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After four decades operating Bell UH-1F Hueys up to 1990, and UH-1H Super Hueys from then to the present day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has begun a long-anticipated upgrade to its aviation program.
In 2017, Colorado-based United Rotorcraft was awarded a contract to provide Cal Fire with a dozen specially modified Sikorsky S-70i helicopters, designated by the agency as Cal Fire Hawks, as replacements for the agency’s legacy Super Huey fleet. The initial contract was for a single aircraft, with options for 11 more.
“The replacing of our Huey helicopters goes all the way back to 2003 following all the large fires down in Southern California, most notably the Cedar Fire,” said Cal Fire’s deputy chief of tactical air operations and chairman of the S-70i Transition Committee, Randy Rapp. “The [governor’s] Blue Ribbon Commission published a report. One of the findings related to us was we had an aging helicopter fleet and we should look at replacing them with something newer that would afford us the ability to potentially fight fire day and night.”
The S-70i provides Cal Fire greatly enhanced technology, performance and safety over the legacy Hueys. It has an internal maximum gross weight of 22,000 pounds (9,980 kilograms) and 23,500 lb. (10,660 kg) external, better than double that of the Super Huey. Twin GE T700-701D engines produce 4,000 shaft horsepower and a cruising speed up to 160 knots. The fixed belly tank has a 1,000-gallon (3,785-liter) capacity, nearly three times that of the Super Huey, and a fill time under one minute.
The first Cal Fire Hawk was delivered in October 2019 and designated Copter 903. It was publicly showcased as a static display at the January 2020 HAI Heli-Expo. Today it is based at the Cal Fire aviation headquarters facility at Sacramento McClellan Airport and serves as the first of what will be two maintenance spares for the new fleet. It is also supporting the agency’s ongoing S-70i transition training campaign throughout the state.
Cal Fire’s first fully operational Hawk, Copter 205, entered service in July with its Tehama Glenn Unit at Vina Helitack Base. They were the agency’s first helitack crew to receive the two-week transition training program, earning the distinction as Cal Fire’s first helitack base operating the new aircraft. In November, the Columbia Helitack base became the second with Copter 404.
With two more aircraft expected by early 2021, it is likely that four Firehawks will be operational for the upcoming fire season. It is projected the balance of the new fleet will be operational by the spring or summer of 2022. As aircraft are delivered and made ready for service, Cal Fire’s training cadre will be conducting transition training for helitack crews at each of the other bases.
The helitack crews and the pilots have been operating from Super Hueys for many years. So for most, the transition into the Firehawk is more of a comprehensive “hands-on” familiarization with a new aircraft.
“The aerial firefighting component is really the same whether you’re operating a Huey or a Firehawk,” Rapp said. “So, in some regards, all we’re really doing is changing the platform that we’re operating from.”
The helitack crew’s transition training begins with a week of ground school that includes aircraft familiarization and general operational and safety guidelines specific to the Firehawk.
They’re introduced to a number of functional techniques unique to the S-70i, such as deploying from the aircraft, “hover stepping” via the wheeled front landing gear instead of the Huey’s skid, and procedures for configuring rear cabin seating for various missions.
For most, they have only been familiar working with the Super Huey’s internally mounted rescue hoist. The Firehawk’s external rescue hoist requires learning new or modified techniques and procedures.
The second week is mostly practical exercises, beginning with more work on the ground at the base. This is followed by three days in the field with their base’s own Firehawk and Copter 903 brought in to support the training evolutions. Here, the training cadre run the helitack crews through a variety of exercises, emphasizing hoisting scenarios and best practices for moving about the cabin and securing victims/rescue litters inside the cabin.
Some in the helitack ranks admit the transition from the familiar Huey to the Firehawk wasn’t made entirely without reservation.
“To be honest, initially, I was a bit leery,” said eight-year helitack veteran Capt. Sean Preader. “Not with the capability of the aircraft but just making such a change to our program that we’ve done so well with over the past many years.”
“But once I began working on the aircraft, I realized how the aircraft’s performance made [the Firehawk] more than capable and the airframe was still able to get into and fit in many of the spots we were used to getting into with the Huey,” Preader added. “So at that point any concerns I may have had were quickly alleviated.”
A number of Cal Fire pilots had previous experience in the Firehawk airframe. For others, however, this is an entirely new machine. Regardless, all pilots have been through or will soon attend a two-week course in Florida with FlightSafety International. Upon completion, Cal Fire’s goal is to get these pilots into their aircraft as quickly as possible so as to keep the information fresh and relevant and so they can begin building confidence and real-world experience.
Pete Gookin has been flying with Cal Fire for seven years; however, he has been flying firefighting missions for 20 years, mostly in Bell mediums. Up until his introduction to the Firehawk, the Bell 212 was the most complex helicopter he’d ever flown.
“The transition to the Black Hawk has been a steep learning curve,” said Gookin. “But with FlightSafety and the help of our cadre whose members have quite a bit of Black Hawk experience, the transition was a lot easier that I expected.”
“One of the beauties of the Black Hawk, as compared to the UH-1 airframe that most of us have flown on fires, is the flight director and the autopilot system,” Gookin added. “It considerably reduces pilot workload, reduces pilot stress and pilot fatigue, which will make the operation a lot safer than it has been. Anyone that has flown seven to eight hours on a fire will appreciate the systems in this aircraft.”
Gookin admits he too was a bit apprehensive at first, but looking back on making the transition, he’s quite enthused and optimistic.
“I’m really pleased,” he said. “I’m amazed at what [the Firehawk] can do. I look forward to spending the rest of my career in an airframe like this. It’s safe, efficient, effective… everything we’re looking for in a fire aircraft.”
While Cal Fire’s Hawks are approved for single-pilot operation, the agency believes the complexity and sophistication of the aircraft and its onboard systems could add to pilot workload, especially while operating low-level in a congested, smoky fire traffic area.
As an additional layer of safety and efficiency in the cockpit, specially trained fire captains are assigned to the front left seat as an extra set of eyes, ears and hands to aid the pilot during tactical missions including fire attack, rescue, crew deployment/recovery and off-field operations.
Cal Fire is also mandating, on any tactical mission, the rear cabin be staffed with the military equivalent of a crew chief.
“Operations supervisor or ‘OpSup’ is a new position that was added to the minimum staffing on the Hawk,” Preader said. “He’s the guy who has the best vision in that aircraft and he’s on a harness so he can safely move about the cabin. He’s the one clearing the rotors, the one clearing the belly of the aircraft, making sure the tank and the snorkel doesn’t contact anything when we land, especially off-field and he’s the only one who can see the snorkel during water dropping operations.”
The primary responsibility of the aircraft and its four- to six-member helitack crew is wildland firefighting. But they also perform search-and-rescue and hoist rescue missions. They are trained and equipped, however, to perform only basic life support, so they’re limited in the level of care they can provide during an air medical mission.
The advanced capabilities of the Firehawk are allowing Cal Fire to begin working toward an exciting new program. Once all of the new aircraft are in service and crews have become comfortable, there are plans to begin training for night vision goggle (NVG) operations.
Five of the state’s 10 helitack bases will be designated as “night capable,” while the other five will remain “day mission only.”
“We’ve got some work to do to get to that point with these new complex aircraft,” said Rapp. “We want to make sure we get our folks trained and let them log some hours in this new aircraft to get comfortable before we start transitioning them into night operations. I would estimate that, within the next 12 months, we would start to see Cal Fire aircraft operating at night.”
“At this point we are working on a formalized training plan for our NVG operations,” Rapp added. “We have purchased some goggles for our training and operations but we will be purchasing more in the future. We also have developed an NVG training aircraft in conjunction with DynCorp [Cal Fire’s contracted maintenance provider]. This is a Type III helicopter and is available to us now for training. We plan to utilize this aircraft to train our crews at a significantly reduced flight rate as compared to the S-70is.”
The new, larger Firehawk does present new challenges for the way the fleet will be maintained and supported in the field.
“With our Hueys, we basically didn’t have base mechanics out there so if we needed to do something we’d get a mechanic sent out to the base,” said Dennis Brown, Cal Fire’s senior chief of aviation. “With the Black Hawk, it’s a little more complex, for sure. It also requires a mechanic to be there to do part of the mechanical preflight.”
“So we have recruited and hired some base mechanics and we will continue to do that,” Brown added. “So each base will have its own S-70i mechanic seven days a week. We also will bring the aircraft back to McClellan for anything that’s above the capability of one mechanic or we’ll send mechanics if the aircraft is grounded in the field. All the heavy maintenance will be done at McClellan.”
Supporting the maintenance and operational requirements of the Firehawks will require many helitack bases to be upgraded with new infrastructure to include larger reinforced/lighted landing pads and hangars to accommodate the larger aircraft. While some improvements have already been completed, it will take quite some time to complete the planning, engineering and buildout of the new facilities.
While it seems Cal Fire may be closing the chapter on their UH-1 Hueys, their ultimate fate is still unclear. In the near future, they will remain in service with the agency as they are still valuable resources for the ever-present threat of wildfire. After 2022, however, that’s still up in the air.
“As we receive the new aircraft, and once we do the training for each individual base, and they transition from the Huey into the Cal Fire Hawks and are responding with the new aircraft, only then may the Hueys be removed from the active fleet,” Rapp said. “At this moment, their future remains undetermined.”