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The ‘new’ heavy-lift utility helicopters

By Elan Head

Published on: March 24, 2023
Estimated reading time 31 minutes, 9 seconds.

How the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and AS332 Super Puma are performing in firefighting and utility operations — and reshaping the market in the process.

Over the past decade, the fleet of heavy-lift helicopters dedicated to fire and utility work in North America has been undergoing a transformation.

In the United States, as the Army has divested Sikorsky UH-60A and L model Black Hawks and Boeing CH-47D Chinooks, these military workhorses have made their way into the civilian world as public use or restricted category aircraft, where they have excelled in firefighting and construction roles. In Canada and elsewhere around the world, the Airbus AS332 Super Puma has become increasingly popular for the same kind of work as it has been phased out of the oil-and-gas market.

All three aircraft types are highly capable and modern by utility helicopter standards, bringing a much-needed refresh to a sector that prizes performance but can rarely pay for the latest tech. Their relative affordability as military or offshore castoffs has enticed many operators who had little or no previous experience with the types, but a deep understanding of firefighting and utility missions.

The first U.S. Army Black Hawk to hit the civil market were UH-60A models, but Rich Enderle of Arista Aviation said buyers can expect to see L models dominating the government auctions going forward. Skip Robinson Photo

Now that the sector has had several years of solid experience with the aircraft, Vertical checked in with commercial operators of the UH-60, CH-47 and AS332 to learn how these types are shaking out in terms of real-world performance and operating costs. What we discovered is a market that is still very much in flux, with the aircraft getting rave reviews for their capabilities but many of their long-term operating costs obscured by the prevalence of “green time” — life remaining on components before they need to be replaced or overhauled.

Particularly in the UH-60 world, this has created significant downward pressure on contract rates, posing challenges for anyone who wants to operate the type for the long haul. While the Black Hawk, Chinook and Super Puma are all likely to become lasting fixtures of the utility helicopter industry, it will take more time for the market to incorporate them into a stable equilibrium.

The current surplus of UH-60 aircraft has meant plenty of spares and reduced operating costs in the short term, but has also created downward pressure on contract rates. Lloyd Horgan Photo

UH-60: The ‘new Huey’

During the 1980s and ’90s, as the Black Hawk replaced the Bell UH-1H Huey in the U.S. Army’s inventory, surplus Hueys flooded the civil market, where they were used and sometimes abused by firefighting and logging operators.

“The joke when I was a kid was the $100,000 Huey: buy a Huey for $100,000, go to work tomorrow,” recalled Timberline Helicopters chief operating officer Brian Jorgenson, who grew up in the helicopter industry. Today, the Huey has an inflation-adjusted parallel in the first generation of Army Black Hawks, which Jorgenson said “seems like the $1 million helicopter right now.”

With the Army transitioning to the latest variant of the Black Hawk, the UH-60M, the first UH-60A models began arriving in the civil world in 2014 through the Program Executive Office for Aviation Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team Program, or BEST. Aircraft identified as “obsolete” (17 to 25 years old or technologically outdated) are first offered to U.S. federal and state agencies before being put up for sale through the General Services Administration (GSA) auction, which is open to the public.

Brainerd Helicopters/Firehawk Helicopters was an early pioneer in commercial Black Hawk operations, having flown Sikorsky S-70 models in the U.S. since 1996. The company now operates a mixed fleet of S-70s and UH-60s. Shown here is an S-70C (top) alongside a UH-60A. Dan Megna Photo

Since the program was initiated a decade ago, around 500 Black Hawks have been divested and sold to government agencies and civil customers, with UH-60Ls gradually replacing the A models arriving at auction. The program has netted hundreds of millions of dollars in proceeds that the Army has applied to procurement of the UH-60M, yielding substantial savings for taxpayers. Meanwhile, a new industry has sprung up to support the UH-60 on the civil side.

Alabama-based Arista Aviation is one of the companies that now specializes in Black Hawk refurbishment and support. According to president Rich Enderle, the company has refurbished around 30 Black Hawks that Arista or its customers have acquired through the BEST Program.

With the Army transitioning to the latest variant of the Black Hawk, the UH-60M, the first UH-60A models began arriving in the civil world in 2014 through the BEST program. Brent Bundy Photo

“Once we get the aircraft through from the auction, we do a thorough structural inspection, perform required maintenance and complete all of the calendar inspections,” he said. “The aircraft is stripped all the way down to the bare metal, it’s repainted, and then you install the required mission equipment requested by the customer.”

For firefighting, that could include installation of a new transponder, radios, intercom system, loudhailer, lighting, cargo hook, and fuel reclamation cans. Enderle said these modifications can run from $500,000 up to $800,000, on top of the $1 million or so an operator might pay for the aircraft at auction. While that’s not exactly cheap, it’s still much less than what many smaller, less capable helicopters cost brand-new.

In the U.S., commercial Black Hawks must operate as restricted category aircraft, which means they can only carry essential crewmembers onboard (a limitation that does not apply to public use aircraft operated for public agencies). That means they can’t compete with standard category aircraft for passenger-carrying missions, but are ideally suited for external load work, which also prohibits the presence of nonessential personnel.

Idaho-based Timberline acquired its first UH-60s in late 2014 and has now logged more than 15,000 hours across a fleet of five Black Hawks. Jorgenson is enthusiastic about the type, which he sees as offering a step change in safety and performance over an older generation of rotorcraft without sacrificing anything in durability.

“My personal opinion is it’s the last true utility helicopter that may ever be built, because everything now is plastic and fiberglass and it just doesn’t hold up the way this aircraft does,” Jorgenson said. For the utility world, “this one is such a great aircraft, it’s hard to imagine what designing a new aircraft would gain you,” he said.

Because so many Black Hawks have entered the civil market in recent years, parts for the aircraft are generally plentiful, with most of those scavenged from other surplus airframes. That means that operators don’t yet have to budget for things like transmission upgrades and engine replacements, which can each cost as much as an entire airframe at auction. “Going back to the auction and buying an aircraft if you can get it for the right price is still the way many people are addressing the sustainment of the aircraft,” Enderle said.

Multiple operators who spoke with Vertical said this situation has been driving down rates for the UH-60, as some operators have prioritized cash flow over the long-term sustainability of the platform. Billings Flying Service, based in Montana, is one of the companies that has witnessed this trend. According to president Nick Nenadovic, Billings expects the operating costs for the Black Hawk to increase in the future as the spares pool dries up.

“A potentially detrimental misconception is ‘the UH-60 is the new UH-1,’” Nenadovic wrote in an email to Vertical. “We see parts exponentially more expensive than UH-1 parts, yet the aircraft are being offered at previous decade-old pricing. The UH-60 is truly an incredible aircraft, extremely stable with good performance. Much like the UH-1, it really can take the place of some older platforms in our industry if properly valued and operated.”

CH-47D: Civilian Chinook

This downward pricing pressure is less acute in the CH-47D market, where the supply of aircraft is more limited and the barriers to entry are higher. The U.S. Army has now fully divested its D model Chinooks, which sold at auction for around $2 million to $3.5 million while they were available for a few years starting in 2014.

Like the Black Hawk, the Chinook has won high praise from many utility operators for its outstanding capability and performance.

To maximize the effectiveness of its Chinooks for firefighting, Coulson Group modified the bellies of the aircraft to accommodate its proprietary 3,000-gallon internal tank and a pair of drop doors, overcoming the limitations of the model’s small hook well opening. This year, Coulson-Tan will have three CH-47Ds on contract 24/7/365 as part of the Quick Reaction Force established by Southern California Edison and Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties.

Coulson Group president Britt Coulson said his company was initially reluctant to move into CH-47s because of the difficulty of supporting former military aircraft. Unical’s unrivaled parts inventory was the deciding factor in moving forward with a joint venture. Skip Robinson Photo

“I would say they exceeded expectations,” said Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson, whose British Columbia-based company now operates five of the model through a joint venture with the Tan family, founders of Unical in California. Unical was among the largest single purchasers of UH-60 and CH-47 models, providing the enterprise with a ready supply of spare parts.

Billings Flying Service president Nick Nenadovic said the company has been receiving more inquiries from CH-47 operators and is currently working with some of those operators to support their aircraft. “In the future we expect our Part 145 MRO to grow with the addition of more capabilities and the support of more operators,” he said. Skip Robinson Photo

“We’ve been able to operate the fleet at the highest availability probably in the world based on the talent pool that we have and the spare parts that we have through the joint venture,” Coulson said.

Although the CH-47D is proving to be a strong performer, the smaller fleet of civilian Chinooks comes with its own challenges in terms of sustainment. California-based PJ Helicopters currently operates 11 UH-60A Black Hawks and recently began flying its first CH-47D, with the aim of eventually standing up three Chinooks for power line construction and firefighting. According to director of operations Dave McCammon, “the 47 community as we’re finding is much, much smaller than the Black Hawk [community]. And just with the numbers, it’s much more difficult to support.”

While Boeing is still cranking out F model Chinooks and supporting legacy operators, defense customers are first in line when it comes to support from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). McCammon said that some civilian operators are now looking at banding together to increase their buying power. “Boeing is a very large company and they like numbers; they don’t want onesies-twosies,” he explained.

At the same time, many civil operators are investing heavily in developing their internal capabilities for long-term support of the model. That includes Billings Flying Service, which according to Nenadovic has acquired the necessary tooling, inventory, processes, and test equipment to sustain the CH-47 at the depot level.

“It was extremely important to develop the in-house capabilities and we found that the most efficient path is often to manage and perform the work ourselves,” he told Vertical. “The market for civilian CH-47 support is lean, and often the lead times or combination of lead times and pricing are not a good fit for our operation. Using our extensive experience, we have focused on identifying the critical items required to support CH-47 operations, increased our inventory levels, and will add more capabilities where it makes sense.”

Looking to the future, the company anticipates the need to expand into parts manufacturing as some suppliers phases out support for certain items in coming years.

“The parts demand in the civilian market will only continue to increase as these aircraft age. With a complex and challenging global supply chain, spares components pricing has seen significant increases,” Nenadovic wrote, acknowledging that “supporting legacy components and items of obsolescence on the platform will prove challenging.”

Precision CEO David Rath said about 75 percent of the company’s AS332 captains came to the Super Puma with little or no previous time on the model, but lots of firefighting experience. These pilots typically fly as co-pilots on the AS332 for a season before taking the captain role. Jason Jorgensen Photo

Columbia Helicopters, which purchased 11 CH-47D airframes and has chosen to operate three of them, has already developed extensive parts manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) capabilities as a longtime operator of and type certificate holder for the Model 234, the commercial, standard category version of the Chinook.

“The transition to the 47 was smooth,” said Santiago Crespo, Columbia’s vice president of growth and strategy, noting that Columbia also provides MRO support for the CH-47 fleets of the U.S. Army and foreign militaries. “Most importantly,” he said, “we had gained tremendous experience in heavy-lift operations on the Columbia Model 234 Multi-Mission Chinook and were able to take that experience around improving the airframe structure and other modifications to the aircraft to make them more reliable.”

Crespo said that Columbia has found the CH-47D to be “a fantastic platform . . . very reliable” and will continue to support the model into the future. As an operator, however, the company does not intend to add any more D models to its active fleet. Instead, it will be focusing on its own types, the 234 and the smaller Columbia Model 107-II Multi-Mission Helicopter. The commercial version of the CH-46 Sea Knight, the 107-II is another proven performer in firefighting and utility operations that has recently been gaining traction as a competitor to the Mil Mi-8/17.

“We really are focusing on our own platforms and growing that fleet, which is standard category . . . which we believe has some additional benefits for our current and future customers,” Crespo said. He pointed out that standard category aircraft are particularly valuable in many international markets, which may not have a framework for restricted category operations or the ability to import former military aircraft.

AS332: A versatile alternative

Standard category certification is also a principal selling point for the AS332, which is in roughly the same weight and performance class as lightweight Black Hawks with enhanced engines. Many of the AS332 L and L1 models entering the utility market come from the offshore sector, where some are still in use even after the later variant of the Super Puma, the H225, was expelled from the oil-and-gas market following a series of main rotor gearbox failures that culminated in a high-profile fatal accident in 2016.

Heli Austria upgraded the cockpits of its AS332s with Garmin GTN750 and 650 avionics and is currently in the process of certifying a G500H upgrade for the model. CEO Roy Knaus said the G500H will simplify the transition for pilots coming to the AS332 from the H125. Lloyd Horgan Photo

David Rath is CEO of the Oregon-based helicopter operator Precision. His first exposure to the AS332 L1 came in his previous role as president of Evergreen Helicopters, which successfully deployed the model on contracts for personnel transport in Afghanistan. Today, Precision and its partners operate five L1 models on overseas contracts mostly focused on firefighting. Since 2021, Precision and British Columbia’s Coldstream Helicopters, which has a fleet of 10 AS332 L and L1 models, have partnered to meet North American demands.

Rath praised the AS332’s speed, endurance, and hot-and-high performance, which he said allow it to maximize the amount of water delivered per fuel cycle in firefighting operations. But he acknowledged that the UH-60 is a “formidable competitor” in terms of lifting capability, and that “the downward economic pressure is real” when it comes to contract rates for Black Hawks. Operating the standard category AS332 allows Precision to differentiate its service offering for customers who are wary of or unable to use restricted category aircraft.

“When we have to compete simply for an external load construction job, often we’re not the lowest cost,” he said. “That’s why we think we made the right choice of not competing in the UH-60 world 365 days out of the year, meaning that we find a marketplace where somebody would pay for the benefit of having a standard category multi-mission aircraft.”

Rath appreciates the fact that the AS332 is supported by the original OEM and has found value in Safran’s Support-By-the-Hour programs for the aircraft’s Makila engines. But he acknowledged that parts and MRO options are limited compared to the robust aftermarkets that exist for other models. “That just means you have to be resourceful and create your own internal capability as well. So you choose where you’re going to vertically integrate your own business model versus waiting on the manufacturer to support,” he said.

Over in Europe, Heli Austria has been investing heavily in the AS332 L and L1 since adding the first Super Pumas to its fleet in 2016. The company currently operates six AS332s, with plans to return two more to service in 2023. Heli Austria also recently sold two aircraft to Switzerland’s Lions Air Group for a firefighting joint venture.

Heli Austria’s extensive design and maintenance capabilities allowed it to refurbish its Super Pumas in-house, stripping them of excess weight and adding new avionics. It worked with the Italian design organization TPS Group to obtain a supplemental type certificate (STC) for weight-saving “baby sponsons” that replace the original housings for the rear landing gear, and with VIH Aerospace in Canada on new, more cost-effective bubble doors for both pilots.

Heli Austria also partnered with Helitak on a 4,250-liter (1,120-U.S. gallon) underbelly water tank for the Super Puma, which was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2022 and is waiting on validation from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. Now, Heli Austria is exploring further performance enhancements to the model through aerodynamic modifications and redesigned blade tips, as well as lithium-ion replacements for the main and backup batteries.

Heli Austria CEO Roy Knaus believes that the Super Puma’s ability to carry 4,000 liters (around 1,000 U.S. gallons) of water will keep it relevant as a firefighting platform long into the future, even if drones displace some smaller helicopters. Lloyd Horgan Photo

“There were a lot of investments, but we were very lucky that we got some deals with spares packages,” Heli Austria CEO Roy Knaus told Vertical by email. “We put the spares back to service through MRO shops and sell them and use that money for further technical developments.”

Looking to the future, Knaus expects the main rotor gearbox, main rotor head, and engines to be the biggest cost drivers for the model. “It is different from operating [Airbus] H125s or Bell mediums where you have a lot of shops and parts you can choose from,” he noted. “For the 332 you have to be in good control of your part needs and to have slots with the MROs for your requirements. We are preparing that we have sent a lot of parts out for overhaul and conditional inspections to have everything we need.”

Heli-Austria and Horizon Helicopters have forged an alliance offering the AS3332 ‘Firecat’ for firefighting operations in Canada. Skip Robinson Photo

Nevertheless, he remains enthusiastic about the platform and its long-term prospects. Ultimately, he believes the AS332 will be the ideal aircraft for introducing Europe to nighttime aerial firefighting, something that is already being done with Black Hawks, Chinooks, and other helicopter models in the U.S.

“The next step for us is night firefighting and there are still some hurdles to overcome,” he wrote, noting that the use of night vision imaging systems in firefighting operations is not addressed or envisioned in EASA regulations. “But we think we will find a solution for it on a national level — not for all countries, but the political pressure will become huge over the next years.”

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