San Diego Fire Department Will Use a Black Hawk Helicopter to Fight Fires

“Firehawk” conversion of military aircraft gives fire department a powerful and versatile tool to respond to emergencies.

The Black Hawk helicopter is best known as a military aircraft used by the U.S. armed forces and 28 other countries worldwide. But it has been making a name for itself in a different, though also dangerous, role: fighting fires.

The City of San Diego is the latest civilian organization to add this aircraft to its first responder arsenal. “The Black Hawk is a game changer in its primary role of fire suppression in support of ground firefighting crews,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Air Operations Chief Chuck Macfarland. He stated that the helicopter can accurately place almost three times more water on a wildland fire in a single delivery than the city’s existing fleet. In addition to its wildland fire suppression role, San Diego’s new $9.8-million aircraft can deploy rescue medics and hoist patients into the cabin for treatment and transport to a nearby hospital.

A third-party company, United Rotorcraft, modifies the Black Hawk into a firefighter variant named the Firehawk. The aircraft features a cockpit modified for a single pilot to operate the helicopter; it also adds an interior configured for medical treatment, a 1,000-gallon belly tank, a retractable snorkel water pump that allows the helicopter to refill from almost any water source, extended landing gear, and a rescue hoist. The helicopter’s engine has the power to carry over four tons of water and can operate safely in hot temperatures and high altitudes. And the Firehawk’s strong corrosion-resistant airframe will help reduce maintenance costs.

In addition, starting this year, the Firehawk platform will be based on Sikorsky’s third generation Black Hawk that boasts increased engine power, speed, maneuverability, and higher altitude operations.

The Firehawk variant of the Black Hawk takes on wildfires.

San Diego’s Black Hawk will be converted into the Firehawk in 2019; in the meantime, it will use an internal 850-gallon tank to help suppress fires.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) responds to an average of more than 5,600 wildland fires each year—fires that burn more than 172,000 acres annually. With the Firehawk, civil authorities are turning to military hardware to meet that challenge. Along with San Diego, Los Angeles added two new Firehawks to its fleet in December 2017, bringing the total to five. And CAL FIRE has committed to replacing its older helicopters with up to 12 Firehawks over the next five years.

“Aerial firefighting is a strenuous mission for any helicopter and its crew, but this third generation Hawk platform has the proven military pedigree and reliability to endure the tremendous physical stresses [of the job],” said Joe Palumbo, Sikorsky’s international military programs director.

Read more about developments in the helicopter industry at $4-Billion U.S. Navy Contract Awarded to Bell-Boeing Joint Venture.