Clovis, Calif.-based Heavy Lift Helicopters is currently converting the first commercially owned Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallions for firefighting operations. Readying the first “Fire Stallions” for this year’s fire season, Heavy Lift is installing its own 2,400-gallon water tank and snorkel system in one of six 42,000-pound-mtow CH-53Ds the company purchased from the U.S. Navy in spring last year. According to Heavy Lift president Robin Rogers, the company is modifying one CH-53D with the tank and using a second for flight-testing to obtain FAA certification in the restricted category.
“We’ve already completed flight testing on the one and are in the process of installing the tank on the other,” Rogers said. “We have to unrivet the belly from the helicopter, modify the cargo compartment and incorporate the tanks into the fuselage. We build our own tanks, so the success of this project rests totally on our own maintenance staff.”
A subsidiary of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters, which was established in 1949 and currently operates one of the largest helicopter fleets in California, Heavy Lift operates three Sikorsky CH-54 Skycranes–two on exclusive contract in California and one in Prescott, Ariz. Heavy Lift will triple its fleet when all six Stallions are fully operational in approximately two years.
Rogers estimates that one Fire Stallion will be ready by the beginning of the fire season next month, with a second ready in August. Heavy Lift is negotiating with the Department of the Interior for exclusive-use contracts on the CH-53s, but Rogers is confident that the Fire Stallion will become the new large helitanker standard because it offers greater speed and range than the Skycrane for approximately the same operating costs.
“The Sea Stallion is not a replacement for the Skycrane; it’s a different tool,” Rogers said. “The Skycrane is a 100-knot helicopter, while the Sea Stallion is a 150- to 160-knot helicopter. [The CH-53] gives us a lot more speed for initial attack…and it has such a nice range, we can stay on site longer because we haven’t burned all of our gas getting there.”
Rogers says the endurance of the twin-engine Sea Stallion is approximately 3.5 hours, compared with roughly two hours for the Skycrane. Despite the age of the Sea Stallions, which were produced from 1964 until 1975, when the three-engine CH-53E Super Sea Stallion entered service, most of the airframes have relatively low flight times, averaging approximately 6,000 hours each.
“We comply with all of the technical bulletins and keep strict maintenance guidelines,” said Rogers. “As far as [the helicopters’] being old, we don’t really have that worry because we’re continually overhauling the aircraft. They’re completely gone through.”
Not all six CH-53s will be converted to Fire Stallions; Heavy Lift is planning to reserve at least two for non-firefighting contracts, such as construction work. According to Rogers, the CH-53 will often offer an alternative to sling loading because of its relatively large internal cargo volume. While the CH-53D can carry an external load of 25,000 pounds, its 30-foot-long internal cargo bay has a capacity of more than 8,000 pounds.
Heavy Lift acquired the Sea Stallions for $2 million each and is investing another $1 million in the Fire Stallion conversion. That doesn’t include the cost of restoring the ships to operational status; all six Vietnam-era aircraft had been mothballed at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., and required approximately 45 days of restoration before they could be ferried to California.
Although all six had intact engines, four are still in Tucson awaiting main and tail rotor blades, which have been in relatively short supply since the beginning of the war in Iraq. More than 200 CH-53s of various designations, including the three-engine CH-53E, are still in active service with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and several played a key role in assisting the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia earlier this year.