A significant expansion has occurred within the local aerial fire fighting operators. Kestrel Aviation based in Mangalore in the central north of Victoria has added their first type 1 helicopter. Arriving via boat in December 2020 from the USA N125FH a 1979 model UH-60 Blackhawk converted to Firehawk status.
Kestrel Aviation continues to invest in its Australian owned and operated business. With the introduction of Firehawk 1, the company will employ a second helicopter, named Firehawk 2 later in the year for deployment within Australia.
Invited media and dignitaries were invited to see the helicopter and see its capabilities demonstrated this week. Aviation Spotters Online was invited by the Kestrel Aviation team as a guest.
Ordered by the United States Army, it was delivered as 79-23307. The machine was operated in its later life in a Medivac role with large red crosses on white backgrounds marked on the fuselage. Auctioned off after retirement from the Army initially sold to Brown Helicopter Inc as N796ZB. It then went to Brainerd Helicopters Inc from Leesburg International Airport becoming N125FH. Now named Firehawk 1, the machine will become a welcome asset to aerial fire fighting within Australia.
Kestrel and the Firehawk
Last fire season Kestrel brought two Firehawks N2FH and N9FH both owned by Firehawk to Australia. The machines were on contract in Victoria and Queensland respectively. N2FH has remained in Australia for this fire season and will retune to the United States at the end. A second tank equipped Firehawk will return to Australia in lieu of this machine.
Currently, in Australia, civilian operated UH-60 Blackhawks are USA FAA registered and operated in ‘restricted category’ or ‘experimental’ category. This prevents them from carrying any passengers and restricts them to carry essential crew only. This is hoped to be changed soon with the local regulator CASA working with local operators to change this.
Most Blackhawks are typically fitted with a longline and firebombing bucket. Kestrel has also added an internal tank to N125FH. Making it the first internal tank operated Blackhawk in Australia. The tank allows for hover filling with its drop-down suction hose. The tank has a carrying capacity of 3500 Litres and is FAA and STC issued.
Firehawk, BHI, and Brainerd Helicopters
Founded in 1973 Brainerd Helicopters was the first commercial company to obtain and operate the Sikorsky Black Hawk and established the company Firehawk Helicopters Inc. to operate the fleet. The company today now operates nine Firehawks.
Firehawk Helicopters has continued to develop the Blackhawk for fire operations over the years. In 2019 the company along with its subsidiaries announced a new internal tank for the Blackhawk fleet.
The tank can be installed in Black Hawk helicopters without cutting or modifying the aircraft. Using the existing tie-down points on the Black Hawk are used to secure the tank in the aircraft. Leading Edge Composites designed and developed the tank system from a concept. This project took serval years of development, R&D, prototyping, and manufacturing.
The 15-foot snorkel can fill the tank in roughly 50 seconds when only the pump is under the water. In instances where there are deeper water sources and the snorkel can be further submerged into the water, the tank can be filled in about 40 seconds.
Flight tests with the tank installed on the research and development aircraft (H-60X) began in September 2017, and it was tested through the spring of 2018. The tank has been successfully tested at the aircraft’s Vne of 193 knots. The tank will be flown at a speed of 160 knots. The potential to go as high as 175 knots which is the same speed as the bubble window is certified at.
With the long line and bucket fitted the pilot can fill 3500 liters of water from suitable water sources. The crew can also mix a measured quantity of fire fighting suppressant foam to increase the effectiveness of the load when it is dropped on a fire.
The State Governments of Australia have contracted, through NAFC, four Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the 2020-21 fire season.
ASO and Dave wish to thank the Kestrel Team for their assistance in the preparation of this article and for Mike our 206 pilot’s fantastic skills and the two Firehawk pilots Shane and John for showing their craft at work.