Firehawk helicopter
The belly tank on the “Firehawk” helicopter that soon will join Santa Barbara County’s Air Support Unit can carry 1,000 gallons of water. Its older Huey helicopters can carry only about 300 gallons. (Ehren Rauch photo)

Blackhawk helicopter converted to be equipped with a 1,000-gallon belly tank and other firefighting gear — a “Firehawk” helicopter — will soon be ready to join Santa Barbara County’s Air Support Unit.

In 2019, the Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of a “gently used” 2004 Sikorsky HH-60L Blackhawk helicopter from the California Air National Guard for about $1.7 million.

Since then, fundraising took place for the $3 million upgrades and overhaul. Alabama-based Arista Aviation Services did the conversion work, removing unneeded military equipment, and United Rotorcraft installed the belly tank that can carry about 1,000 gallons of water.

The cost of the project, including purchase of the helicopter and conversion work, totaled about $4.7 million, an amount significantly less than the $21 million it would cost to buy a new Firehawk helicopter.

“It’s been a long time now,” County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said. “We’re really looking forward to getting it up and in service for the fire season.”

Before the addition of the Firehawk, most of the county’s fleet that’s available to use to fight fires consists of Bell UH-1H aircraft — more commonly known as a “Huey” — originally used in the Vietnam War.

While the new belly tank on the Firehawk can carry 1,000 gallons of water, the older Huey helicopters can carry only about 300 gallons. Additionally, the Firehawk can hold 360 gallons of fuel and can fly at 218 mph, compared with the Huey’s fuel capacity of 200 gallons and top speed of 138 mph.

“The Firehawk stays up in the air about twice as long as [the Huey helicopters],” Hartwig said. “You literally have the ability to do twice as much work. … It’s going to make a really big difference in what appears to be a big season for us again.”

The Firehawk, along with the rest of the Air Support Unit, will be based in the Santa Ynez airport, allowing it to quickly and easily get anywhere in the county.

Hartwig said the Air Support Unit, which is shared between the county’s fire and sheriff’s departments, currently includes two water and rescue helicopters, three sheriff patrol helicopters, two medium-duty helicopters and one airplane.

While the conversion and installation of the belly tank are already completed, the Firehawk will be ready to be used by the beginning of May. 

According to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason, the Firehawk soon will undergo preventive maintenance in Santa Maria, which is expected to take one to two weeks.

The county is also in the process of hiring another pilot during the next couple of weeks, as there is currently just one pilot.

“It’s an exciting time because we’re seeing it to fruition,” Eliason said. “We want to make sure we thank everyone for their support — internally and in the community. A lot of hard work went into getting this done.”

Both Hartwig and Eliason said that another big fire season is expected this year.

“I hope that we’re not going to have to use [the Firehawk] too much this year, but with the current drought conditions and the vegetation, and from a historical standpoint, we’re probably going to have a heightened fire season,” Eliason said. “In these smaller fires that we’re going to have throughout the summer and throughout the county, this will knock those out. It’s going to help us keep the initial attack to these fires small.”

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Serena Guentz, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at