Plenty has been said and written about the Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter’s prowess in wildland firefighting operations — mostly by the County of Los Angeles Fire Department, which has courageously and brilliantly pioneered the use of this exceptional aircraft for initial attack and year-round public safety operations.
I’m going to talk about the journey taken by the City of San Diego to acquire and enter into service the latest-generation Firehawk helicopter — the S-70i — which we completed in time for the 2020 fire season. I’ll cover what justified the need, the steps we took along the way to customize the aircraft and train our crews, the overall cost and our assessment.
Before I dig into the details, I’ll pre-emptively plant this thought in your mind: You only need one great save to justify every penny of investment I’m about to describe.
Megafires that burn more than 100,000 acres (404 sq. km) of land are increasing in southern California and in other western U.S. states, such as Colorado. While this upward trend is cyclical, there’s no doubt that fire seasons are longer, extending almost year-round.
The City of San Diego Fire-Rescue department had watched and learned as the increasing severity of wildland fires afflicted neighboring counties — San Diego County to our east, and Orange, Ventura, L.A. and Santa Barbara counties to our north.
The City’s Bell medium helicopters (a 412EP and a 212HP) are highly reliable multi-role workhorses. However, to protect our city and assist our neighbors when requested, we needed a more capable helicopter for aggressive initial attack.
The twin-engine Firehawk helicopter — a military-designed Black Hawk configured for aerial firefighting — can carry up to 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water, almost three times that of our Bells. The pilot also can fully control the amount of water released to suit the fire type. Furthermore, the Firehawk cabin can easily accommodate 12 seated firefighters and their equipment.
Choosing an aircraft
Air operations are very expensive, so it’s critical you do your research.
Both LA County and CAL FIRE (State of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) had hired outside consultants to assess their options. CAL FIRE has bought 12 new S-70i Firehawk helicopters, while LACoFD has added two to their original three S-70A models.
Our city’s Department of Finance commissioned a study by Conklin & de Decker to learn the best aircraft types for the mission, and the true cost of operations.
Ultimately, we chose the Firehawk for its ability to carry as much as 40 percent more water than the other recommended aircraft. Cabin volume, speed, mission endurance, lower direct operating cost, reliability, situational awareness, 4-axis coupled flight director, and price, among other performance comparisons, also were considered in our decision.
The City signed the contract for one S-70i Black Hawk helicopter in January 2018.
We were thrilled with the City’s purchase. The S-70i has an integrated digital cockpit and more power, payload, maneuverability, and flight safety enhancements than any helicopter we had ever flown. This was going to be a game-changer.
We kept it simple.
Avionics integrator Hangar One in nearby Carlsbad, California installed tactical radios, navigation systems and other equipment we specifically wanted.
Then United Rotorcraft’s facility in Englewood, Colorado installed the external water tank made by Kawak Aviation Technologies of Bend, Oregon, integrating it to the cockpit so that our pilots have full control at their fingertips.
With a new helicopter on the ramp, you might be tempted to rush into firefighting operations. Resist this urge. No matter how experienced your pilots are, your mantra should be: Crawl, Walk, Run.
Each of San Diego Fire-Rescue’s four pilots, myself included, has many thousands of hours in helicopters. We retrain annually on FSI simulators. But for the Firehawk, we went an extra step. We brought in Kevin Bredenbeck, one of the best Black Hawk pilot trainers in the business, to teach the ways of the Firehawk.
First major save
In the first week of December 2020, we received a request for assistance from the San Miguel Fire District, one of the fire agencies in San Diego County. Structures were burning, lives were at risk. Santa Ana winds were blowing at 30-40 knots. We responded.
This is an abridged version of the full story. To read the full article, download it here.
Chuck Macfarland, Chief of Air Operations, City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department