United Rotorcraft is on fire, figuratively speaking. The Air Methods maintenance and modification division has seen a surge of interest and orders in recent months for its Firehawk conversion program that turns new and used Sikorsky Blackhawks to 1,000-gallon waterbombers.
In August the company received a contract to convert two repurposed U.S. Army HH-60Ls to Firehawks for California’s Ventura County Sheriff’s Air Unit. The reconfigured aircraft will include an aerial firefighting mission package with extended landing gear, firefighting tank, and a retractable snorkel system.
A multi-mission interior, including reconfigurable crew stations, will be installed to allow the aircraft to perform a variety of missions such as firefighting, fire crew transport, search and rescue, and medical evacuation. In addition to mission equipment, upgraded avionics and a new instrument panel will be installed on the flight deck.
This month, the company announced a contract to complete an S-70i to Firehawk configuration for the San Diego Fire Rescue Department next year. The contracts add to existing orders in work from CalFire, with five aircraft remaining, and from Los Angeles County for two aircraft, according to company president Mike Slattery. The new orders, coupled with existing work, have a cumulative total of 10 aircraft.
The CalFire contract alone, valued last year at $240 million, had called for a total of 12 aircraft over three years that as of now will keep the program running to at least 2020, Slattery said. But he believes the program has a bright future well beyond that date for two main reasons: fire seasons are getting longer and the Firehawk’s ability to quickly drop more water on a fire faster and for less money.
“The fire season is extending,” Slattery said, and that means operators need more equipment. “You’re getting in a situation where you can’t have seasonal firefighting. It used to be you fight fires in North America then operators take their aircraft and go fight fires in Australia. The problem is that the fire seasons are starting to overlap and you are getting to the point where you cannot move aircraft like that. It will put pressure on the inventory to place aircraft in both hemispheres.” For this reason alone, the Firehawk program “is attracting a lot of international interest,” according to Slattery.
Thanks to the 1,000-gallon capacity water tank and the helicopter's speed, he maintains the Firehawk is one of the most cost-effective ways to put water on a fire. “It carries more water than a bucket and flies en route a lot faster. We calculate firefighting efficiency as gallons of water per hour.
“The Firehawk is one of the most fire efficient aircraft because of its speed. You can fly at more than 130 knots fully loaded and 150 knots unloaded. You are going back and forth [to the fire] screaming. A Skycrane lumbers along at about 100 mph. Most other aircraft are limited to 110 knots, and bucketed aircraft are limited to about 80 knots.
“Sure a Skycrane can carry 2,500 gallons but a Firehawk goes back and forth quicker—and then once you look at cost efficiency, dollars per gallon, the Firehawk is one of the cheapest aircraft to fly,” he said.
According to Slattery, it does not make sense to convert all vintages of used Blackhawks to Firehawks due to the need to upgrade engines and transmissions on older models and that the used HH-60Ls were likely the most suitable, but were in short supply. “An L model is pretty much ready to get the modification once you get it reset, but to be long-term sustainable you need to upgrade those avionics so we’re working on that with commercial components for Ventura County,” he said.
Customers such as CalFire are opting for brand new S-70i aircraft straight from Sikorsky and that is where Slattery sees the bulk of his company's new business coming in the future.