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It’s no secret a significant demand exists for consistently reliable aircraft with a 6,000- to 8,000-pound lifting capacity in the utility helicopter industry. The U.S. Army’s Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk, first released for sale to the civilian market in August 2014, is poised to fill that gap as it proves its salt outside the military, making a name for itself in the world of restricted use utility operations.
According to the General Services Administration (GSA) — the U.S. government’s clearinghouse for surplus goods — 112 UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters have been sold and delivered to domestic buyers since they became available in 2014. An additional 25 are sold and await delivery. This is just the beginning. The Army has suggested more than 800 of the older model Black Hawks will be retired over the next decade. Despite this number, only a little over a dozen are actively flying in civilian commercial operations today, with more poised to enter the market as they receive certification.
Originally designed for the Army, the Black Hawk’s 8,000 lb. civilian external load capability makes it the ideal solution for medium and heavy lift jobs, with the only restriction being its category. While the aircraft is designed to carry 11 people or six stretchers, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations regarding restricted category certification of military surplus platforms limit the aircraft to essential crew and cargo (internal or external) only.
Despite these limitations, the UH-60A is filling a need in a way that is exceeding operator and customer expectations.
Timberline Helicopters of Sandpoint, Idaho, operates one Black Hawk and has two additional airframes currently under refurbishment for addition to the fleet. Timberline specializes in ski lift and power line construction in addition to firefighting.
“Our primary market segment is precision heavy lift, so we try to keep an aircraft available for those customers that need to complete their projects during the summer months when most heavy lift helicopters are committed to firefighting,” said Travis Storro, chief operating officer at Timberline. “We were a little concerned that our customers who were accustomed to the K-Max performance and capabilities might be hesitant to hire a Black Hawk, especially for high-altitude precision lift operations. However, so far the aircraft has exceeded both our customers’ expectations as well as our own.”
Timberline vice president Brian Jorgenson added, “We recently completed a power line project where we were setting 7,400-lb. tower components at over 5,000 feet and above 30 degrees Celsius. The aircraft handled the mission well and the customer was very happy because we were able to greatly reduce the number of hours of [S-64] Skycrane use that they required for the project.”
Redundancy + reliability = safety
To an industry segment operating some expensive, hard-to-maintain, and often-unreliable aircraft, the biggest selling points beyond performance of the UH-60A are its reliability and redundancy. Operators accustomed to performing heavy lift operations in older single-engine helicopters with one hydraulic system feel spoiled with the UH-60.
“The greatest aspect of the aircraft is the reliability and redundancy of the systems,” said Storro. “As an operator who has always flown single-engine helicopters, it’s nice to know that you’ve got two engines, three hydraulic sources, two generating systems, and many safety features that come with the military pedigree.”
PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff, California, acquired its UH-60A Black Hawk the summer of 2015 and has since added a second to the flight line. It owns three additional UH-60 airframes with plans to potentially bring one to the line and keep the remaining two for parts.
“It’s a great platform,” said Justin Chaffin, director of PJ Helicopters’ heavy helicopter division. “I’ve flown eight to 10 different aircraft platforms and this is probably the best I’ve ever flown. The alternate and redundant systems make it a very, very safe aircraft to fly.”
PJ Helicopters operates Bell 214, Bell UH-1, Bell 407, Bell 206L, Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3, MD 500 and MD 500N airframes in operations such as power line construction and firefighting with Bambi Buckets. However, the call for maintainable aircraft with 6,000- to 8,000-lb. lifting capability kept the company searching for options.
“The helicopter industry doesn’t support the utility industry with the aircraft we need for our jobs,” said Chaffin. “Their focus is the oil industry, so we’re left looking for aircraft from other sources, such as surplus. Unfortunately, some of those aircraft are too expensive to maintain. When the Black Hawk came out, it was just what we needed. It has newer technology, required few modifications, and had similar operating costs to other available aircraft. It’s not going to replace the Huey in my opinion because it’s a different aircraft, but it fills that weight gap and is a great addition to the utility industry.”
When it comes to civilian Black Hawk operations, none is more knowledgeable than Brainerd Helicopters. The Leesburg, Florida, company purchased its first non-military version, the Sikorsky S-70, in 1995 from the Sultan of Brunei, then through a partnership with Brown Helicopter in Pensacola, Florida, acquired three more from Hong Kong’s harbor patrol.
At the time, Brainerd worked with Sikorsky to receive restricted category certification of the aircraft. As a part of this acquisition and certification process, Brainerd formed Firehawk Helicopters, which has successfully operated the four S-70 aircraft under a restricted category rating in utility and fire suppression missions for years. Not surprisingly, once the UH-60A became available, it was Firehawk that received the first certification and has since added five UH-60A aircraft to their fleet.
“Being the trailblazer for this aircraft, making the investment, was a little scary to start, but we saw how great the aircraft was and we believed in its abilities,” said Bart Brainerd, president of Brainerd Helicopters and Firehawk Helicopters. “We’ve been operating it safely and successfully for 20 years and it’s exciting to see it come out into the market. I really think this is only the beginning.”
Type Certificate Woes
Originally costing around $5 million, the stripped down surplus UH-60A aircraft sells for between $400,000 and $800,000 depending on its state of mechanical repair. All military equipment, avionics and even some systems are removed. While some are airworthy at the time of sale, all require some level of refurbishment and maintenance, as well as full certification, before they can go to work. And the only type certification available is the prohibitive restricted category.
PJ Helicopters’ Chaffin said the initial restricted category type certification was quite a process, requiring significant time, testing, paperwork and manual rewrites.
“The FAA doesn’t view the UH-60A as any type of helicopter with a type certification,” Chaffin said. “To them, it’s a random machine with no validation to be legal. We had to do all the paperwork to show all legal parts were met; edit maintenance, flight and training manuals; and add markings and instruments. With everything the government did to the aircraft before surplus, we had to make a change. For instance, they took off the deicing equipment, so we had to remove that from the manuals. All of that added up.”
The standard restricted type certification for the Black Hawk allows for agricultural, forest and wildlife conservation and external load operations, all with only essential crew and no flights over populated areas. Operators, however, see so much more opportunity if the aircraft’s full potential was allowed.
“My personal opinion is that the UH-60A would be the ultimate ‘helitack’ platform,” said Timberline’s Storro. “Because it was designed to move a lot of troops, to do rappel operations, carry external loads, and go fast, it’s perfectly suited to the initial attack fire mission. However, since the aircraft is restricted from carrying passengers, the only legal way to perform these operations would be as a public aircraft under contract to a federal or state agency that was willing to assume responsibility for the oversight of the aircraft and move it out of the FAA realm. . . . I hope someone figures it out though, because you could put a lot of people on the fire much faster with a Black Hawk than with any other platform currently in the government’s firefighting arsenal.”
Another downside of the restricted category is the absence of safety bulletins and other safety sharing options with FAA oversight. In response to this, Brainerd has taken the lead to start an informal sharing community with other UH-60 and S-70 operators, including PJ Helicopters and Timberline.
“We may be competitors, but the market is big enough for us all,” Brainerd said. “It is more important to share safety-related knowledge. You want everyone to be engaged and as safe as possible and enjoy the aircraft as much as they can. In fact, we helped with the initial training for PJ and Timberline. Working together we can maintain the aircraft’s superior safety record.”
As with many surplus aircraft, Black Hawk operations are limited by reliable parts sourcing. Brown Helicopters has provided factory parts for Sikorsky aircraft for close to 40 years, helping keep Firehawk’s S-70 aircraft flying. However, other sources are hard to come by.
“The worst part [of UH-60 ownership] is the infancy of the support market and the lack of spare parts for sale from reputable sources,” said Timberline’s Storro. “To date, most operators who are serious about buying aircraft are purchasing at least one aircraft just for spares.”
Brainerd adds: “The government has not been selling parts for eight years — a move by the current administration. The only option is to buy surplus. I’ve seen more Black Hawks bought for parts than for operation.”
Many operators, such as PJ Helicopters, solve the parts problem by purchasing one or two additional aircraft solely for their own parts sourcing. Other companies, such as Unical Aviation, are purchasing large numbers of aircraft, stripping them down, refurbishing parts, and making them available to UH-60 operators around the world.
To date, four times more UH-60As have been sold than surplus sales of the Boeing CH-47 Chinook. Despite its restricted category limitations, it has promising potential.
“This helicopter is the future of utility helicopter operations,” said Storro. “Since most utility operations for heavy-lift aircraft involve only the required crew to maximize performance and payload and are conducted in remote areas where you can’t get a crane or other means of lifting the payload, there is plenty of work to be had regardless of the certification basis.”
Brainerd sees a future where the Black Hawk will dominate utility operations, even moving into more parapublic and public agency support.
“This has been the primary aircraft in the Army for so long, there are a large number of pilots and mechanics with considerable experience with the airframe,” said Brainerd. “As police, local, and federal agencies look at aircraft options, I see the Black Hawk becoming more popular. And under those agencies’ public use operations, they will be able to carry people and fly over populated areas, like Los Angeles County does with their firefighting aircraft.”
Additionally, many companies have begun developing enrichments for the aircraft, such as Rogerson Kratos’ modernized UH-60 cockpit and Arista Aviation’s refurbished UH-60s. This new interest in offering support and enhancements for the aircraft that will assist in paving the way for increased use.
“I may be biased, but I consider the Black Hawk the pinnacle of rotorcraft design,” said Brainerd. “It is unsurpassed in the marketplace today. The commercial industry doesn’t have an aircraft that exceeds it in terms of performance, safety and reliability. Every aircraft since it was released, even Sikorsky’s own aircraft like the S-92, doesn’t have the capability, redundancy and safety of this aircraft. It was designed to be a battlefield helicopter — fight, fly, fight — without a lot of time down for daily maintenance. Even its landing gear is a higher standard than what you find in the commercial market. All of this has made it ideal for firefighting. The Black Hawk’s only Achilles Heel is that Sikorsky didn’t certify it for domestic civilian operations.”