineering design for the water/retardant delivery system on the Coulson-Unical CU-60. Coulson image.

“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.

“This partnership with Unical Aviation is the future of aerial firefighting, combining the best of both companies as we introduce the CU-60© and CU-47© Next Gen Helitankers,” stated CEO, Wayne Coulson, Coulson Aviation.

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 UH-60 cockpit
The concept for the cockpit of the CU-60. Coulson image.

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.

Bell 412 lands in water after tail rotor strike while refilling water bucket

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.