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Since entering service with the U.S. Army in 1978, Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk has earned an esteemed reputation among military operators around the globe. Its versatility, durability and performance make it highly adaptable to a wide variety of missions. Sikorsky’s S-70 is the commercial variant of the UH-60 Black Hawk. While it has always been available to domestic operators, its cost and restricted category has limited its commercial acceptance. But the S-70 has proved popular in the export market with foreign governments for military and public safety missions and VIP transportation.
In spite of its costs and operational limitations, the Black Hawk has many alluring qualities for commercial operators. It possesses everything they want from an aircraft: speed, lift, safety, requires limited maintenance, and is a reliable, proven multi-mission workhorse.
In the mid-1990s, Brainerd Helicopters (now Firehawk Helicopters) purchased a low-time S-70 that had been in storage overseas, becoming the first domestic commercial operator of a Black Hawk. After a comprehensive overhaul, the aircraft entered service in 1996 on a firefighting contract in the Western U.S. The company acquired a second S-70 in 2001 from Sikorsky, a “trade-in” from a foreign government.
In 2014, as the Black Hawk passed 35 years of military service, the U.S. Army began a program to divest a large number of “obsolete and non-excess” utility Black Hawks. The Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) program administered the sale (or exchange with Sikorsky) of 600 to 800 legacy Black Hawks — mostly A and L models — making them available to foreign and domestic government agencies, as well as commercial operators. The Army planned to use the revenue and/or exchange credit to offset costs for replacement aircraft.
In the early days of the BEST program, operators could pick up a Black Hawk in flyable condition for $500,000 or less. It would generally require a further investment of a million dollars (if not more) to get that aircraft ready to go to work.
Today, things have changed. “Nowadays, you don’t buy a flying aircraft for less than a million dollars,” Bart Brainerd, president of Firehawk Helicopters, told Vertical. “You’re paying sometimes $3.5 million for the HH-60Ls that have come out in the past six months — and that’s before you do any reconditioning and upgrades. So, you’re conservatively looking at putting another million dollars on top of what you spent for the aircraft.”
To date, the BEST program has sold over 300 A and L model Black Hawks. As a result, the number of operators in the U.S. has grown significantly. By last count, there are more than 40 Black Hawks being operated by 28 operators in the U.S. Most of them are commercial operators, along with a handful of federal law enforcement agencies and fire agencies in California.
While the Black Hawk has more than proven its multi-mission capabilities for the military in battle, as far as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is concerned, it’s a restricted category aircraft in the commercial world. As a result, its mission scope is somewhat narrow.
“When the Black Hawk entered the civil utility market, it ended up in a role with very limited capabilities,” said Travis Storro, chief operating officer at Timberline Helicopters and chairman of Helicopter Association International’s restricted and experimental aircraft committee. “If you look at any of the TCs [type certificates], the Black Hawk only has three special purposes listed in restricted category: agriculture aircraft operations; forest and wildlife conservation, limited to the aerial dispensing of firefighting materials; and external load operations. And without a fire tank installed — and nobody currently has a certificated fire tank — the only thing you can use the aircraft for is flying things attached to the cargo hook. That’s the only thing the FAA will allow you to do in restricted category.”
Regardless of the limitations as a restricted category aircraft, interest in the commercial Black Hawk is soaring. As a result, operators, engineering firms and parts manufacturers are developing products and systems to enhance the aircraft.
Tank programs in progress
Presently, there are at least seven companies working to develop and certify firefighting tank systems. While many of these companies have been forthcoming about their plans, others are understandably reluctant to discuss the state of their own projects.
Firehawk Helicopters is in the final stages of developing a 925-US gallon (3,500-liter) internal tank, and hopes to have received a supplemental type certificate (STC) for it by the second quarter of 2019. The company is developing a number of other Black Hawk STCs, including a bubble window for external load operations certified to a maximum speed of 175 knots.
Timberline Helicopters, which expects to have five of its seven Black Hawks working by next summer, is another operator developing a firefighting tank. “Our system is going to be vastly different than any other concepts that I’ve seen from other companies,” said Storro. “We’re looking at it through a very mission-specific lens. We want to do minimum modifications to the aircraft and we want to maximize its usability. So, we don’t want to put a tank on the aircraft and then turn it into a tanked aircraft for the rest of its life. We have to be able to remove it and utilize it for external load operations because under the TC that’s all we can use it for.”
The operator is also in the final stages of gaining parts manufacturer approval (PMA) for purged fuel collectors to capture discharged fuel upon aircraft shutdown. “It’s something the Forest Service wants us to have and it’s something all our California customers are thrilled about,” said Storro. “We’ve already equipped our own fleet.”
In addition to two models of external belly tanks for the Black Hawk, Simplex Aerospace is working on two internal tanks — an 850-US gallon (3,220-liter) and a 1,000-US gallon (3,785-liter) model. Both have composite construction and can utilize a traditional suspended hover pump or a retractable hover pump. Each model installs into the rear cabin in 15 minutes using a rail system. The 850-US gallon model utilizes the existing hook-well in the aircraft’s belly to deliver its load in five to six seconds. The 1,000-US gallon model requires modification to the aircraft’s belly, with two additional holes enabling the tank to empty in two to three seconds.
While Simplex is developing both internal and external tank solutions, Larry Lichtenberger, the company’s executive VP, believes the costly landing gear modifications required for the belly tank will put it out of reach for most operators. “We just think the internal tank is the way to do it,” he told Vertical. “Think of the guy that goes out and gets a Forest Service contract, and maybe he pays $300,000 for an aircraft, and maybe a million or more getting it ready to fly; he doesn’t want to spend [another] $2 million to get a tank on it. There may be a little market for the external tanks, but we see a bigger market for the internal — minimum modifications, quick on and off, lower acquisition costs.”
Building the next generation
United Rotorcraft and Kawak Aviation Technologies have teamed up in their pursuit of the next generation firefighting tank system. United Rotorcraft is currently performing its Firehawk conversion on 10 Black Hawks destined for four California fire agencies: Cal Fire, Ventura County, Los Angeles County and San Diego City (spanning eight new S-70i and two HH-60L models). Cal Fire has committed to seven additional S-70i aircraft within the next three years. Kawak is charged with designing and manufacturing the tank.
The United Rotorcraft/Kawak tank is similar to the belly tank system flown aboard the S-70s belonging to Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), but will offer several improvements. “We are doing a 100-percent brand new 1,000-US gallon metal firefighting tank with a new modular hydraulic system powering the refill pump and the doors, which will be set up very much like the old system,” said Kawak’s Andrew Sawyer. “There are lots of things about the old system that we’re keeping, but we’re using current technology in the new design.”
Because government operators such as firefighting agencies fly as “public use” aircraft, their mission scope is not limited to “restricted category” operations. As a result, completion houses like United Rotorcraft are developing products and interiors to meet the multi-mission public service role.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Mike Slattery, United Rotorcraft’s president. “We’re seeing the interest in Firehawks just take off, and a lot of it is the ability of the aircraft to do the multi-mission [role]. And when it’s a government agency and they don’t have the restriction relative to carrying fire crews . . . that really leverages the true capability of the Firehawk.”
It was LACoFD that first introduced the Firehawk into the parapublic arena in 2000. The agency, along with its industry partners, is proud to claim ownership for the aircraft’s firefighting systems and mission innovations.
“We pioneered the first retractable snorkel for the drop tank,” said Lee Benson, who spent 26 years with LACoFD. “To this day, the LACoFD Firehawks are the highest-performance truly multi-mission helicopters in the world: water dropping 1,000-US gallons, a 13-man crew haul, high speed hoist, full EMS [emergency medical service] medical equipment, and the ability to transition from EMS to crew haul in under four minutes. I know I’m bragging a bit, but as the project manager, I take a lot of pride in what our folks, Sikorsky, Air Methods and Aero Union — who built the tank — were able to accomplish.”
United Aeronautical Corporation has many years of experience in developing modular airborne firefighting systems for large fixed-wing tankers. In discussing potential projects related to the Black Hawk, Bradford Beck, the company’s president and COO, said only: “We have not filed any STCs yet, but there are various vertical-lift systems in consideration now on various different platforms — and [the] Black Hawk and S-70 are definitely involved in those.”
Other innovations for Black Hawks are coming in the form of advanced cockpit avionics suites. Ace Aeronautics purchased two aircraft from the BEST program to aid their development of the Ace Deck VL-60, which uses Garmin’s G5000H touchscreen flight management system and vehicle management system. The company is also developing an EO/IR sensor mount. Ace Aero’s Tracy Stapleton said the company expects the Ace Deck to receive an STC by March 2019.
Rogerson Kratos is pursuing a similar advanced cockpit solution with sophisticated integration for firefighting. The company has teamed up with a tank manufacturer to develop technology for better load management and targeting.
“We’re looking at how do we assist the firefighter in determining how to lay down the perfect layer of fire retardant,” said Mike Miller, VP of military programs at Rogerson Kratos. “You have GPS and you have a mission plan, and then how do you put that information into a system that can steer the pilot and determine when to make the drop and the ideal coverage?”
Elsewhere, Honeywell Aerospace has received an STC to install its Aspire 200 satellite communications system aboard Black Hawks. Developed specifically for helicopters, the system provides real-time data, voice and video transmissions, acting like a Wi-Fi router providing high-bandwidth connectivity with “smart” devices throughout the aircraft.
Beyond firefighting systems and advanced avionics, companies are pursuing development of other mission enhancing products. Aerometals (formerly FDC/Aerofilter), is finalizing approvals for what the company describes as a “next generation” inlet barrier filter (IBF) system for the Black Hawk. It is also producing a lightweight straight exhaust that provides an estimated 400-pound weight saving over the legacy Hover Infrared Suppression System module assemblies.
Because Donaldson Filtration Systems originally developed the IBF for the U.S. Army, a number of aircraft being acquired from the BEST program have that company’s kits already installed. When asked about the commercial Black Hawk, global sales director Lars Hesbjerg said, “Right now, we have not seen any inquiries from the commercial side, but we have had some interest when operators procure those aircraft already equipped with the kits and are looking to retrofit them for commercial use.”
With external lifting such an essential mission for the commercial operator, cargo hook manufacturers On Board Systems and Mechanical Specialties LLC have both developed replacement cargo hooks for Black Hawks. Each are rated to 9,000 pounds, have load cell integration, and improved secondary release systems over the legacy hooks they replace.
Meeker Aviation has five searchlight and camera/sensor system mounts for the Black Hawk, but they are not expected to be of particular interest to civil operators. “My interest in the commercial side is very, very small,” said Cal Meeker, the company’s president. “I just don’t see a lot of business, because those operators just aren’t doing that. We don’t do a whole lot of business in the commercial market now. Instead, I want to be in position to offer the military H-60 operators around the world a chance to put on sensor packages that otherwise might be too cost prohibitive.”
The Black Hawk may always be a niche player in commercial operations. But going forward, many believe it will find a home in other markets such as mining, military training, and perhaps even commercial search-and-rescue (SAR).
“You’re never going to have it as a standard category [aircraft],” said Brainerd. “But I think what you’re going to see is special purpose certifications. That’s essentially what PJ Helicopters is doing with the Bureau of Land Management, (BLM). The BLM had to do a public aircraft declaration so PJ can carry firefighters. So they’ve wedged that aircraft now into a special purpose contract and a special purpose certification and they’re doing something with the aircraft that has never been done before.
“I believe that’s the ‘opening shot,’ if you will, of what’s going to become a very diverse market. So you won’t necessarily have that overarching umbrella of normal category certification, but I think you’ll see exemptions and certifications to allow the aircraft to perform missions that are viewed as benefitting the public good.”