The Black Hawk at 40: Part 5

The S-70i International Black Hawk

The S-70 became a European aircraft when Sikorsky bought PZL Mielec of Poland in 2007, investing almost $75 million to modernize the company’s facility in Mielec. Originally, the facility built UH-60 cabins, but this was supplemented by assembly of the third-generation S-70i Black Hawk in 2010.

The S-70i Armed Black Hawk features a fully integrated weapons system. Qualified in 2017 by Sikorsky, the weapons system gives the utility platform a sophisticated medium attack mission capability, enabling high targeting accuracy. Ted Carlson Photo
The S-70i Armed Black Hawk features a fully integrated weapons system. Qualified in 2017 by Sikorsky, the weapons system gives the utility platform a sophisticated medium attack mission capability, enabling high targeting accuracy. Ted Carlson Photo
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Leon Silva, director of engineering for global military and systems and services at Sikorsky, said the move to build the S-70i in Poland was driven by the low cost and high quality of manufacturing in the country.

“[It was] an opportunity to win more international sales from Europe and worldwide where customers were more price sensitive and more comfortable purchasing from a European manufacturing facility,” he said.

The S-70i is based on the UH-60M, featuring General Electric T701D turboshafts with an integral particle separator, wide chord main rotor blades, and a glass cockpit with a digital automatic flight control system.

So far, the facility has built more than 40 S-70s for eight customers. These include foreign government sales to customers to customers in Brunei, Chile, Columbia, Poland, and the Middle East; and to Firehawk customers in the U.S.

“We have not had a Firehawk in Europe, but believe there are opportunities for the aircraft in France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece,” said Silva.

L.A. County Fire Department has been operating the Firehawk since 2000. The department bolstered its Firehawk fleet by adding two S-70i Firehawks earlier this year. Anthony Pecchi Photo
L.A. County Fire Department has been operating the Firehawk since 2000. The department bolstered its Firehawk fleet by adding two S-70i Firehawks earlier this year. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The S-70A Firehawk has been operational with Los Angeles County Fire Department since 2000, and has proven its worth in almost two decades of firefighting. Based on the UH-60L, the aircraft was configured for missions including airborne firefighting (with a 1,000-US gallon/3,785-liter belly-mounted Aero Union, later Simplex, tank), SAR, emergency medical transport, and fire crew and cargo transport. L.A. County’s three S-70As were joined by two S-70i Firehawks earlier this year.

The S-70i was customized for firefighting operations by United Rotorcraft, which has partnered with Sikorsky to offer a turnkey package for customers.

The aircraft shares its DNA with its third-generation UH-60M sibling, with a few differences in customer-specific equipment, including a simplified engine inlet and exhaust design, and a more civilian-suitable radio package.

The S-70i has a maximum gross weight with external load of 23,500 lb. (10,660 kg), a 9,000-lb. (4,080 kg) hook capacity, and hover-out-of-ground-effect (HOGE) gross weight of 18,000 lb. (8,165 kg) at 11,000 feet density altitude. Compared to the S-70As operated by L.A. County, Sikorsky said the S-70i has an increase in payload of 850 lb. (385 kg). This is due to the higher available torque from the General Electric T701D engines, and the increased efficiency of the i model’s wide-chord blades.

Once assembled by Sikorsky, the aircraft are modified by United Rotorcraft with a new-design 1,000-US gallon (3,785-liter) water tank equipped with a unique snorkel system for 60-second tank refill, extended landing gear, single pilot cockpit layout and a medically equipped interior. United Rotorcraft is also working with Kawak Aviation to develop a new tank for the S-70i.

Brainerd Helicopters was the first civilian operator of the Black Hawk, ultimately launching an operation that carried the Firehawk name. Dan Megna Photo
Brainerd Helicopters was the first civilian operator of the Black Hawk, ultimately launching an operation that carried the Firehawk name. Dan Megna Photo

In addition to L.A. County, recent Firehawk customers include Cal Fire (up to 12 over the next five years), San Diego Fire (one, delivered in July 2018), and Ventura County Fire Department, which contracted United Rotorcraft to convert two former UH-60Ls into Firehawks in August 2018.

The S-70i is also the basis for Sikorsky’s new military-qualified armed Black Hawk, which features a comprehensive weapons system fully integrated with the existing digital avionics. It represents the first time Sikorsky has offered a weaponized S-70 directly from the factory, and is marketed to nations seeking to replace older Soviet helicopters with a fully digital helicopter that can be quickly modified to perform a number of different missions.

The Civilian Hawk

The Black Hawk first entered the civilian realm through Brainerd Helicopters of Leesburg, Florida, with the operator needing to perform an international search to secure its first Hawk — a former demonstrator model in England — over 20 years ago. After extensive refurbishment, the aircraft proved such a success that the company formed Firehawk Helicopters, and it bolstered its fleet with additional former international S-70s as they became available on the market.

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A partnership with Brown Helicopters broadened the number of civilian S-70 owners slightly, but it wasn’t until 2012, with the launch of the Army’s Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team (BEST) program, that the aircraft became easily accessible to the civilian market. The program aims to divest 600 to 800 A and L model Black Hawks from the Army’s inventory. The aircraft are first offered for sale or exchange to federal and state government agencies, then to Sikorsky, and finally are offered for auction by the General Services Administration.

These auctions have seen a relative flood of the Black Hawks appear on the market, having been refurbished and put to work in various restricted category utility roles by operators including PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff, California; Timberline Helicopters of Sandpoint, Idaho; and Helinet Aviation of Van Nuys, California.

PJ Helicopters is one of several civilian operators to have purchased Army-surplus Black Hawks and put the aircraft to work in a range of utility operations. Skip Robinson Photo
PJ Helicopters is one of several civilian operators to have purchased Army-surplus Black Hawks and put the aircraft to work in a range of utility operations. Skip Robinson Photo

Representing the company’s longest production run since founder Igor Sikorsky pioneered the helicopter industry with the first flight of the historic VS-300 in 1939, the S-70 family of helicopters has become not only Sikorsky’s most successful program, but the most popular military helicopter type of the 21st century. And with a wave of first- and second-generation Black Hawks now retiring to finding new roles outside the military, the adaptable aircraft is set to bolster its reputation as it establishes a whole new legacy in the civilian world.

Editor’s note: This is the final part of a 5-part Black Hawk series. Click to read part 1, part 2, part 3, or part 4

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