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Black Hawk helicopter owner seeks to join B.C. wildfire fight

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A Metro Vancouver helicopter company is in the process of obtaining final approvals for commercial flights of its newly acquired Black Hawk helicopter with the hopes the powerful aircraft can help in B.C.'s wildfire fight.

Contour Helicopters gave CTV News an exclusive look at the ex-US military chopper as it performed test flights of its water retrieval and storage system over the Fraser River under a bluebird sky on Thursday.

"Cal Fire and LA County have been using these aircraft for over 20 years and they have a long history of wildfire suppression," said owner, Colin Pelton. "This aircraft is on average about 50 knots faster than existing aircraft, so we can get to the fire faster and we can put three to four times more water per drop."

The aircraft is equipped with what appears to be a rectangular orange box on the belly of the aircraft with a hose it dips into a lake or river, suctioning 4,500 litres of water in under a minute, and can then rapidly ascend to deploy the water in an aggressive attack on wildfire.

"Its reaction time and the water on site to the fire that quickly and the amount of water it’s hauling, it’s going to be a game-changer," said pilot, Chris Guderyan.

The Black Hawk is a two-pilot aircraft, with flight crew the only ones permitted on board, even after full approvals. Pelton expects that'll happen by early next week, with the aircraft on standby for deployment after that.

Not a quick purchase

Purchasing an aircraft that was designed and built for the American military comes with hurdles: Contour refurbished and upgraded the 1980s aircraft over several months in the U.S., and needed export permits from the State Department, plus special approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada to get it to its new home base at Fort Langley Airport.

It now has several modifications for civilian use, including LED lights, a special window to help the pilots see for long-line rescues and other maneuverers, and is flown differently from the most common helicopters, which have one-pilot setups.

"It’s a totally different strategy," said Guderyan. "There’s one person flying and will be bucketing and the other person will be watching the gauges and the power settings and communicating with other aircraft."

BC Wildfire Service relying on aerial attack

The BC Wildfire Service, which is now a year-round agency within the Ministry of Forests, is increasingly using aerial attack strategies as the fires become larger, more intense, and particularly when they threaten homes and infrastructure.

"Because of the size, scope, complexity and scale of these fires," explained Bryce Moreira, BCWS aviation preparedness officer, "the sooner we get there – the better chance we have of an effective fire suppression effort."

The wildfire service has standing agreements with 120 aviation companies in B.C. and other provinces, pre-authorizing them to call on their pilots and aircraft when needed, in addition to longer-term contracts with tankers and a handful of choppers.

For their needs, bigger means better.

"We are starting to use heavy helicopters similar to the Black Hawk or UH60-A more and more each year, and it is because they can drop a lot of water and it allows us to spread a fleet across different areas," said Moreira.

BCWS is slowly expanding its nighttime firefighting, with an open request for proposal for a short-term contract for peak wildfire season in mid-July through the end of August.

Pelton expects to have his certification fully sorted in time to apply with the hope the Black Hawk can be used to its full potential.

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