Sightings of Elvis are a regular occurrence in Australia over summer – we're not referring to "the King", but the Erickson S-64 Air-Crane used for fighting bushfires. Elvis is set to get some help in coming years with the announcement that 10 ex-US military Black Hawk helicopters will be repurposed for aerial firebombing operations and year-round emergency and disaster relief in Australia and New Zealand.
The world-first refurbishment project will be carried out in Brisbane by Sikorsky. The company will bring the helicopters up to "as new" condition, repurpose them for aerial firefighting duties and be responsible for maintaining the aircraft in that city. The deal between Sikorsky, Kaan Air and StarFlight Australia, is reportedly worth up to AUD$63 million (US$50.2 million), with options for 10 additional aircraft.
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk first entered service with the US Army in 1979 and is a mainstay of numerous militaries around the world, including Australia. After its initial introduction, various modifications and the development of a number of variants have seen the helicopter adapted to new roles, including medevac and electronic warfare operations.
The aircraft has also increasingly found civilian applications, with a modified ex-US Army UH-60A Black Hawk from Idaho-based Timberline Helicopters brought to Australia for the 2016/17 summer to demonstrate its fire-fighting capabilities to agencies. That helicopter was equipped with a 3,400-liter (900 US gal) water bucket that could be filled in around 30 seconds.
The full specifications of the helicopters to be repurposed by Sikorsky haven't been revealed, but refurbishment is expected to take three months and involve the fitting of new high performance engines, upgraded gearboxes and the installation of a Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System (HTAWS), along with a general overhaul. Once the aircraft are ready, they'll be made available to emergency services and fire agencies across Australia by StarFlight.
"This is a game-changer for aviation in Australia," says John Skeen, chief executive officer of Kaan Air Australia and StarFlight Australia. "The purchase of 10 plus 10 optioned Black Hawks represents a significant milestone for the firebombing and disaster relief helicopter industry in Australia, particularly in terms of efficient rotary wing attack to reduce loss of life and property during bushfire events."