Coulson Aviation and Unical partner on next-gen firefighting helicopters
By Dayna Fedy | March 1, 2019
Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 38 seconds.
Coulson Aviation is expanding its rotary-wing capabilities and has entered into a joint venture with Unical Aviation to bring what they claim will be the most advanced firefighting Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters to the market.
Unical, based in Industry, California, currently owns a fleet of 12 Boeing CH-47 Chinooks and more than 30 Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawks — with plans to purchase additional UH60s as they become available. The company has also purchased numerous Black Hawk part inventories as well as the entire Canadian Forces CH-47D Chinook parts inventory. Unical will provide the aircraft, parts and heavy maintenance in the joint venture, and Coulson Aviation will take on the modifications planned to significantly upgrade the aircraft for firefighting and utility operations.
“[Unical was] looking for a company in our field, in firefighting, that had the same level of commitment and dedication to excellence that they have in their aviation supply chain, MRO, and CRO business,” said Britt Coulson, Coulson Aviation’s vice president.
The Black Hawk and Chinook modifications follow Coulson Aviation’s recently-completed, large-scale project to modify Boeing 737s into multi-use air tankers; Coulson Aviation is the first in the world to modify the 737 into what it is calling the Fireliner. The company, headquartered in British Columbia, has acquired 737s from Southwest Airlines and also operates a Sikorsky S-76B, a fleet of S-61 helicopters, Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and Bombardier Challengers.
“I’ve got our design team here that just did the biggest mod ever done to a 737,” Britt Coulson said, “so we thought with [Unical’s] huge fleet of 47s and Black Hawks, it’d be a great opportunity to take a look at this project and work together to create the best helitankers in the industry.”
Han Tan, CEO of Unical Aviation, said, “We wanted to partner our fleet of UH-60s and CH-47s with the best, most innovative aerial firefighting outfit we could find. Coulson was the clear choice, and we’re delighted to be teaming with them.”
Currently, all Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters that have internal tanks for firefighting drop water or retardant through the square, and relatively small, hook well, which Britt Coulson said restricts the tank’s flow rate and degrades the drop pattern.
Coulson Aviation plans to use the same design of its own proprietary advanced suppressant tank that is used on the Hercules and 737, known as the Retardant Aerial Delivery System, or RADS, and adapt it for the Chinook and Black Hawk. The tank features a linear door system — a longer, rectangular hole — that releases water or retardant in a stretched out, curtain-like form.
Coulson Aviation plans to modify the fuselage on the CH-47, cut the floor of the aircraft and install a 3,000-gallon tank, called the RADS-L (large). “It’s going to be a newer generation Skycrane tank,” Britt Coulson said, adding that the tank in the Chinook can be removed in a two-hour time period.
The company will do the same modifications on the Black Hawk, but with a smaller, 800- to 1,000-gallon removable tank, called RADS-M (medium).
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Coulson Aviation’s RADS series of tanks feature a common touch screen SMART Delivery System Controller, which allows for automated target drops for the company’s night vision goggle firefighting program. The touch screen technology also provides the ability to adjust flow rates based on speed and altitude.
To further enhance the aircrafts’ firefighting capabilities, the company is also designing, from scratch, a new retractable snorkel, which Britt Coulson said will be “the largest of its kind out there.” The retractable snorkel will be installed on both the Chinooks and the Black Hawks and will allow the helicopters to taxi in and out of air tanker bases, as well as to fly with no speed restrictions to and from a fire.
“L.A. County’s Firehawk tanks have proven how well a retractable snorkel works,” Britt Coulson said. “And one of leading design objectives for all our programs is not to have any aircraft restrictions after modification.”
To offset the extra weight from the tanks, the company is running electric snorkels on the aircraft rather than adding heavy hydraulic pumps. “Why put on another hydraulic pump when you could use an electric motor that’s already industry proven?” Britt Coulson said.
Coulson Aviation is also removing the hoist, among other things, from the Chinooks to save weight.
Unical is working with Coulson Aviation on their own supplemental type certificate (STC) to outfit the aircraft with brand new electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) cockpits. The joint venture is installing the Garmin G500H TXi synthetic vision displays, Garmin’s dual GTN 750 touch screens with ADS-B, and Howell Instruments’ digital engine display system on all of the Chinooks and Black Hawks. Britt Coulson said the upgraded avionics also offer additional weight savings.
EVS cameras will be installed on the front of the aircraft and additional cameras at the snorkel system and rear of the aircraft to assist pilots during firefighting operations. Britt Coulson said the helicopters will be night vision goggle (NVG)-certified “right out of the gate,” as well as instrument flight rules (IFR)-certified.
Britt Coulson told Vertical when all the modifications and upgrades are complete, the Coulson-Unical Chinooks and Black Hawks will be the most advanced firefighting helicopters on the market.
The modified UH-60As and CH-47s are to be known as the CU-60 and the CU-47; both aircraft will be type certified and FAA approved.
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In comparison to the S-64 Aircrane, which Britt Coulson said has been “the premier Type 1 heavy helitanker” on the market for decades, the Coulson-Unical Chinooks will have the ability to fly faster, hold more suppressants, and will have a lower fuel burn. For example, the Aircrane cruises at 100 knots, while the Chinook cruises loaded at 130 to 135 knots.
“This partnership with Unical Aviation is the future of aerial firefighting, combining the best of both companies as we introduce the CU-60 and CU-47 next-gen helitankers,” said Wayne Coulson, CEO of Coulson Aviation. “The foundation of our company was built on the premise of offering the customer better value, which both of these aircraft types will provide.”
In addition to the helicopters’ firefighting capabilities, Coulson Aviation also wants the Black Hawks and Chinooks to be usable for utility missions. The company is designing its tank to be able to sling loads when installed on the helicopters.
Unical and Coulson Aviation are working to field a total of 12 Chinooks and 15 Black Hawks complete with all the modifications and avionics upgrades. The companies have not yet released names for their modified aircraft, but Britt Coulson told Vertical the plan is to name the aircraft after significant U.S. Army military missions that each fleet type completed.
He said the tank and cockpit installations will take roughly a month to a month-and-a-half per aircraft. The goal is to have eight to 10 aircraft complete between the two fleets by 2020.
To support the modification projects and timelines, Coulson Aviation has increased its staff two-fold. “We believe we’ve hired the best people for the 47 and the best people for the Black Hawk,” said Britt Coulson. “But there are still going to be challenges . . .”
In preparation of any “growing pains” after dispatching the first few completed helicopters later this year, Britt Coulson said Unical’s inventory of parts/spares, which will include everything except gearboxes and engines, will be stored in a 53-foot trailer and will be “inspected, tag serviceable, and ready to go on [the aircraft] if we have an issue.”
The first CH-47 Chinook from Unical has arrived at Coulson Aviation’s facility in B.C. for modifications, with a Black Hawk to follow in the coming weeks.
Coulson Aviation and Unical will have their first painted Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters (not yet modified), on display at this year’s HAI Heli-Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, March 5 to 7, where the companies will talk about their joint venture and future plans for the helicopters.