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In December 2017, the Thomas Fire burned over 281,000 acres (around 114,000 hectares) in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, north of Los Angeles. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed in the blaze, which at the time was the largest wildfire in modern California history. Then, in November 2018, more than 1,500 structures were destroyed as the Woolsey Fire ripped through almost 97,000 acres (39,000 hectares) in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The combined damages amounted to billions of dollars.
In the wake of these destructive blazes, Ventura County’s leaders began to explore an upgrade to their aerial firefighting capabilities. The county was already operating Bell Super Huey helicopters for firefighting through the Ventura County Air Unit, a unique partnership between the county’s fire and sheriff’s departments. However, the success of the L.A. County Fire Department (LACoFD) in operating larger, more capable Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks — plus recent orders for new Firehawks from Cal Fire and San Diego County — prompted Ventura County to consider Firehawks, too.
Unfortunately, with new Firehawks selling for around $20 million, it seemed unlikely that Ventura County, with its smaller tax base, would be able to afford any. Then county leaders looked into purchasing surplus H-60 Black Hawks through the U.S. Army’s Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) program. Here, they hit the jackpot, acquiring not one but three HH-60L Black Hawks for the Ventura County Fire Department at a reasonable price. The county decided to convert two of these into mission-ready Firehawks, while retaining the third aircraft in its baseline configuration for use as a training and parts platform.
The two Firehawks were sent to United Rotorcraft in Colorado for a substantial conversion process including the addition of extended landing gear and a fixed 1,000-gallon (3,785-liter) belly tank. That will allow each HH-60L Firehawk to carry three times as much water as the Hueys in the current fleet (and, with the Firehawk’s larger cabin, twice as many firefighting personnel).
The Firehawks will also be outfitted with hoists and medical interiors for search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. With the Firehawks taking over primary firefighting duties, the Hueys will remain the primary helicopters for SAR and medical responses. However, both models will be able to cover for each other when needed. With their strong twin-engine performance, the Firehawks will provide a greater margin of safety for high-altitude rescue missions and overwater flights to the offshore islands in Ventura County’s area of responsibility.
In the meantime, Ventura County crews have been busy training on their unmodified HH-60L, dubbed “Copter 2,” which is still in its Army colors, with the addition of Ventura County markings. According to pilot James McGuire, the pilots obtained their initial S-70/H-60 type ratings through a two-week transition course at Flight Safety’s West Palm Beach Learning Center in Florida. Following this transition course, they went through advanced Black Hawk training with former Sikorsky test pilot Kevin Bredenbeck, who provided further insights on aircraft systems and performance, operating at high altitudes, engine-out and other emergency procedures, advanced maneuvers, and real-world interpretation of the performance charts.
Now, McGuire said, the pilots have started training with crew members using a “crawl, walk, run” mentality. “The first goal was to train the rear crew chief to become familiar with the operating characteristics of the different and larger airframe,” he explained. “As the eyes and ears of the pilot, it is imperative that they are comfortable calling in or ‘conning’ the pilot into the tight areas that we normally operate in. They had to get used to the sight picture of how the Hawk hovers, the tail touching down first [and] the stabilator being a potential hazard with rocks and terrain.”
Once the rear crew chiefs were comfortable with the new platform, they moved into practicing “hoverload” operations — hovering to load and unload crew and passengers. “We wanted to see what worked the best and what didn’t work so well — doing one main wheel on the ground versus both mains on the ground,” McGuire continued. “We want to have all the variations figured out before we put the Firehawk into operation.”
According to Ventura Fire crew chief Jonathan Tolle, face-to-face discussions with LACoFD crews have provided valuable insights on how to operate with the Firehawk. “What we learned is the Firehawk is much larger and heavier than our Bell mediums, so we expect to do more hoisting when flying the Firehawk,” he told Vertical. “With the Huey, we can use the skids to get into places that might prove to be more difficult with the Firehawk.” Tolle added, “We are still learning the ropes of the wheels on the Hawk and how to deploy personnel from the aircraft. Hoisting operations will be different than our Huey because of the size and weight of the Firehawk. We will have to hover higher and be much more aware of the downwash the H-60 generates.”
Ventura County has long provided basic flight instruction to its crew chiefs to enable them to perform a survivable emergency landing in the event of pilot incapacitation. With the arrival of the new aircraft, this training has been formalized and expanded to encompass procedures specific to the HH-60L.