Firefighting helicopters at John Day, Oregon

July 13, 2019

AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon
Firefighters prepare to depart for a new fire in an Airbus AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.

Todd McKinley sent us these excellent photos of helicopters working out of John Day, Oregon yesterday. He said the airport is staying busy with a variety of aircraft available this year.

Thanks Todd!

UH-60a helicopter John Day Oregon
A UH-60A Firehawk helicopter at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.
AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon
Airbus AS350B3 at John Day, Oregon July 13, 2019. Photo by Todd McKinley.

 

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.

Ventura County is converting military Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VCSO photo, Capt. Romano Bassi.

Ventura County has purchased three military HH-60L Blackhawk helicopters and is in the process of converting them into FIREHAWKS that will be used for fighting wildland fires, personnel transport, search and rescue, law enforcement, and medical evacuation.

Ventura County Battalion Chief Gary Monday said heavy maintenance and minor modifications were completed on the aircraft at HSI Sikorsky in Huntsville, Alabama, then two of the helicopters were painted at the United Rotorcraft facility in Decatur, Texas. One of them is now being ferried to United Rotorcraft in Englewood, Colorado to receive navigation and communication systems, cabin interiors, and a 1,000 gallon external fixed water tank with a retractable snorkel system. The landing gear will be replaced with higher gear to enable the installation of the belly tank.

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
A Ventura County HH-60L Blackhawk before being painted and converted into a FIREHAWK. VCFD photo.

The military had the aircraft originally configured by United Rotorcraft as dedicated MEDEVAC helicopters with medical equipment and patient litter systems, some of which will be repurposed in the new FIREHAWK configuration.

Ventura County, in Southern California, has a joint Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit. In addition to the FIREHAWKS, they have one Bell 206 Jet Ranger, one 212 HP, one 205B, and two UH-1A Hueys.

“We are a full service 24/7 operation capable of Night Vision Goggle rescues and firefighting”, Chief Monday said, “with three 375 simplex tanks for nighttime water dropping missions, S & R missions, LE missions, and anything else.”

FIREHAWK blackhawk Ventura County
Ventura County is converting military HH-60L Blackhawks into FIREHAWKS. VC FD photo.

In 2016 one of the Hueys, Copter 7, developed a mechanical problem while fighting the Pine Fire on the Los Padres National Forest. It had to be stripped down in order to transport it via truck on a route that included a tunnel with a height restriction.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gary and Isaac. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

CAL FIRE receives new Firehawk helicopter

The agency is replacing its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey firefighting helicopters.

CAL FIRE's new S-70i
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i. Photo provided by CAL FIRE.

CAL FIRE posted these photos today of a new addition to their fleet of helicopters.

A year ago the agency received approval to purchase up to 12 new firefighting helicopters, Sikorsky S-70i (Firehawks) from United Rotorcraft. These will replace its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey helicopters.

CAL FIRE's new S-70i
CAL FIRE’s new S-70i. Photo provided by CAL FIRE.

United Rotorcraft reported on October 26, 2018 that it had a contract from CAL FIRE for 12 Firehawks, worth a total of $240 million.

United Rotorcraft is also outfitting various configurations of Firehawks for Ventura County, San Diego Fire Rescue Department, and Los Angeles County.

Firehawks can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water in a belly tank while cruising fully loaded at 130 knots (150 mph), or 150 knots (173 mph) unloaded.

Santa Barbara County hopes to purchase a used Blackhawk

The Fire Department may acquire it from the National Guard

LA County FD Firehawk
Santa Barbara County plans to purchase a used Blackhawk helicopter which could be retrofitted similar to the Firehawks operated by Los Angeles County. Photo by LA County FD.

The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.

Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations.  These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.

The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey.  All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means.  All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:

Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.

County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.

In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, which raises the aircraft to make room for the tank.

The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.

One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.

Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.

At least three other firefighting agencies in California have recently purchased new Blackhawk helicopters, CAL FIRELos Angeles County , and San Diego Fire Department.


The article was revised to show that San Diego city, rather than San Diego County, is acquiring a new Blackhawk.

San Diego to get a new Sikorsky Firehawk

The City of San Diego Fire Department expects to receive their new Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter in October. Their staff just completed simulator and hands-on flight training for the new aircraft.

CAL FIRE’s acquisition of new helicopter fleet still up in the air

CAL FIRE Firehawk
Model of CAL FIRE Firehawk, by Sikorsky. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

After several false starts over several years, CAL FIRE selected a variant of the Blackhawk to replace its aging fleet of 12 Super Huey firefighting helicopters, but that acquisition is stalled. In what appeared to be the final hurdle an administrative law judge ruled in December against a protest filed by a competing company clearing the way for CAL FIRE to purchase up to 12 new Sikorsky S-70i’s (Firehawks), from Air Methods/United Rotorcraft (AMUR).

When the effort began years ago to replace the fleet of aircraft that is now at the end of its useful life, the legislature was told each new helicopter would cost around $12 million, but they realized the price could escalate. The new Firehawks will run $24 million each with the additional features recently added by CAL FIRE and the Department of General Services.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Sacramento Bee:

The Governor’s Office and Cal Fire are ready to start buying the new machines. “We believe we have provided the Legislature with all the necessary and requested information to move forward on this project,” Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.