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Flying From Fire to Fire Not Out of the Norm for S-70s in Los Angeles County

By Frank Wolfe | October 23, 2018
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A Los Angeles County Sikorsky S-70 Firehawk helicopter demonstrates water suppression during a 2013 airshow. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin

Flying from fire to fire is not out of the ordinary for the Los Angeles Fire Department's fleet of three Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks.

"It happens a lot when it's windy," Michael Sagely, a senior pilot and safety manager of air operations for the department, told R&WI Oct. 23 at the Air Medical Transport Conference in Phoenix.

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"We try and manage our Hawk hours," he said. "We try to have a minimum of one Hawk up every day. During Red Flag conditions like last week, we have two."

The National Weather Service issues "red flag warnings" to alert fire departments of the onset, or possible onset, of critical weather and dry conditions that could lead to rapid or dramatic increases in wildfire activity within 24 hours.

The type of weather patterns that can cause such warnings include low relative humidity, strong winds, dry fuels, the possibility of dry lightning strikes or any combination of the above.

Sagely, who flew Black Hawks for the U.S. Army, speaks highly of the Firehawk's capabilities, including its speed and ability to dump up to 1,000 gallons of water on a fire to tamp it down to buy time for ground-based fire and emergency medical service (EMS) units to arrive.

Though five Firehawks would be a good number to have to allow surge capacity, Sagely said that the demand in Los Angeles County could mean a force of 10 is warranted.

The L.A. Fire Department typically uses the Firehawk in conjunction with its fleet of five Bell 412s in firefighting and EMS missions. The 412s may perform EMS, while the Firehawk battles a fire, for example. In one incident recounted by Sagely, a car crash threw the occupants from a car and started a brush fire. While a 412 swooped in to try and save the people, the Firehawk took on the fire.

"We need an aircraft that's fast because of the range we work at," Sagely said of the Firehawk. "That aircraft is all about creating time, buying time so resources can get on scene to keep the fire small enough so it's manageable. The first 15 or 20 minutes are literally the entire show. Because of how remote some fires start, nobody's getting there on the ground. When you're carrying 200 gallons of water, you've only got a couple of chances to knock a fire down. When you're carrying 750 to 1,000 gallons of water, you can do the math as to what that force drop may or may not do to buy you time. If that only buys you two or three minutes so another aircraft gets there, that's really the strategy."

Based on the UH-60 Black Hawk, the Firehawk is equipped to endure the extreme physical stresses demanded of aerial firefighting and utility missions.

The Firehawk features next-generation technology that provides specific benefits to firefighting operators. Its features include a digital glass cockpit with flight management system for improved situational awareness, a rugged airframe and wide chord rotor blades for increased payload and maneuverability.

The aircraft also is capable of precision hover using an enhanced global positioning system and an inertial navigation system. An integrated vehicle health management system monitors the aircraft's operational health for preventative maintenance to detect anomalies for early repair.

After the aircraft is assembled, it is modified by United Rotorcraft with the 1,000-gallon water tank equipped with a unique snorkel system for 60-second tank refill.

"We have a multi-mission interior," said Jeannette Eaton, Sikorsky's regional vice president of U.S. and Canada sales and marketing. "If they need to, they can quickly convert the cabin from firefighting and the carriage of firefighters, and pop the seats up to do search and rescue or EMS within minutes."

Changes in the global climate portend increasing demand for firefighting rotorcraft, and foreign countries have expressed interest in acquiring Firehawks, she said.

"A month ago, there were 560 fires burning in British Columbia alone," said Eaton.

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