There is now a growing market for ex-military Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks for civilian, government and para-public users. TIM ROBINSON talks to RUSSELL DISE from JetLease.
With over 4,000 built, it is fair to say that the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter family, first flown in 1974 has become like its iconic predecessor, the Bell UH-1 Huey - an icon itself. While the US Army represented the biggest customer for this utility helicopter, its versatility has seen it adopted by nations ranging from Australia to Turkey. Multiple variants developed, including naval ASW, medical, combat search and rescue, and even an alleged 'stealth' version, used in the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
However, one area that this helicopter has yet to exploit fully, is the commercial market, bar a handful of S-70s being used in the police and airborne firefighting roles (as the the Fire Hawk).
This, though, is changing fast as in the past few years retired US Army 'A'-models have become available – opening up a new civil market for the Black Hawk. In 2015, the FAA relaxed rules on civil-owned Black Hawks, allowing the UH-60A to be used in firefighting or special operations in the restricted category. This allows many missions and roles - such as logging, law enforcement or EMS, apart from charter.
Already the past two HeliExpo rotorcraft exhibitions in the US have seen new conversions of ex-military Black Hawks on show, with the aim of informing potential customers that a 'new' utility helicopter has entered the market for government and parapublic uses. One company is Florida based BHI2(squared) which has more than 30 Black Hawks available at the moment, while Idaho-based logging, firefighting and heavy-lift Timberline Helicopters also offer conversions. Meanwhile PJ Helicopters offers a modified UH-60A ‘Utility Hawk’ for the civil market. The OEM, Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, also sees a healthy future for new civil UH-60/S-70s, taking a S-70i Fire Hawk firefighting chopper to this year’s HeliExpo in Las Vegas.
ex-US Army Black Hawk available for lease from JetLease. (JetLease)
One company aiming to cash-in on the availability of ex-US Army Black Hawks and a growing demand for this iconic helicopter is JetLease of Palm Beach, Florida. Founded in 1983 by Russell Dise, JetLease is the world's largest private aviation leasing company. The company mainly deals in leases for business aviation but about five years ago, recalls Dise, he was in Colombia arranging the sale of a corporate jet to the country's military, when the generals he was dealing with sprung a surprise with an additional requirement: "They wanted two Black Hawk helicopters with air-to-ground missiles. I'm like what the...what?". One phone call to an FBI buddy later and Dise found out he needed an ITAR licence to export US military equipment. "So, I ended up getting my ITAR licence," he says. Dise is careful to note that despite the age of these early-model Black Hawks, ITAR restrictions still provide constraints on who the final customer is: "I can't sell them to anybody who's on the bad boy list," he notes.
Conversion and refurbishment
Surplus UH-60As are stripped down and rebuilt by Arista Aviation (Jet Lease).
For Black Hawks for the civil market, JetLease has partnered with helicopter conversion specialists Arista Aviation, based in Alabama, conveniently close to Fort Rucker, the US Army's aviation training centre and giant helicopter hub.
From surplus 'A' model Black Hawks, Arista Aviation (which also converts military UH-1s), an extensive remanufcaturing process sees the helicopter stripped down and expertly overhauled. Says Dise: "The engines don't need to be zero life but we have to overhaul the transmissions, all the rotor blades, those have to be overhauled."
One might think that ex-US Army Black Hawks might be worn, tired and ready for the scrapyard but Dise's partners at Arista are careful to select only the best airframes to be refurbished when they come up for auction. "Our standard aeroplane only has 6,500hrs on it," says Dise, "our guys, being Arista Aviation, those guys all are very well tuned in to what helicopters are good ones to buy and what ones are not, because they're right in Alabama right next to Fort Rucker."
Dise explains that the legendary toughness of the Black Hawk makes it ideal for conversion: "But 6,500 hours (which most of the corporate jets you fly nowadays have that kind of time on them) isn't really that bad if you look at the airframe on them, they're like a flying truck."
Depending on the customer requirement, new avionics and radios can be added as an optional extra – such as Garmin 500s or a Genesis cockpit upgrade. Others may prefer to retain the original avionics. "It really depends on what you want and what your utilisation is. If you're a standard logging company, the avionics that come with it are quite fine," observes Dise.
Additional mission equipment, such as medvac beds, Kevlar armour, rescue hoists, fast rope systems and searchlights can also be fitted by Arista – with the exception being any offensive weaponry.
With leasing an attractive solution to cover short-term rotary-wing capability gaps for governments (either due to accidents or perhaps budget shortfalls), JetLease and Arista can provide helicopters quickly - turnaround of Black Hawk can only be 90 days.
Optional upgrades can include a Garmin glass cockpit or specialised mission equipment. (Jet Lease)
As well as putting together aircraft finance deals, the conversion with Arista Aviation, JetLease also provides support to its leasing customers: "We have pilot training by Flight Safety International, we have mechanic training by Flight Safety International, they're a half mile from our office here in Palm Beach, and they have full motion simulators too. So, you can learn basically anything you want before you even get into the helicopter. And then Arista has used or new parts."
There is now a growing demand for the super-rugged H-60/S-70 in the aerial firefighting market. (Alan Wilson/Wiki)
So who then comprises JetLease's customer base for refurbished Black Hawks? "My base is everything from a rich guy to third world countries or other entities like special ops groups" says Dise. "For example the Bahamas just lost three of their US Coast Guard helicopters due to budgetary constraints so they came to us to talk about the Black Hawk."
Another intriguing customer, revealed Dise, was interested in a Black Hawk to intimidate local drug-dealers from visiting a high-end island resort. "I've had people down in Latin America that own islands they have a resort on, and they have a lot of drug traffic around their island, meaning that they have boats going by it. They want a Black Hawk, not only for prevention of that, but as a way to instil fear in people to not come by their island. They put on some kind of standard tactical manoeuvres around the island just to make sure you don't have people stopping on the island. That's a good way to deter any of those kinds of activities because the Black Hawk is a very intimidating piece of equipment.”
Meanwhile in the US, a lot of interest from potential customers has been for firefighting - a growing need given a swathe of recent giant forest fires that have taken place.
Despite being fairly new on the commercial market, the Black Hawk is already attracting attention around the globe, says Dise who has been handling about 400 inquiries: "I’ve been marketing aeroplanes my whole life, I've never seen anything that has drawn so much attention."
He has already secured an order for 20 Black Hawks from an unnamed country that was pondering upgrading its UH-1 fleet, until it saw what Astria could do.
Dise notes that it has taken couple of years for the Black Hawk to build awareness for commercial operators: "I talked to the guys at Bell Helicopter because we're sending a lot of information out and we weren't getting a lot of orders, per se. What they said is when the UH-1 came out, out of the Vietnam War days, it took about 24 months for it to mature in the market because people have to understand what it is, how to use it, how to maintain it, where can I get the parts, how to get people to fly it and stuff like that."
Leasing of medium/high end UAV systems is a new niche sector. (UMS Skeldar)
As well as Black Hawks, JetLease is pioneering the lease of UAVs, with UMS Skeldar's V-200 rotary-wing drone. Though this is a brand-new market, initial signs show that interest is picking up in the V-200, a VTOL UAV that can deploy from ships as well as land, and with a five-hour endurance.
Says Dise: I've got two other people handling that area of the company and I get blindsided with inquiries, which is kind of interesting. We're not talking about the little dinky things that you buy at the store. The problem is they're expensive, so not everybody can just plop down three million bucks so we developed a three-year lease programme that people can invest in to have access to our systems."
Dise reports that UAV leasing interest for the V-200 is coming from 'all three' civil, government and military customers – including surveillance of tribal land for a US Native American tribe and sugar companies interested in keeping tabs on their plantations.
It has taken time for awareness of civil Black Hawks to build in the market, says Dise. (JetLease)
With other companies now offering Black Hawk conversions for the commercial this market is set to be increasingly crowded in the coming years. However, Russell Dise believes that Jet Lease will maintain its edge, noting that these new competitors lack Jet Lease's 35-years of experience in professional marketing aircraft, and that "these companies don't have the depth of support that Arista has and they don't have a finance arm where you can actually buy it from Arista and lease it to the customer or I can just do the financing on it."
Says Dise: "I like to maintain contact with my customers, then I know what they need so I can either upgrade them or downgrade them or sell them something or lease them something. It's a better customer service, I think.”
Despite the Black Hawk being a 44-year old design, there is still plenty of life ahead of it, says Dise: "When you fly in it you realise this aeroplane probably has another minimum 40-50 years left in the market. Even a 1985 aeroplane. Because they're built like tanks."