Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Air Operations unit recently welcomed Copter 21, the first of two new Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk helicopters expected to join their ranks in early 2020, to Barton Heliport at Whiteman Airport.
“This aircraft is the perfect platform for us to do our missions … and a very versatile tool,” said Patrick Sprengel, battalion chief of Air Operations. “It will certainly add to our abilities here.”
“I think this is the finest piece of equipment that we own,” added Dennis Blumenthal, chief of helicopter maintenance at Air Operations.
With the arrival of Copters No. 21 and 22, L.A. County will have a total of 10 helicopters — three Bell 412EP’s, two Bell 412HP’s, three Sikorsky S-70A Firehawks and the two new S-70i’s.
“Right now, we have the capability of putting up at least two of these aircraft, but with five of these, we will be able to put up three to four when needed during the fire season on a fairly routine basis,” Sprengel said, adding that each aircraft flies about 300 hours per year.
The more helicopters in the fleet, the easier it is for Blumenthal and Sprengel to plan the fleet’s flying schedule, ensuring that each helicopter is available when needed.
“We project it as far as nine months in advance, usually, how we’re going to fly the aircraft, so it could be down (for maintenance) at the right time instead of the wrong time,” Blumenthal added. “I’ve got data going back to 2001 of how many hours we fly every single month over all those years, so we can kind of start speculating what it’s going to be moving forward.”
Copter 21 is not new to the Santa Clarita Valley skies, as it was here last year while assisting with the wildfire season before heading back to United Rotorcraft in Colorado to get retrofitted with its new water tank and some other equipment.
“We did training with the crews and then we also used it for what we call ‘HELCO’ (or observation duties), so this flew on some of the bigger fires we had last year, including the Woolsey Fire, but it didn’t have the water tank yet for water dropping,” Sprengel said.
Helicopters such as this one have four primary missions for the department: transporting trauma patients, hoist rescues, water-dropping during fires and crew transport.
“(The S-70i’s) excel in all four,” Sprengel said. “They are just a bigger, better platform to work on … allow us to get out there quicker, allow us to go longer on that fuel load, allow us to carry more patients, so there is a lot of advantages.”
These helicopters also fly better in some of the weather conditions often found in L.A. County, such as high winds or at elevation.
“We do hoist rescues at elevation, so when you talk about some of the areas in L.A. County that are up in our mountains here, we have a very hard time doing them with (the 412’s), but with (the S-70i’s), we can do them at 10,000 feet without even thinking twice,” Sprengel said. “In the winds of some of those bigger fires (we’ve had recently), this aircraft is really the only aircraft helicopter-wise that is effective, not only effective with the drop but even the ability to fly in those types of conditions.”
When comparing the S-70i’s to a Super Scooper, for example, a Super Scooper is strictly used for water-dropping and flies approximately 30 hours a year.
“(Firehawks) can handle wind, can handle all different terrain, it can drop in all different configurations, (such as) deep drainages and up on the ridge top, very effectively,” Sprengel added.
A Super Scooper has a 1,600-gallon water tank and flies at 100 mph, whereas a Firehawk only carries 1,000 gallons, but can fly at about 160 mph.
“In the time it’d take the Super Scooper to go get the water, we could do probably four or five turns (with the Firehawk),” Sprengel said. “And the accuracy with these aircraft and this tank configuration are about as crisp as it gets.”
“You’re just going to put more water on a fire with 1,000 gallons on this platform than anything else,” Blumenthal said, adding that the S-70i’s water-dropping capabilities are what makes it so vital to the department.
“This is an all-brand-new designed tank, similar to what we had on before, but now fully upgraded with all the new machinery on it,” Sprengel said, with the main difference being the retractable snorkel. “So, a thousand gallons of water will be sucked up into the tank, it’ll be off and flying and this thing will be rolling up — all in a matter of about a minute or so.”
This eliminates speed restrictions and provides more room in the cabin, Blumenthal added.
When a firefighter is injured, a Firehawk can go from dropping water to a hoist rescue and patient transport seamlessly, “so all three missions within a matter of a couple of minutes — pretty unique,” Sprengel added.
“We are very, very lucky to work for the department that we do and be supported by L.A. County,” Sprengel added. “They have the best of the best equipment … and the department allows us to train to that, too — so it allows all of our guys to be the best-trained. We’re very fortunate.”
Copter 21 arrived early to assist with fire season, so when Copter 22 arrives early next year, Copter 21 is set to return to Colorado to receive its final modifications, including its EMS interior needed to transport patients and hoist equipment used for rescues.
Both Blumenthal and Sprengel believe the Sikorsky S-70i Firehawk is the future of the L.A. County Fire Department, as well as other nearby agencies, such as CalFire, Ventura County Fire and San Diego Fire.