The ‘new’ heavy-lift utility helicopters
How the UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 Chinook and AS332 Super Puma are performing in firefighting and utility operations — and reshaping the market in the process.
By Elan Head with Vertical Magazine
Over the past decade, the fleet of heavy-lift helicopters dedicated to fire and utility work in North America has been undergoing a transformation.
In the United States, as the Army has divested Sikorsky UH-60A and L model Black Hawks and Boeing CH-47D Chinooks, these military workhorses have made their way into the civilian world as public use or restricted category aircraft, where they have excelled in firefighting and construction roles. In Canada and elsewhere around the world, the Airbus AS332 Super Puma has become increasingly popular for the same kind of work as it has been phased out of the oil-and-gas market.
All three aircraft types are highly capable and modern by utility helicopter standards, bringing a much-needed refresh to a sector that prizes performance but can rarely pay for the latest tech. Their relative affordability as military or offshore castoffs has enticed many operators who had little or no previous experience with the types, but a deep understanding of firefighting and utility missions.
Now that the sector has had several years of solid experience with the aircraft, Vertical checked in with commercial operators of the UH-60, CH-47 and AS332 to learn how these types are shaking out in terms of real-world performance and operating costs. What we discovered is a market that is still very much in flux, with the aircraft getting rave reviews for their capabilities but many of their long-term operating costs obscured by the prevalence of “green time” — life remaining on components before they need to be replaced or overhauled.
Particularly in the UH-60 world, this has created significant downward pressure on contract rates, posing challenges for anyone who wants to operate the type for the long haul. While the Black Hawk, Chinook and Super Puma are all likely to become lasting fixtures of the utility helicopter industry, it will take more time for the market to incorporate them into a stable equilibrium.
UH-60: The ‘new Huey’
During the 1980s and ’90s, as the Black Hawk replaced the Bell UH-1H Huey in the U.S. Army’s inventory, surplus Hueys flooded the civil market, where they were used and sometimes abused by firefighting and logging operators.
“The joke when I was a kid was the $100,000 Huey: buy a Huey for $100,000, go to work tomorrow,” recalled Timberline Helicopters chief operating officer Brian Jorgenson, who grew up in the helicopter industry. Today, the Huey has an inflation-adjusted parallel in the first generation of Army Black Hawks, which Jorgenson said “seems like the $1 million helicopter right now.”
With the Army transitioning to the latest variant of the Black Hawk, the UH-60M, the first UH-60A models began arriving in the civil world in 2014 through the Program Executive Office for Aviation Black Hawk Exchange and Sales Team Program, or BEST. Aircraft identified as “obsolete” (17 to 25 years old or technologically outdated) are first offered to U.S. federal and state agencies before being put up for sale through the General Services Administration (GSA) auction, which is open to the public.
Since the program was initiated a decade ago, around 500 Black Hawks have been divested and sold to government agencies and civil customers, with UH-60Ls gradually replacing the A models arriving at auction. The program has netted hundreds of millions of dollars in proceeds that the Army has applied to procurement of the UH-60M, yielding substantial savings for taxpayers. Meanwhile, a new industry has sprung up to support the UH-60 on the civil side.
Alabama-based Arista Aviation is one of the companies that now specializes in Black Hawk refurbishment and support. According to president Rich Enderle, the company has refurbished around 30 Black Hawks that Arista or its customers have acquired through the BEST Program.
“Once we get the aircraft through from the auction, we do a thorough structural inspection, perform required maintenance and complete all of the calendar inspections,” he said. “The aircraft is stripped all the way down to the bare metal, it’s repainted, and then you install the required mission equipment requested by the customer.”
For firefighting, that could include installation of a new transponder, radios, intercom system, loudhailer, lighting, cargo hook, and fuel reclamation cans. Enderle said these modifications can run from $500,000 up to $800,000, on top of the $1 million or so an operator might pay for the aircraft at auction. While that’s not exactly cheap, it’s still much less than what many smaller, less capable helicopters cost brand-new.
In the U.S., commercial Black Hawks must operate as restricted category aircraft, which means they can only carry essential crewmembers onboard (a limitation that does not apply to public use aircraft operated for public agencies). That means they can’t compete with standard category aircraft for passenger-carrying missions, but are ideally suited for external load work, which also prohibits the presence of nonessential personnel.
Idaho-based Timberline acquired its first UH-60s in late 2014 and has now logged more than 15,000 hours across a fleet of five Black Hawks. Jorgenson is enthusiastic about the type, which he sees as offering a step change in safety and performance over an older generation of rotorcraft without sacrificing anything in durability.
“My personal opinion is it’s the last true utility helicopter that may ever be built, because everything now is plastic and fiberglass and it just doesn’t hold up the way this aircraft does,” Jorgenson said. For the utility world, “this one is such a great aircraft, it’s hard to imagine what designing a new aircraft would gain you,” he said.
Because so many Black Hawks have entered the civil market in recent years, parts for the aircraft are generally plentiful, with most of those scavenged from other surplus airframes. That means that operators don’t yet have to budget for things like transmission upgrades and engine replacements, which can each cost as much as an entire airframe at auction. “Going back to the auction and buying an aircraft if you can get it for the right price is still the way many people are addressing the sustainment of the aircraft,” Enderle said.
Multiple operators who spoke with Vertical said this situation has been driving down rates for the UH-60, as some operators have prioritized cash flow over the long-term sustainability of the platform. Billings Flying Service, based in Montana, is one of the companies that has witnessed this trend. According to president Nick Nenadovic, Billings expects the operating costs for the Black Hawk to increase in the future as the spares pool dries up.
“A potentially detrimental misconception is ‘the UH-60 is the new UH-1,’” Nenadovic wrote in an email to Vertical. “We see parts exponentially more expensive than UH-1 parts, yet the aircraft are being offered at previous decade-old pricing. The UH-60 is truly an incredible aircraft, extremely stable with good performance. Much like the UH-1, it really can take the place of some older platforms in our industry if properly valued and operated.”
CH-47D: Civilian Chinook
This downward pricing pressure is less acute in the CH-47D market, where the supply of aircraft is more limited and the barriers to entry are higher. The U.S. Army has now fully divested its D model Chinooks, which sold at auction for around $2 million to $3.5 million while they were available for a few years starting in 2014.
Like the Black Hawk, the Chinook has won high praise from many utility operators for its outstanding capability and performance.
To maximize the effectiveness of its Chinooks for firefighting, Coulson Group modified the bellies of the aircraft to accommodate its proprietary 3,000-gallon internal tank and a pair of drop doors, overcoming the limitations of the model’s small hook well opening. This year, Coulson-Tan will have three CH-47Ds on contract 24/7/365 as part of the Quick Reaction Force established by Southern California Edison and Orange, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties.
“I would say they exceeded expectations,” said Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson, whose British Columbia-based company now operates five of the model through a joint venture with the Tan family, founders of Unical in California. Unical was among the largest single purchasers of UH-60 and CH-47 models, providing the enterprise with a ready supply of spare parts.
“We’ve been able to operate the fleet at the highest availability probably in the world based on the talent pool that we have and the spare parts that we have through the joint venture,” Coulson said.
Although the CH-47D is proving to be a strong performer, the smaller fleet of civilian Chinooks comes with its own challenges in terms of sustainment. California-based PJ Helicopters currently operates 11 UH-60A Black Hawks and recently began flying its first CH-47D, with the aim of eventually standing up three Chinooks for power line construction and firefighting. According to director of operations Dave McCammon, “the 47 community as we’re finding is much, much smaller than the Black Hawk [community]. And just with the numbers, it’s much more difficult to support.”
While Boeing is still cranking out F-model Chinooks and supporting legacy operators, defense customers are first in line when it comes to support from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). McCammon said that some civilian operators are now looking at banding together to increase their buying power. “Boeing is a very large company and they like numbers; they don’t want onesies-twosies,” he explained.
At the same time, many civil operators are investing heavily in developing their internal capabilities for long-term support of the model. That includes Billings Flying Service, which according to Nenadovic has acquired the necessary tooling, inventory, processes, and test equipment to sustain the CH-47 at the depot level.
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