Another year, another record-breaking global fire season. This summer, international teams joined forces to attack major wildfires by air and land in Greece, Canada, and Hawaii, among other far-flung locales. In California, where more than 25% of the population lives in areas at very high or extremely high risk of wildfire, a slower season was a welcome reprieve at a time when the state sees an average of more than 1.57 million acres destroyed by fire each year.
But firefighting teams in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Ventura County, along with state wildfire crews at Cal Fire, are feeling better prepared to tackle future conflagrations, medical evacuations, and search-and-rescue operations these days because of one particular advantage: the Firehawk, a modified Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter powered by GE Aerospace’s T700 engines.
Equipped with an array of advanced technologies and capabilities, the helicopters are specially customized to fight fires and serve as ambulances in the air. The Firehawk starts as a Sikorsky S-70i helicopter, a third generation Black Hawk variant. The aircraft is then modified with an external belly tank, extended landing gear, hoist, and other aerial firefighting equipment. In the field, they are capable of transporting “Helitack Crews” — up to 11 firefighters and their gear — into burn areas, and dispensing water and retardant chemicals from a 1,000-gallon tank.
Due in large part to its enhanced T700-701D engines, the helicopter provides increased engine power and reliability for higher altitude operations. The engines also power a pump that can fill an exterior tank in less than 60 seconds through a retractable snorkel hose while hovering over a water source.
Power and Versatility
“It’s a very powerful engine that requires very little maintenance,” says Dennis Blumenthal, chief of helicopter maintenance for the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD). “Overall, it’s a stellar piece of equipment that supports an amazing multi-mission helicopter.”
Currently outfitted with a fleet of five, the LACoFD was the first organization to field the Firehawk. According to Blumenthal, it took the department very little time to realize that the aircraft would be a game changer for the multi-mission helicopter world. “Without a doubt,” he says.
The department also uses GE Aerospace’s TrueChoice Flight Hour services, an engine maintenance plan that helps operators optimize their cost of ownership over the entire lifecycle of their engine assets.
In North America and Europe, which are both facing longer fire seasons and larger wildfires, such multi-mission capabilities can be a crucial asset. After researching various aircraft options, the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department purchased its first Firehawk.
“Ultimately, we chose the Firehawk for its ability to carry as much as 40 percent more water than the other recommended aircraft,” Chuck MacFarland, chief of air operations at the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, wrote in an article in 2021 for the International Fire Chiefs Association. “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.”
“More than just a firefighting asset,” he noted, “our new aircraft is multi-mission-equipped for hoist rescues and advanced life support.”
Rugged and Reliable
At first glance, the Firehawk might seem like any other helicopter, but there is much more than meets the eye. Beyond its critical role supporting firefighters in mitigating the devastation caused by wildfires, the Firehawk’s meticulous design enables it to take on an array of missions with efficiency and precision, from air medical support and troop transport to technical rescues. All of which is made possible by the rugged and reliable T700 engine.
With decades of experience and more than 100 million hours of proven performance, the T700 is the engine of choice for the harshest military and civilian environments around the world.
“These aircraft successfully take on some of the most austere conditions you can imagine, and we couldn’t be more proud to be the power behind the unique missions that brave firefighters encounter on a daily basis,” says Elissa Lee, executive director, commercial rotorcraft programs at GE Aerospace
In the world of emergency response, the Firehawk stands as a symbol of hope in uncertain times. Whether its disaster relief, rescue missions, or transport, this multi-mission helicopter exemplifies the best of what technology and human effort can achieve. As these flying marvels continue to evolve, they’re sure to be an enduring and invaluable asset in the fight to tame the unruly forces of nature and all manner of challenges in an ever-changing world.