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The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has a long and distinguished history as a multi-mission military workhorse. First introduced in 1979, the Black Hawk’s performance, ruggedness, reliability, safety and versatility continue to be held in high regard as it serves all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The same capabilities that make the UH-60 so valuable to U.S. military operators hold a similar appeal to commercial operators. The S-70 — the commercial variant of the Black Hawk — has long been used by foreign governments for VIP transportation, medevac and military missions. But in recent years, the availability of the UH-60 to commercial operators has sparked wider interest in the aircraft within the civil helicopter industry, most notably among those involved in heavy-lifting and firefighting.
Of the small number of domestic commercial operators presently operating the Black Hawk, Firehawk Helicopters, based in Leesburg, Florida, stands out as the industry leader. Today it operates nine Black Hawks — five UH-60A models and four S-70s — and has the distinction of over 20 years of longevity and more than 14,000 accident-free hours.
“There is absolutely no better platform than the Black Hawk,” said Alex Anduze, a former Army UH-60 pilot, Sikorsky test engineer and test pilot, and now director of experimental flight test at Firehawk. “And when somebody makes a statement like that, you have to ask, ‘Well, what’s the mission?’ And that’s the beautiful thing about the Black Hawk: it has incredible mission flexibility because of its power-to-weight and its ballistic tolerant design. It’s the most durable and versatile and safe aircraft in the industry.”
Company founder Chuck Brainerd is a former Army pilot who flew Bell UH-1 Hueys in Vietnam. “When I came home from Vietnam I had a desire to keep flying,” he told Vertical. “But back in the early ’70s there weren’t a lot of helicopter jobs for the number of pilots that were out there, so I started out spraying orange trees, and from there when on to do some lift work for other operators in the area.” He also flew research and development projects for defense contractor Martin Marietta, during which he developed a reputation for his skills, safety, and efficiency. He founded Brainerd Helicopters, Inc. in 1973, but continued to work for other operators for the first few years while his company established itself.
As Brainerd transitioned to focus all his efforts on his company, Martin Marietta offered him continued work if he could secure his own aircraft. So, in 1978, Brainerd arranged to lease a radial engine Sikorsky S-58 and began flying as an independent operator.
In the years that followed, Brainerd enjoyed a steady volume of research test flying with Martin Marietta and continued doing lift work throughout the South and East. In 1980, Brainerd took a decisive step in defining his future by purchasing the S-58. Six years later, he purchased a turbine-powered S-58T, and with it he launched an innovative helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) program with Florida Hospital. The aircraft’s large cabin accommodated a mechanical balloon pump for aiding cardiac patients and the program was heralded as the first of its kind in the country. After three years, Brainerd sold his interest in the operation and went back to flying for defense contractors.
Developing a Firefighting Focus
In 1987, Brainerd got his first taste of firefighting, and this would ultimately steer his business in a new direction. “We’d hang out wherever the fires were and try to get an order to go to work,” he said. “That’s how we fell in love with Boise; we’d hang out there to be near the action. So, we did fires and a little bit of lift work — just whatever it took to keep the doors open. It was a struggle. We should have been out of business about three times.”
Firefighting became the core of Brainerd’s business. But even with the addition of a second S-58T in 1990, he needed another aircraft to improve his company’s capabilities. While the S-58Ts were good performers, they were also old and slow, and parts were limited.
“When we looked to replace the 58Ts, we had three primary criteria for what we were looking to buy: more speed, more lift, and less maintenance,” said Bart Brainerd, Chuck’s son and now the company president. “There are a lot of aircraft out there that are faster and carry more than a 58T, but none of them met the ‘less maintenance’ category. At the time, the Black Hawk was the only modern aircraft that seemed to change the game. It was significantly faster than the 58T, it carried twice the payload, it was a lot less maintenance, and it was a much safer aircraft.”
In the mid ’90s, when Brainerd first aspired to operate a Black Hawk, the aircraft had never been utilized by a commercial operator. The UH-60s were military assets, and the small number of S-70s that had been sold were in the hands of foreign operators: heads of state, governments and militaries. As a result, finding a used S-70 would require a global search for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
At HAI Heli-Expo in 1995, Chuck Brainerd asked around the Sikorsky booth to see if S-70s ever came up for sale. Sikorsky marketing manager Howard Whitfield told him of one in England that was originally owned by the company as a demonstrator. Engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce then leased it as an engine test bed for the RTM 322, and eventually purchased it. At the conclusion of the program, the engines were removed, and the aircraft then sat idle for two years.
Brainerd went to England to see the aircraft and made an offer on the spot. He then came home and put both of his Sikorsky S-58Ts up for sale. In August 1995, with one 58T sold, the deal for the S-70 was completed. It was loaded aboard a ship, transported to New Jersey, and trucked to Brainerd Helicopters’ home base in Leesburg, Florida.
The company began a thorough refurbishment of the aircraft, but the problem remained of where to get the engines. Research revealed Westland had owned 12 GE T700 engines for its EH101 development program. As luck would have it, it had a pair of engines left over, and Brainerd made an offer to purchase them. Work on the S-70 was completed by Memorial Day the following year, and by July the aircraft was in the Western U.S. on its first firefighting contract. Brainerd Helicopters was rebranded as Firehawk Helicopters and became the first (and until two years ago, the only) commercial operator of the Black Hawk.
Expanding the Fleet
By the end of the decade, Firehawk had added three Aérospatiale SA-319B Alouette IIIs to its fleet to complement its utility and firefighting work. These aircraft were operational until 2003, when the company transitioned to Airbus AS350 B3/B3es (H125s). Today, it operates five Airbus AS350s, including one belonging to Brown Helicopter and another belonging to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Firehawk acquired its second S-70 in 2001 from Sikorsky. It had previously served as the Sultan of Brunei’s personal VIP helicopter, and had been refurbished for one of his daughters. The exterior paint was a glossy “OD green” with gold stripes. Inside, the rear cabin was described by Bart Brainerd as “everything you might see in a head of state VIP airliner.” It had a salmon-pink leather VIP interior with seating for seven, captains’ chairs, mirrors, automatic door locks, granite counters, a heavy silk carpet, and an automated glass partition separating it from the front cabin. And then there was the cabin and cockpit hardware — according to Brainerd, gold plating had been layered on the seat belts, door handles and switches.
In 2002, Brown Helicopters, Inc., a leading aircraft parts supplier located nearby in Pensacola, acquired three S-70As via auction. They had been in use by the Government Flying Service of Hong Kong in a search-and-rescue role. After acquiring them, Brown held the aircraft in storage until 2004, when it partnered with Firehawk.
“We entered into an agreement with them to operate those aircraft for them,” said Bart Brainerd. “We began refurbishing the aircraft and converting them, from the search-and-rescue role they had been built for, to the firefighting role.” The first of these aircraft rolled out and entered service in spring 2006. The second and third followed, one each consecutive year.
By 2008, Firehawk was operating five S-70 Black Hawks, but military operations overseas were making spare parts scarce. “Because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, parts were becoming increasingly hard to come by,” said Bart Brainerd. “So, we decided to strip an airframe, cannibalize it, use all the spares to keep the other four aircraft flying, and then we sold just the bare airframe.” This sacrifice allowed Firehawk to maintain its fleet of four S-70s through 2014.
In 2012, the U.S. Army began the Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) program, which allowed it to begin divesting 600 to 800 “obsolete and non-excess” utility A- and L-model Black Hawks over a period of 10 years. This created a pipeline for commercial operators to purchase the aircraft through federal General Services Administration (GSA) auctions.
This was how Firehawk acquired three UH-60As in 2014. A fourth was leased from Brown Helicopters as a dedicated research and development aircraft. The refurbishment required to bring the aircraft up to commercial firefighting standards brought about a new partnership between the two companies along with a third, Dynamic Aviation of Bridgewater, Virginia, to create BHI H60 Helicopters. Together, this alliance co-developed a restricted category supplemental type certificate to allow commercial operations of UH-60As for firefighting and special operations.
As part of the refurbishment, two aircraft were upgraded to the UH-60A+ configuration by the installation of twin GE T700-GE-701D engines. This was a first for an aftermarket user, and enhanced performance dramatically. “We were thrilled with the upgraded hot and high performance and believe we currently own the two highest available payload aircraft in hot and high conditions in the history of the Black Hawk program,” said Bart Brainerd.
A Growing Community
Today, Firehawk’s primary focus is firefighting. Heavy-lift operations remain a strong sector with the balance of work spread between flight testing for the technology and defense industries, and television and film work. The company is home to nearly 70 employees, including 16 full-time and six seasonal pilots, 28 mechanics, and a dozen administrative and support personnel.
Among Firehawk’s many notable missions over the years, two stand out as especially significant. In 2003, it provided an Aérospatiale SA-319B Alouette III for 45 days to recover debris after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Then, in 2005, Firehawk committed two Black Hawks to New Orleans, Louisiana, immediately following hurricane Katrina. They initially performed hospital evacuations and rescues of flood victims, then remained for over a year on contract with the New Orleans, Louisiana, Fire Department for firefighting.
While Florida remains the company headquarters, Firehawk has established a second base in Boise, Idaho. “As firefighting became more and more important to the company, we realized we could basically pay for a base by not ferrying the aircraft back and forth,” said Bart Brainerd. “So we started up the base in Idaho as a maintenance base in between contracts where the aircraft could go and be maintained in the winter time.” He added that as the company has grown, Idaho has slowly become the center of gravity for the Firehawk’s operations.
“For 19 years we’ve held distinction of being the world’s first and only commercial operator of the Black Hawk,” said Bart Brainerd. “Now, thanks to the BEST program, we are just the oldest member of a small but growing community. It’s exciting to see the opportunities developing in the marketplace as the number of available aircraft continues to grow. We are encouraged how the market recognizes the potential and even more excited that the aftermarket recognizes the potential to develop more products for the Black Hawk to increase its capabilities and utility.”