Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 36 seconds.
With the Western United States facing what has almost become a year-round fire season, there is an ever-increasing need for greater aerial firefighting capabilities. Heavy helicopters have traditionally played a large role in fighting fires across the region, from Sikorsky S-61s and Vertol V-107s to Erickson S-64s and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks. But in the last few years, former military Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks have arrived on the scene in growing numbers, bringing a new generation into the utility aerial firefighting fleet. With excellent performance (it’s capable of lifting up to 8,000 pounds/3,630 kilograms), high speed (140 knots cruise), reliability, crashworthiness and a high build quality, the H-60 series is proving to be the right aircraft at the right time.
Helinet Aviation Services, located at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles, California, is one of the latest companies bringing the Black Hawk to the firefight. Through Helinet’s partnership with the Black Hawk’s two private owners — Brown Helicopter, Inc. and Anduze Helicopter — the aircraft is supported by a team of pilots, a fuel truck, back-up equipment, and maintenance and support technicians. It was launched on its first firefighting mission — the Mineral Fire in Fresno County — on July 15, 2020, after it was activated under a “call when needed” (CWN) contract Helinet has with Cal Fire. The aircraft is also on CWN contracts with the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry.
In addition to aerial firefighting services, Helinet’s 14 CFR part 133 and 137 certifications allow the company to perform a wide range of utility operations, including aerial seeding, powerline/pipeline inspection and construction, aerial mapping and on-demand external load air service.
Helinet has operated the firefighting Black Hawk (N70K) since 2017, when it debuted as the company’s “Moviehawk” for film and television production. It has since been replaced in that role by another Black Hawk that was built to a higher military standard, with the ability to carry authentic inert rockets and gun pods, external fuel tanks, and is equipped with a Fast-Rope Insertion and Extraction System.
For its new role, N70K has been stripped of as much weight as possible, allowing it to carry a 900-US gallon (3,405-liter) Bambi PowerFill Bucket, which can be refilled in less than a minute from a variety of different water sources, even shallow ones.
“Having operated the UH-60 Moviehawk for over three years, we understand how to maintain the UH-60 and are very confident operating it in the field,” Kevin LaRosa II, Helinet’s vice president, told Vertical. “We have searched out the best and most experienced mechanics, maintainers, pilots and crew chiefs for our Black Hawk program. These guys really know the H-60 inside and out and have maintained and flown them in much more challenging conditions than we ever will.”
When the aircraft goes out for operations, it deploys with a support team and a truck loaded with parts. A ground crew mechanic performs daily inspections and provides additional aircraft support as needed.
“We are equipped and staffed to go into the field for extended amounts of time with minimal down-time for maintenance,” said LaRosa. “Furthermore, our partners at Brown Helicopter have a large and complete supply of surplus spares, which will allow us to keep the aircraft deployed during the busy Southern California fire season. We can obtain anything from a main rotor blade to an engine or transmission in a timely manner to keep our birds flying.”
The right team
Helinet’s UH-60A program chief pilot is Alex Anduze, a well-known and highly respected figure in the Black Hawk world. A former Sikorsky experimental test pilot with over 5,000 hours of flight time, Anduze is certified to administer pilot-in-command proficiency checks in the UH-60A, and holds type ratings with a vast array of Sikorsky models. With 14 years of U.S. Army military service, mostly flying the UH-60, he is also highly experienced with real world military operations, including fast roping and tactical insertions.
“I have well over 20 years’ experience with the H-60 series,” said Anduze. “It’s an honest helicopter designed to be safe and easy to fly. I’ve taken the helicopter into many situations and it has always brought me home. . . . I expect the Black Hawk will prove itself long into the future.”
Despite only just launching the Black Hawk on its first firefighting mission, Helinet already has plans to operate several of the type on fires over the next few years. As the fleet expands, the company will bring on additional experienced firefighting and utility pilots.
LaRosa said Southern California is blessed with very experienced pilots, some with well over 30 years of direct firefighting experience, many of whom have extensive history working within fire agencies. Such personnel “bring a level of talent you appreciate having in house,” he said.
“The utility market requires highly trained and specialized pilots who have high altitude and precision placement experience,” LaRosa added. “We will be using a Bambi Bucket with a 120-to 150-foot [35- to 45-meter] line, so our pilots will need to understand how to work with these and put water where it needs to go.”
LaRosa said the UH-60 allows the company to go into the mountains, and still lift a usable load of water. “We also like the well-known military specification of the UH-60 as it’s made for combat, so the drivetrain is over-built, the rotors can take cannon hits, and the airframe strength has saved flight crews’ lives during over 40 years of continuous military operations around the world.”
With its power and capabilities, the Black Hawk is a great tool for initial attack, helping hold the line during the early stages of a fire. Its durability and reliability also make it well suited to a long-term campaign fire.
“At Helinet, helping save lives is our most important mission — from transporting critically ill children and transplant organs to local hospitals, to providing turnkey mission solutions for airborne law enforcement and firefighting operations,” said Helinet CEO Kathryn Purwin. “Every member of our team is committed to upholding the highest levels of safety while providing critical services to the community.”
By providing an invaluable new firefighting capability, Helinet’s UH-60s look well set to continue that tradition.