Rogerson Kratos subsidiary Top Drop is offering a customized aerial firefighting solution using repurposed surplus U.S. Army Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters. Repurposing the UH-60A and L model Black Hawks can cut acquisition costs by up to two-thirds as opposed to purchasing comparable new equipment, CEO Michael Rogerson told AIN. Rogerson thinks the idea to serve communities directly will gain a market following as more local communities take aerial firefighting into their own hands, as the fire danger becomes more acute. Like now, for instance.
This year is shaping up to be one of the worst U.S. wildfire seasons on record. By early June, nearly two million acres had already burned, nearly triple the amount at that time last year. In New Mexico alone, five fires cumulatively had torched 660,000 acres. Fire-prone California recorded 30 wildfires during the first five months of the year, including the 600-acre Old Fire blaze that popped up on Memorial Day near Napa Valley’s wine country.
The past firefighting doctrine of “let it burn” is increasingly being displaced by one of rapid response. In California, the state department of forestry and fire protection, better known as Cal Fire, emphasizes the need to quench fires in the crib during the first 10 acres of an outbreak. In the main, this strategy is successful 95 percent of the time, according to the agency. The other five percent is the problem.
In Napa, the populace and numerous wineries are still recovering from 2020’s Glass Fire, which raged on uncontained for 23 days, incinerating more than 67,000 acres in September and October, laying waste to 642 homes, nearly 2,000 other structures, and damaging or destroying dozens of wineries, restaurants, and inns.
Although Cal Fire maintains its own fleet of firefighting fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, including a fleet scheduled to grow to a dozen new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks, increasingly fire-susceptible communities are taking matters into their own hands. The Los Angeles County Fire Department operates seven Firehawks. In San Diego, both the Sheriff Department and the local utility, SDG&E, operate a collective fleet of medium Bell twins, an Erickson Air-Crane, and a Sikorsky Firehawk. Santa Barbara County also operates the Firehawk.
The Firehawk is a capable, albeit pricey, solution to get water and retardants on a fire in a hurry. Its quick-fill belly tank can hold up to 1,000 gallons and it can be kitted with a variety of mission-complementary technology including a rescue hoist, external cargo hook, searchlights, and tactical communications and navigation systems. It can also be equipped with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras and night vision goggles, giving it true around-the-clock capability. With a full load, the Firehawk can race to a fire at speeds up to 140 knots.
But all this capability comes with a price that can run near $30 million per aircraft when adding custom avionics installation and spares, putting the aircraft out of reach of all but the largest and most affluent state and local governments. In Southern California’s Orange County, the local government has contracted with Coulson Aviation for use of the company’s firefighting tandem rotor CH-47s. “Those helicopters had previously been on contracts in Northern California, but Orange County was willing to pay earlier to ensure those helicopters were available for the fire season,” Rogerson said.
In Napa, where the fire danger is well understood, last year from August to November the county spent $1.86 million to contract for the exclusive services of a used Black Hawk kitted with a 900-gallon water bucket from operator Blue Sky Helicopters. While Cal Fire had agreed to base a contracted helicopter nearby, it was not there on an exclusive-use basis and the agency in fact withdrew it for use on fires elsewhere in the state. For Napa, still dealing with the charred remains from the Glass Fire conflagration, this presented an unacceptable risk.
As in Napa, not all local governments are willing to acquire their own helicopters—yet. “I think they are going to do it in stages,” Rogerson said. “They will lease or rent helicopters for the fire season. Other states are doing this. They start with a lease and when they see the difficulties of an exclusive use [agreement], they tend to move toward acquiring their own helicopters. Our interest is either one. We can support leases or sell them helicopters for significantly less than new by taking U.S. BEST [Black Hawk Exchange Sales Program for the sale of surplus U.S. Army UH-60As], modernizing their avionics, and installing the best firefighting solution for that particular municipality,” Rogerson said. Top Drop is currently running a leasing program from McClellan Airport in Sacramento, which, not coincidentally, is the headquarters for Cal Fire’s aviation operations.
“We want to stay close to the customer and have the ability to communicate well. That location also allows us to dispatch quickly to areas that traditionally have had large fires in the past,” he said. Top Drop is entertaining exclusive-use customer leases that will enable helicopters to respond to fires within 10-15 minutes of a call-out. “You have to be really close to it [the fire] and have a fast helicopter like the Black Hawk.”
Napa is the type of community Rogerson has in mind for his company’s conversion. Rogerson has initially acquired four Army surplus UH-60As and already converted two to the firefighting configuration, which, he says, has a typical out-the-door price of between $8 to $10 million—helicopter included—depending on the equipment selected. The cost of the conversion itself to a customer-provided helicopter could range between $1 million and $2 million. "Repurposing UH-60As not only saves on acquisition costs but also on support and maintenance costs,” Rogerson said.
The Top Drop equipment suite provides upgraded navigation, surveillance, and sensor systems that enable night-time aerial firefighting operations. The package not only supports day/night operations but also delivers "the best accuracy while replenishing drops with a hover snorkel for the fastest return on the fire. The accuracy of our drops matches the additional capacity, and the verification of features ensures the best results," according to Rogerson.
It features a digital cockpit, a quick-fill internal water tank, and high-definition cameras. The avionics suite includes digital displays, moving map, flight-following satcom, enhanced navigation, dual commercial radios, ADS-B, loud hailer, digital audio system, telemetry unit, integrated FMS, and integrated maintenance system.
According to Top Drop, the integrated avionics suite replaces analog equipment and can include advanced GPS, a traffic collision avoidance system, terrain awareness and warning system, as well as forward-looking infrared. The snorkel refills the tank in 60 seconds, and the firefighting tank system has an automatic foam dispenser and integrated control functions.
Rogerson said the available internal, roll-on, roll-off 850-gallon water/retardant tank saves significant weight and cost and provides an additional level of safety for night-time operations as there is “nothing dangling below the helicopter. You really can’t go flying around neighborhoods at night with this line dangling down to a bucket, nobody wants that.” Customers can also opt for the lower-priced option: a sling-loaded water bucket. Switching over from the bucket to the internal tank can take less than a week. “There are choices and they are cost-driven. Municipalities, especially in California, are very cost-sensitive to the equipment,” Rogerson said. “I don’t think we’re at the perfect solution, yet. We’ve got to be cost-conscious to the market.”
The conversion is made via FAA form 337, and Top Drop is targeting a 90-day turnaround from order to delivery, while the installation takes approximately 22 days. The conversion works with any avionics installation, although the company recommends panel modernization to reduce pilot workload. The mission-specific avionics works with either the bucket or internal tank. Top Drop provides a complete turnkey system including full documentation, field support, logistics, and certification. “If you deploy to the customer or out in the field, that’s a different level of support,” Rogerson said. “We provide the pilots, mechanics, and support personnel.”
For customers who purchase aircraft, Rogerson counsels that it will “take time to absorb them in terms of training issues for the aircraft and the different types of firefighting” in which the operator engages. He said pilot training would be a “cooperative effort” beginning with type rating on the aircraft and established training companies such as FlightSafety. “We integrate our training into the other training programs that are out there. That is a very successful way of doing that. It’s very efficient for the operator.”
Rogerson said the “rapid response” firefighting doctrine provides the impetus for wider use of the Black Hawk platforms on fires. “It really is the critical part of it, getting there before the fire really gets going and being able to hit the fire exactly where you want to.” He said offering the system with a bucket and not just the internal tank “preserves a multi-mission capability. Our solution is adaptable to those different approaches. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. We use different technologies for different needs. The types of [water] delivery are very important but so are the accuracy and speed at which the helicopter can drop and refill. The technology is the thing.”