Two new birds will soon fly above Ventura County.
The Ventura County Fire Department has purchased a pair of decommissioned Black Hawk helicopters to help fight fires, locate missing hikers and perform other tasks done by the air units it shares with the sheriff’s department. These retired military copters are safer and more powerful than the Huey helicopters they’ll eventually replace, VCFD Chief Mark Lorenzen told The Acorn.
“The helicopters we have now are able to carry 375 gallons of water, but (the Black Hawks) are able to drop 1,000 gallons,” Lorenzen said. “They also will be able to carry more crew members and they have twin engines.”
VCFD has purchased three aircraft in total: two to use for sheriff and fire department business and one for parts.
Upgrading to the newer copters— all built in 2003 or later— made sense because parts for the 1960s-era Hueys are no longer attainable. The department purchased the Black Hawks, which are being refurbished by United Rotorcraft in Denver, through a federal program that gives government agencies first crack at buying used military aircraft.
Black Hawks are often snatched up by federal and state agencies, Lorenzen said. Some that haven’t been bought by public agencies have been sold to private parties—sans machine guns, of course.
Ventura County is the first local-level agency to purchase a repurposed Black Hawk, he said.
“I’m sure people are looking at us and watching Ventura County going through the process to see how it goes for us,” he said.
The three helicopters, approved by the Board of Supervisors in January, were purchased for about $300,000 each. But after the cost of refurbishment and an ongoing maintenance program, the total bill for the two that will go into service is expected to be around $15 million.
A new Firehawk—which is the name Rotorcraft has given the specialized Black Hawk—recently purchased by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cost that agency about $21 million.
The refurbishing is costly because there are a lot of additions to be made.
In addition to mounting a huge “belly tank” to hold the water, they have to get new, taller landing gear to accommodate the tank. They will each get a new console with technical upgrades and an interior appropriate for transporting fire hand crews, Lorenzen said.
In a statement issued by Lockheed Martin, the parent company for Rotorcraft and its direct parent, Sikorsky, Firehawks also feature wide chord rotor blades for increased payload and maneuverability, a rugged airframe, a digital class cockpit with flight management system, and precision hover capability using an enhanced global positioning system and an inertial (self-contained and automatic) navigation system.
The 1,000-gallon water tanks are equipped with a snorkel system that allows for a 60-second tank refill.
The county’s specific aircraft were Air Guard medivacs stationed in the United States.
Lorenzen said he expects the first helicopter to be finished in July or August 2019 and the second to be completed three months after that. In the meantime, the third helicopter will come to the county so that their pilots, all of whom are sheriff’s office employees, can start getting time in them.