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Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk


Retired military UH-60 helos are refurbished and modified specifically to excel in firefighting and rescue operations.

By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo/CFI. Challenger 604, Learjet
Contributing Writer

Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations Firehawk drops water on a fire in the foothills near Pasadena CA. The fire was brought under control by the rapid response from the helicopter teams.

The airborne firefighting community has long been an important segment of aviation. Early on, fleets of surplus military aircraft, such as Grumman S-2 Trackers, Consolidated B-24 Liberators, and Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s, were reconfigured to drop retardant on fires.

On the rotary-wing side, Bell UH-1 Iroquois led the fleet, along with Sikorsky S-61s and S-64 Skycranes. Beginning at the turn of the millennium, the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk was to become the flagship of firefighting helicopters.

This happened in 3 chapters over a period of 20 years.

Chapter 1: challenging climate

In the late 1990s, the planet’s air mass system began experiencing huge changes, with drought conditions descending on nations the world over. Forest fires of historic intensity began breaking out, leaving swaths of destroyed property in their wakes, so an urgent call went out for better fire suppression tools.

The western US, with its vast areas of forest and mountains, has been particularly hard hit by the drought conditions. The Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations unit has long been a leader in helicopter fire suppression. This county covers almost 4100 sq mi, including Catalina Island, widespread desert areas, and numerous mountain ranges.

Tens of thousands of acres of residential property are nested in mountain foothills and remote unincorporated regions of the county. The evolving climate increased these residents’ exposure to destructive fires. Consequently, LA County Fire Air Ops crews have long been on alert 24/7 to respond to emergencies, particularly in remote areas.

Their Bell 205s and Bell 412s could launch in minutes to wildland fires and medical emergencies. But with drought conditions intensifying, the authorities needed more airdrop capability. Bell 412s could deliver 360 gallons of retardant to a fire.

After an exceptionally large fire consumed 200 homes in Los Angeles County, Lee Benson, a former US Army aviator and veteran of years flying with the county’s Fire Air Operations, suggested to his management that the department needed helicopters that could deliver more retardant than the 412s.

The search homed in on the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk – a veteran aircraft in service with the US Army, Navy, and Air Force. It’s reliable in combat and can haul 1000 gallons of fire retardant.

United Rotorcraft is the leading completion center for Black Hawk public safety and firefighting helicopters. Systems specialists install the complex setups that support these special missions.

The public use policy

The only problem with the Black Hawk is that it had never been certified for civilian service. But there was a workaround – local, county, and state government agencies are legally empowered to conduct flight operations without FAA oversight or approval.

The policy, termed public use, allows those agencies to conduct their own pilot training and certification, maintain their aircraft according to their own standards, and fly within their own mission envelopes. Nonetheless, most agencies in the US have chosen to comply with FAA standards for pilot training and certification, maintenance procedures, and daily flight operations.

For Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations, the public use policy could potentially provide a legal framework for them to acquire and operate Black Hawks. Benson and his team worked with LA County’s legal team to determine whether the public use policy was applicable.

They produced their opinion and approval for the Black Hawk to operate under public use, and Benson and his team began discussions with Sikorsky to acquire 3 UH-60As. This would turn into a 7-year project.

Black Hawk operations

The Black Hawk was designed for the military to be flown with 2 pilots. This was the standard for helicopters flown in combat – a long-established principle in US Army aviation. LA County’s 412s were always flown by a single pilot. That was the unit’s culture and structure.

A change to a 2-pilot operation for a new aircraft would be disruptive and well beyond the unit’s fiscal capabilities. If the Black Hawk was to be integrated into their operation, it would have to be flown single-pilot. The team spent months working with Sikorsky to confirm that the Black Hawk could, in fact, be flown single-handed from the right seat.

After many hours of cockpit studies, the team was confident they could operate it safely in that manner. Sikorsky remained skeptical but, in the final analysis, the decision was up to their customer. The next task was to design a belly tank for the Black Hawk.

Using the design and operational principles that had long been in place for predecessor aircraft, Benson and his team worked with Sikorsky and Aero Union Corporation to configure a tank. But a small problem emerged – when the aircraft wasn’t airborne, the 1000-gallon tank touched the ground.

After extending the main landing gear strut by 16 inches, the problem was fixed. The aircraft now had a distinctive exterior profile.

A GE T700 engine is positioned for installation in a UH-60 Black Hawk. These helicopters are renowned for their ease of maintenance and easy access to all components.

Suitable mods

These modifications, along with a complete medical interior and a specialized avionics system that supported the complex, dynamic environment of an active fire scene, would require enlisting a 3rd-party contractor for completion of the project. United Rotorcraft, a subsidiary of Air Methods, was selected to do the completion work.

Located at APA (Centennial, Denver CO), United Rotorcraft had a long, successful record supporting the Black Hawk, having designed a medical interior for it that the US military had selected for several of its special-mission UH-60s.

The long, complicated road to delivery of the first 2 aircraft, now dubbed the S-70i Firehawk, was completed in 2001. After initial pilot training at FlightSafety International’s Black Hawk Learning Center PBI (West Palm Beach FL), Benson and his pilot team took delivery of the first aircraft at United Rotorcraft and flew it to his unit’s Air Operations base at WHP (Whiteman, Los Angeles CA).

N160LA’s first flight in service was on August 11, 2001, followed by N190LA in November 2001, and N15LA in 2004. This was a historic accomplishment for the firefighting community in the US. But it was to be only the first chapter.

Chapter 2: military surplus

In 2014, through its Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) program, the US Army released approximately 400 of its oldest UH-60A and L helicopters for sale to the public. These were equipped with first-generation cockpits and less powerful variants of the General Electric T700-series engine.

A number of commercial operators bought airframes and rebuilt them as needed. This included removing armor plating in the fuselage, and old wire bundles that powered and controlled radios and navigation systems, some of them dating back to the 1970s.

This made the aircraft hundreds of pounds lighter. Because non-government agencies may not benefit from the public use policy, these operators would need an FAA-issued special airworthiness certificate for a restricted category. Historically, many surplus military aircraft have been adapted to the civilian firefighting mission using these restricted category rules.

They limit operations to those defined within the certificates. They preclude such operations as passenger transport or flights in and around major urban areas. The first operators who led the process of integrating UH-60s into civilian aviation worked with FAA on a format for restricted airworthiness – all in support of deployment of Black Hawks on fire contracts within a legal framework.

Helos acquired through the BEST program began to appear on US Forest Service contracts in 2017. They performed well, and their long-standing record for flight reliability became a highlight early on, opening the door for more airframes to be acquired and deployed in subsequent seasons. Today, dozens of Black Hawks fly during fire season, leading the charge against dangerous blazes.

San Diego Firehawk on a search-and-rescue mission along the California coastline. It serves both as a prime responder to fires in the area and, when needed, as a medevac aircraft.

Chapter 3: widespread interest

Recognizing that the newer UH-60M models offered a significant increase in payload performance and had more capable avionics systems, Los Angeles County Fire Air Operations approached Sikorsky about acquisition of the model. As a result of these discussions, LA County agreed to purchase 3 S-70i Firehawks.

Sikorsky arranged for PZL Mielec, its Polish subsidiary tasked with building Black Hawks for 3rd-party customers, to deliver the newer aircraft. Other agencies took an interest as well. The California Division of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), was planning to replace its 17 Vietnam War-era Bell UH-1 Iroquois.

To that end, Cal Fire completed a contract for 12 Firehawks fully equipped for firefighting and medevac missions. The aircraft were completed at United Rotorcraft, and the first entered service in 2021. Today all 12 have been delivered, and 4 more are under contract.

Other agencies have followed suit and ordered Firehawks to support their firefighting requirements. San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has flown Bell 212s and 412s for fire and rescue missions. Chuck MacFarland, chief of air operations, led an in-depth study of available replacements for his unit’s aging fleet.

“We concluded that the Sikorsky S-70i, equipped for firefighting and rescue missions, was by far the better value than any other helicopter candidate,” says MacFarland. “Without this comprehensive study, our city would not have considered a replacement aircraft.

But after our presentation, the city council strongly supported the acquisition.” MacFarland also wrote a highly informative piece on the S-70i entitled “One Great Save: San Diego’s Justification and Journey to Acquire the S-70i Firehawk Helicopter,” available at iafc.org/ichiefs/ichiefs-article/one-great-save.

Other agencies in California have acquired new helicopters to support fire suppression programs in their districts. Ventura County acquired 3 Black Hawks from the BEST program and converted them to Firehawks with the assistance of United Rotorcraft. Santa Barbara County followed Ventura County’s lead, acquiring 1 UH-60L model.

In total, either new or through the BEST program, public service operators in California now operate a total of 28 Sikorsky Firehawks. And international operators in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand have navigated a complex path of export controls to bring UH-60As into their firefighting fleets.

A steady stream of UH-60 helicopters is making its way from the BEST program to be rebuilt as firefighting aircraft. They emerge with custom paint jobs and their trademark high front landing gear ready for their new missions. But the distinctive Black Hawk profile that has been legend in conflicts all over the world for decades still shines through – a proud symbol of many campaigns for the good of humankind.

WoodyWoody McClendon has flown Challenger 604s on overseas trips, and Learjets, Citation IIIs, and King Air 350s in North and South America. His book When the Angel Calls relates his experiences over 10 years as a medevac pilot. He has written for Pro Pilot for more than 25 years.