The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, operates one of the largest fleets of firefighting aircraft in the world. For almost four decades, they used a fleet of 12 Bell Super Huey helicopters located at 10 helitack bases around the state.
After a series of catastrophic fires, the governor of California established a commission to look at wildland firefighting resources in the state. One of the recommendations was to find a replacement for CAL FIRE’s aging fleet of military surplus Bell Huey helicopters. The replacement requirements were for a twin-engine aircraft with increased range, speed, water payload, and capability for night firefighting operations. The contract was awarded to the Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk. Green Black Hawk airframes were sent to United Rotorcraft in Centennial, Colorado, to be converted into the Firehawks with contract specified avionics, cabin seating, external rescue hoist, extended landing gear, and a 1,000 gallon (3,785 liter) belly water tank.
A complex aircraft
CAL FIRE recently took delivery of its 12th Firehawk. Last year, four more were ordered, to increase the number of backup aircraft. The Firehawk is a very complex aircraft, so, when it goes in for major maintenance, it is out of service for longer time periods than the Hueys would have been. In addition, the extra craft will give the department a surge capacity during major fires and other large disaster scenarios.
“The Firehawk has three times the fire suppressant capacity of the legacy Hueys,” explained Ben Berman, CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Chief Pilot and a former US Coast Guard helicopter instructor pilot. “It has about 33 per cent faster cruise speed. It is also a twin-engine ship, which gives us a greater safety margin, and has very good hot and high power margins. It is interesting that the Black Hawk was designed to replace the Huey in the US Army and that is what we are doing. It was designed from the beginning for better survivability for the crew in the event of a crash. The Firehawk also comes with night vision goggles (NVG) compatibility, which we are beginning to utilize now.
“Because of the increased capabilities and complexity of the Firehawk, we had to create new pilot and crew training programs,” Berman continued. “But this allowed us to look at our entire aviation program and build new programs from the ground up using the latest technology and training techniques. So, it was a good opportunity to look at our aviation program as a whole and make improvements.”
CAL FIRE melded information from many different programs when it developed its pilot training criteria. The state covers almost 165,000 square miles (427,000km2) and has almost every possible type of terrain except jungle. Also unique among most aerial firefighting organizations is that the aircraft do not come back to one central location at the end of the day.
Senior helitack captains and pilots were formed into a training cadre to develop and implement the new training standards and travel around the state to transition each helibase to the Firehawk
“We used many different military training programs as a base, including the US Coast Guard, which operates very much like we do,” Berman stated. “We also reached out to other firefighting agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Using a working group of pilots and crew, we took the best of many programs to use for ours. Everything was built off of our safety program. That was a key element in developing our training criteria in relation to operational risk assessment and risk management.”
“Senior helitack captains and pilots were formed into a training cadre to develop and implement the new training standards and travel around the state to transition each helibase to the Firehawk,” explained Division Chief Brian Renner, CAL FIRE’s Helicopter Program Manager. “The pilots go through a transition course with ground school, a flight simulator, and then actual flight time.”
Scenario-based simulator training
The Firehawk is flown with a single pilot. Sitting next to the pilot in the cockpit is the front seat captain (FSC), who must go through a dedicated two-week training course. This course teaches the FSC about aircraft systems, emergency checklists and procedures, and how to use the four-axis autopilot and navigation systems. With the increased complexity of the Firehawk, this gives the pilot a non-flying backup for normal and emergency procedures. The FSC is now an integral partner to the pilot. In case the pilot is incapacitated, the FSC is trained how to use the autopilot to fly to an airport, work with air traffic control during such an emergency, and direct the autopilot to do a coupled approach to a full landing.
“We procured an S-70 simulator built by SGB Enterprises of Santa Clarita, California,” Berman said. “This has been a fantastic tool for us. While it is not a full motion simulator, it can provide scenarios in different weather conditions as well as create emergency procedure drills. By using the simulator, it reduces the number of actual flight hours on the aircraft for initial and recurrent training needs. Every year, each pilot and front seat captain use the simulator for a two-and-a-half-day recurrency course.
By using the simulator, it reduces the number of actual flight hours on the aircraft for initial and recurrent training needs
“All of the simulator training is scenario-based and gets more complex as the students master each section. We have ordered a second SGB simulator that is NVG compatible for night training. We have also ordered a mission simulator from Bluedrop of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It is a virtual reality rescue hoist simulator with a duplicate of the Firehawk cabin. We will be able to link this simulator with the SGB cockpit simulator to create complete mission simulation scenarios, day and night.”
Standardization of procedures and techniques is very important with the helibases spread out over such a huge area. Berman said that he and the instructor pilots travel around the state throughout the year to monitor training and give check rides on emergency procedures and hoist rescue techniques. They also cover the bases when pilots go on vacation or are out sick or injured. This gives them real world experience with the Firehawks.
Crewing for day and night firefighting
The crewing for daytime operations adds a third crewmember. There is the pilot and FSC, and now what is called the operations supervisor, who is stationed in the cabin behind the pilot in the right gunner’s window. Their job is to clear the aircraft tail during maneuvering as well as checking for aircraft clearance when approaching and leaving a water dip site. They can also lean out and see directly under the helicopter to monitor the snorkel during water filling operations.
We have wanted to get into night firefighting for some time, but the Firehawk gave us the NVG-compatible avionics, redundant systems, and dual-engine safety that we really needed to be able to justify the increased risk that comes with night operations
“A base must have been flying with the Firehawk for a year before they are eligible for NVG training,” explained Berman. “We want the crews to be very familiar and comfortable before they start to train for night firefighting operations. This is where a standardized training program of crawl, walk, run is paying off. We’re taking small bites, one at a time, until everyone is comfortable with the Firehawk’s complete range of capabilities. We also made all the aircraft standardized as to what they carry and where it is located so any crewmember from any base could jump in and safely and efficiently operate the aircraft seamlessly in any of its mission profiles.”
“We have wanted to get into night firefighting for some time, but the Firehawk gave us the NVG-compatible avionics, redundant systems, and dual-engine safety that we really needed to be able to justify the increased risk that comes with night operations,” Renner said. “We can now take advantage of decreased fire activity at night due to lower temperatures and wind speeds and increased humidity.”
For night firefighting missions, the crew is increased to four people: a pilot, FSC, and crewmembers in the left and right gunners’ windows, all wearing the white phosphor ANVIS-9 NVG. The fourth crewmember allows for greater situational awareness around the helicopter.
There are specific criteria that must be met before night fire suppression operations can take place. The fire must be confirmed on the ground by a fire officer on an engine as opposed to the aircraft getting directly dispatched to the report of a fire by someone calling 911, as is done during the day. The pilot and the crew must be familiar with the area where the fire is located. Also, the fire must be an immediate threat to life, property, or critical infrastructure, or at risk of gaining significant size if not suppressed immediately.
The pilot and the crew must be familiar with the area where the fire is located
“The four-axis autopilot can be used as a tool to help maintain a steady hover over the water but it is important that the pilots are able to maintain that hover manually,” Berman stated. “We have to be careful of automation complacency. The crewmembers in the cabin are important resources for the pilot to detect when the helicopter is drifting in position over the water and clearing obstacles while approaching, dipping, and leaving the water source. There is also a hover page on the primary flight display that displays two bars that will tell the pilot if he is drifting left/right or forward/backward. This is a great tool that we encourage the pilots to use when hovering at night.
“The FSC plays an important role for night firefighting. They are calling out the torque and radio altimeter readings to the pilot during water dipping operations. This allows the pilot to spend more time looking outside the cockpit. CAL FIRE has established standardized procedures for working around the water dip sites with specific altitudes and airspeeds at certain points of the approach, hover, and departure.”
While the belly tank can hold a maximum of 1,000 gallons, how much is actually carried depends on the fuel load, altitude, and air temperature
“For me, as a Helitack Captain, the major improvements with the Firehawk are its stability and having the added redundancies and safety factors built into the airframe,” explained Sean Preader. “The job of the helitack crew hasn’t changed that much, but the greater stability and performance has made the job better. We can fit into most of the places where we could fit the Huey because the rotor diameter is not that much bigger. With the greater power of the Firehawk, it is much more stable when we are doing hover step maneuvers (loading and unloading the helitack crew while hovering a foot or two above uneven terrain). While the belly tank can hold a maximum of 1,000 gallons, how much is actually carried depends on the fuel load, altitude, and air temperature. The helitack crew has not changed in size with the introduction of the Firehawk. A typical helitack crew that is dropped at the fire is one captain and five to six firefighters.”
“We are in the process of evaluating all the helitack bases to see what infrastructure improvements are needed to support the Firehawks,” said Renner. “They will need larger hangars due to the four-bladed rotor system versus the two-bladed Hueys. We are also going to take the opportunity to see if other structural improvements are needed, such as crew barracks and living quarters, as some of the helibases are 40 years old.
“The Firehawks have been meeting our expectations so far. CAL FIRE has had over 40 years of helitack experience and the new helicopters are allowing us to continue that level of excellence and add new capabilities.”