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Resurrecting the Blackhawk

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

The scenes are burned into the memories of those who lived through the destruction. Entire neighborhoods, towns and cities wiped out. Homes and businesses were here one day and gone the next. Freeways and interstate systems stuck at a standstill, unable to accommodate the logjam of people desperately escaping the blaze. Firefighters struggle to contain the inferno that rages across the Southern California landscape.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), reports that more than 1.6 million acres of land across the state burned in 2018 because of wildfires that threaten the region annually. That year the Camp Fire scorched Boutte County claiming 86 lives and destroying nearly 19,000 structures becoming California's most destructive wildfire in history. It caused almost four times as much destruction as the second-most destructive fire on record.

The Mendocino Complex Fire in July 2018 was nearly twice the size of the second-largest wildfire in California state history, as it covered just 460,000 acres across four counties in Northern California.

As emergency personnel gear up for another year-long fight this season, help will be on the way in the form of one of the iconic symbols of the U.S. military - the Blackhawk helicopter.

Santa Barbara County will upgrade its outdated Vietnam War-era fleet of aircraft in 2019 with the decommissioned Sikorsky HH-60L Blackhawk, a helicopter that debuted in 2002 and features considerably fewer flight hours than its aging predecessors, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Santa Barbara County Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer called this development “a game-changer for the future” in his county’s ability to fight area fires while evacuating residents and providing effective medevac services when required.

Repurposing one of the U.S. military’s most reliable pieces of weaponry is a growing trend in the firefight. Los Angeles County and the City of San Diego also elected to purchase decommissioned Sikorsky Blackhawks in late 2018. The chopper’s impact on civilian fire safety has even been felt worldwide. Australia and New Zealand are among the many countries to enlist its American ally in disaster and emergency relief in recent years.

The Blackhawk’s emergence on the civilian market is thanks in large part to the Federal Aviation Administration relaxing regulations on civil-owned helicopters in 2015.

While fighting fires is perhaps its most common use domestically, companies such as JetLease, Timberline Helicopters, PJ Helicopters and BHI2 took advantage of their opportunity to bring the Sikorsky Blackhawk to market for a wider variety of operations. This includes private charter, construction, logging, EMS, law enforcement and even leasing to foreign governments battling severe budget constraints as a way to provide their own citizens with serviceable defense.

As with any advancement comes its challenges. The emergence of the Blackhawk helicopter in the marketplace has been no different. Acquiring reliable parts for the repurposing and maintenance of a range of models, including the UH-60, UH-60A, S-70 and UH-1 along with the modern HH-60L, has proven difficult. Blackhawks are just as likely to be purchased for parts sourcing as they are for use in the field. Their prohibitive restricted designation by the FAA even requires additional aircraft testing, exhaustive paperwork by the leasing companies and rewriting of outdated flight manuals just to earn each aircraft its certification.

Still, many believe the Blackhawk helicopter to be the future of utility and emergency operations both domestically and abroad. As more local and federal agencies enlist its service, the public is sure to embrace this symbol of military might in its own fight for safety and security at home.

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