Colorado’s United Rotorcraft converts Black Hawks into firefighting helicopters


Sitting in a Centennial hangar is a Black Hawk helicopter far from fit to fly.

Its electronic guts hang loose in the cockpit. Its floors are ripped up. Its seats might as well be on a beach somewhere.

And it’s looking just the way it’s supposed to.

The chopper is undergoing a transformation, one from matte military utility to red, white and blue, with a water-filled gut and unique firefighting capabilities. It is turning from Black Hawk to Firehawk.

The work-in-progress helicopter came from Poland by way of Texas before landing at Centennial’s United Rotorcraft. The company has converted several of the helicopters already, but always for out-of-state customers. This is the first that’s staying home.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we’re doing it for the state of California,” program manager Eric Lama said during a recent tour of the hangar. “But to be able to have this in our own backyard and doing good for our local communities, that’s the icing on the cake for us.”

The Colorado Legislature voted overwhelmingly in 2021 to buy the $24 million aircraft, its first session after 2020’s historically large wildfires. Many have been waiting eagerly for the work to be done. Senate President Steve Fenberg, who sponsored SB21-113, joked that when he saw the Firehawk-in-progress in early July, he patted it as a pre-emptive thank you for its service.

The final product won’t be delivered until about the end of the year, Lama said, as mechanics and engineers install the custom panels, electronics and tools and adjust things like landing gears to make sure they fit and fly.

Helicopter mechanic, Kevin Swanson, top, and ...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Helicopter mechanic Kevin Swanson, top, and avionics technician Cody Gallaher, right, work on a Blackhawk helicopter being retrofitted into a Cal Fire Firehawk, a fire fighting helicopter, at United Rotorcraft in Centennial on July 21, 2022.

Once finished, it’ll have a hose that can vacuum up 1,000 gallons of water in a minute and dump it in three seconds. Infrared sensors will give it night-time capabilities, and modular seating allows it to zip fire crews to hot spots and evacuate people endangered by flames.

The helicopter platform allows it to deploy and attack fires differently from the massive tanker aircraft typically seen, and Black Hawk’s specifically have a ruggedness suited for the rough-and-tumble nature of the work, Lama said.


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