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Colo. officials look forward to delivery of firefighting helicopter

Officials purchased two Firehawks and are waiting on the delivery of the first one in 2024


Michael Williams, senior director of strategy and marketing for United Rotorcraft, closes the door on their recently completed Sikorsky S-70m Firehawk helicopter, parked in the company’s hangar on Dec. 11, 2023, in Denver. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Helen H. Richardson/TNS

By Nick Coltrain
The Denver Post

DENVER — Colorado’s long-awaited first custom firefighting helicopter has been delayed nearly a year longer than expected, but its backers are hopeful for delivery by early 2024.

The Firehawk is a Black Hawk helicopter that’s undergone a near-complete retrofit to equip it to fight wildfires. In addition to custom technology and outfitting for fire crews, the aircraft also sports a water tank that can slurp up 1,000 gallons of water and dump it on hot spots within moments.

Lawmakers approved funding for the first Firehawk, at a cost of $24 million, in 2021 with near-unanimous votes in both chambers just months after the devastating 2020 fire season. They approved the purchase of a second helicopter earlier this year, before the first one was complete.

Officials had hoped the first Firehawk would land in state hands by the end of 2022. But supply chain delays took a toll, and quality control and inspections proved stickier than officials anticipated.

“We were looking forward to an earlier delivery as well. That’s the goal,” United Rotorcraft President Larry Alexandre said in an interview.

His industry, like many, felt the supply-chain pinch acutely. And, he noted, this Firehawk was the first of its kind.

“There’s definitely a little bit more attention paid to the whole engineering and design and certification process,” he said.

United Rotorcraft, based in Centennial , has built and delivered Firehawks for other states, but this is the first that’s staying in Colorado . This one also has the distinction of having a water tank made of carbon fiber, not metal. That change will save some 350 pounds from the final product, meaning it can stay airborne longer.

But with new engineering specifications comes new tests and data sets to make sure it meets safety and performance standards.

And then there’s finding people to do the testing. The world of experts qualified to crosscheck the flight-and-firefighting worthiness of the machine isn’t huge, and it only gets smaller when people employed by United Rotorcraft’s competition are removed from consideration.

But those experts are working with United Rotorcraft now and signing off on the specifications. It’s an ongoing process, but Alexandre said he was hopeful the process would be finished in the coming weeks. He expected to hold a final test flight with state officials in early January.

The delay hasn’t ruffled Mike Morgan , director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control . The purchase of a $24 million helicopter isn’t something the state takes lightly, and he’s comfortable allowing time to go over all of the specifications finely.

“We’d love to have it here yesterday, no doubt about it,” Morgan said. “But again, these are complex and complicated firefighting assets. Mistakes are costly, deadly and expensive. We’re walking that line of balance of expediting everywhere we can. But like that old saying — ‘One foot on the brake and one on the gas’ — is really how we’re trying to approach it.”

The delay meant the state went through another summer of wildfires without its own firefighting helicopter.

Out of precaution, Morgan’s department contracted with a company for exclusive use of a firefighting helicopter during the summer months, stationing it at Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Steamboat Springs. A string of mild summers, fire-wise, had left the department with enough money set aside for fire operations to foot that roughly $5 million bill without biting into other services.

The Firehawk’s delay hasn’t bloated its cost. As contracted, United Rotorcraft must eat extra expenses for any overruns.

As for the second Firehawk? Officials say they aren’t worried about its delivery.

The final contracts for that helicopter were only recently signed, and the base helicopter isn’t yet complete. Morgan said officials were looking for ways to speed up delivery so United Rotorcraft could begin the custom modifications, but the process may not start until next summer.

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