The beauty and diversity of the California landscape can take your breath away. Unfortunately, the severe wildfires that often ravage the vast Golden State have propensity to take away so much more – lives, property and nature.
According to California officials, the 2019 wildfire season generated 6,400 fires that torched in excess of 250,000 acres, killing five, injuring 22 and damaging/destroying 730-plus structures. These statistics would no doubt be even more catastrophic if not for the Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter, which is powered by GE T700 turboshaft engines.
The Firehawk helicopter is a modified Sikorsky Black Hawk platform that is specially customized for firefighting, medical evacuation/air ambulance and search and-rescue missions. The helicopters are used to transport “Helitack Crews” – up to 11 wildfire firefighters and their gear – into fire areas and drop water and retardant chemicals from a 1,000-gallon tank (retardant chemicals are injected into the tank when the pilot thinks it necessary from a separate 30-gallon chemical tank).
Today’s Firehawk platform begins life as a Sikorsky S-70i helicopter, a third generation Black Hawk variant. United Rotorcraft, Englewood, Colorado, then modifies the aircraft with the belly tank, extended landing gear, hoist and other aerial firefighting equipment.
Due in large part to enhanced T700-701D engines, the Firehawk helicopter demonstrates increased engine power and reliability for hot-higher altitude operations and improved mission availability. The engines also power a pump that can fill up the belly tank in less than 60 seconds through a retractable snorkel hose while hovering over a water source (or pilots can land the aircraft, which ingests water through a side connector).
“These machines are experiencing some of the most extreme conditions you can imagine on a helicopter,” says Bill Neth, Customer Programs Manager at GE Aviation. “Every time the aircraft is fighting fire, it goes to maximum power six to eight times per hour. It must deal with the heat but also the heavy lifting when the tank is full of water.”
GE Aviation engineers studied Black Hawk helicopters that returned from Iraq and Afghanistan to improve the hot section of the engine. GE incorporated technology from advanced nickel alloys and made the engines more resistant to wild temperature swings, airborne debris and degradation from thermal distress. The engine can now withstand extreme conditions and still deliver the necessary power.
The performance and capabilities of the Firehawk helicopter have prompted Calif. firefighting agencies to order additional aircraft to support their missions. Sikorsky delivered three new Firehawk helicopters in Dec. – one each to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), and the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
CAL FIRE’s newly acquired helicopter is the first of nine aircraft currently on order, with an option for three more. CAL FIRE and San Diego are both first-time operators of the aerial firefighting helicopter.
LACoFD has operated three S-70ATM model Firehawk helicopters since 2001. During the ensuing 19 years, the county has pioneered and perfected the tactics needed to suffocate wildfires in their early stage when a fire is most vulnerable, while working in close coordination with other aircraft and with firefighting crews on the ground. The county’s new S-70i Firehawk aircraft is the first of two that LACoFD is adding to its fleet.
GE is proud to partner with the LACoFD to provide maintenance insight and spare-parts support through its comprehensive Maintenance Cost Per Hour program and looks forward to supporting its new Firehawk helicopters and all the other state/local agencies as they begin their operations with these workhorse machines.
During the most critical of times, the citizens of Calif. are very fortunate they can count on their dedicated firefighting professionals and powerful dependable equipment like the Firehawk helicopter to come to the rescue.
(Some material and photos are courtesy of Sikorsky.) BLACK HAWK® and FIREHAWK® are registered trademarks of Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. S-70iTM and S-70ATM are trademarks of Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Used with permission.