Fighting Wildfires from Above

May 25, 2023

Wildfires pose a deadly risk to the environment, the wildlife, and the lives and homes of people who live in their path. California, British Columbia and Australia are recognized as some of the most wildfire-susceptible areas of the world. Firefighters from two of those have chosen a derivative of the venerable Black Hawk helicopters to aid efforts to put out wildfires of all sizes.

CAL FIRE received its first new-gen Firehawk in 2019 from a contract to provide 12 of the S-70i models, and they currently have eight pilots trained to fly the Firehawks at night. Australia received two Firehawks in 2021.

Well known for ruggedness, speed, and dependability, the slightly modified Black Hawk helicopters – dubbed the Firehawk – are well suited to respond to raging wildfire emergencies, and are being used in collaboration with firefighters to slow or halt the spread.

A Firehawk can carry replacement firefighters and water to a site and return as often as necessary with just a pilot and co-pilot to drop full loads of water or retardant with high precision.

Black Hawk Power

The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, named after a Native American battle leader, is a four-bladed, twin-engine medium-lift utility military helicopter. In 1972, Sikorsky entered the S-70 into the U.S. Army’s Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System (UTTAS) competition. After a fly-off competition with the Boeing Vertol YUH-61, the Army designated the prototype as the YUH-60A and picked the Black Hawk as the victor in 1976. Three years later, the UH-60A was deployed by the United States Army to replace the Bell UH-1 Iroquois as the Army’s tactical transport helicopter. After that, electronic warfare and special operations variants of the Black Hawk were introduced.

The Black Hawk’s power and capabilities, toughness and dependability, and the all-important survivability (which make it ideal for military operations), have been tapped for civilian safety operations such as fire suppression.

A remarkably versatile military aircraft, the Black Hawk was first intended to deliver and extract troops, save lives as a MEDEVAC or casualty evacuation platform, deliver critical supplies to troops. It now delivers emergency or medical supplies during natural disasters, patrols borders, and is doing duty as an aerial firefighter. Modified utility variants of the UH-60L and UH-60M have been developed for the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, and now the S-70 variant, dubbed “Firehawk” is a civilian version of the robust, dependable multi-role helicopter. 

Firehawks for Fire Suppression

More than 4,000 Black Hawk aircraft of all varieties are in service worldwide today. With 2,135 H-60 designated aircraft, the U.S. Army is the largest operator. The same aircraft sold directly by Sikorsky to other countries, are assigned the S-70 designation.

Thanks to the engineering upgrades that have gone into making the Black Hawk one of the most “survivable” military helicopters in the world, the civilian Firehawk helicopters also benefit from improved survivability and situational awareness. Some of the upgrades include digital avionics, powerful GE engines, high-strength airframe components, and composite wide-chord rotor blades.

The modern version of this utility aircraft is being used as an armed helicopter to provide fire suppression and armed escort when supporting ground troops.

The Firehawk’s capabilities include rapid deployment speed and a 4,000-litre water firefighting capacity. They have a maximum weight of 10 tonnes, a top speed of 360km/h, and an overall length of almost 20 meters. The UH 60 series helicopters are made of high-quality materials built for efficiency and reliability. They are designed for efficiency and dependability. Due to its speed and water-holding capacity, the Black Hawk was an ideal aircraft for firefighting.

The Black Hawk derivative helicopters can effectively cover large areas quickly with a heavy load of water. They allow for the speedy delivery of materials and firefighters to hot spots. If a wildfire isn’t contained or put out immediately, it can spread swiftly and cause untold damage. Aerial firefighting is the term given to combating wildfires with any aerial resources including fixed-wing and rotary wing aircraft. Aerial firefighting is an effective approach to contain a wildfire and mitigate the potential for damage. In 1947, helicopters were utilized for the first time to combat wildfires, and have since become an indispensable weapon in forest firefighting. Helicopters are used to curtail fire spread, carry refueling for trucks, transfer equipment and fresh rotations of firefighters to the area, and all types of rescue and medevac.


The revolutionary Firehawk helicopters are very reliable asset when fighting bushfires. With a cruise speed of 260 km/hour, they can travel greater distances at an incredible speed to respond to fire emergencies.

A true multi-mission aircraft, the Sikorsky Firehawk helicopter can be quickly reconfigured in flight for search and rescue, hoist rescues, and also medical transport – even with its external water tank still attached.

In addition to airspeed, the Firehawk has a massive tank capacity of 4500L and can refill in just 35 seconds via its snorkel. This retractable snorkel allows the helicopter to cruise at higher speeds than an aircraft with a fixed snorkel.

Furthermore, they can fly for up to 2.5 hours on a single refuel. They can utilize their high speeds to travel to a water source, refill and return. More precisely than a fixed wing aircraft, a helicopter can dump its water load on a very specific area. The pressurized water in the tank will put out the fire better than ground-operated fire fighting, which has less capacity.


Sikorsky engineers are very focused on improving survivability in the event of a crash, a feature that defines the Firehawk helicopters. The composite titanium and fiberglass material and four-bladed main rotor make the helicopter less prone to ripping apart during an accident. If it crashes, there is a high chance of survival of the crew and the aircraft itself. The material also aids the helicopters in flying over the fire as it extinguishes it without harm.

The Black Hawk helicopter has operated in some of the harshest conditions imaginable – from the frozen ice of Antarctica to the desert sands of Africa. Its dependability, as well as its capabilities, including high speed, high water-carrying capacity, fast refill rate, and precision dumps, have made it effective and reliable in firefighting.

K. Angus is a freelance writer whose primary focus is on public safety.