01:28 - Source: CNN
California's secret firefighting weapon

Story highlights

The Los Angeles County Fire Department uses three Firehawks to combat wildfires

Pilot Tom Short worries that California's drought will make for a difficult wildfire season

Firehawk, a version of the Army's Black Hawk, can load 1,000 gallons of water in 60 seconds

CNN  — 

A whirling black and yellow mechanical beast swoops in to battle a deadly wildfire. For victims, it’s like the cavalry coming to the rescue.

They call it the Firehawk. 

Los Angeles County Fire Department senior pilot Tom Short talks about this helicopter like it’s a super chopper.

“Having been in all of the aircraft that are out there fighting fires, the Firehawk is the best firefighting machine I’ve ever seen – simply because of what it does,” Short told CNN on the phone this week. “It does everything: fire, rescue and air ambulance.”

Basically it’s a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter outfitted with a giant water tank. This thing is engineered to get hellishly close to the heat of a raging inferno. Its dual souped-up engines can lift 9,000 pounds – about the same weight as a large recreational travel trailer.

In preparation to dump water over flames, the Firehawk’s snorkel can suck 1,000 gallons of water into its storage tank in the span of one minute.

“We really work these machines very hard. During some fires, Short said, “I’ve made over 100 drops in one day.”

A firefighting super-chopper is especially valuable now, as California braces for what may be one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.

How worrisome is it? The state’s firefighting agency, Cal Fire, has responded to more than 2,500 wildfires in 2014 – a huge increase in the average number of fires at this point in the year, the agency says. In May, several fires in San Diego County forced thousands of residents from their homes and charred more than 31 square miles. The season usually doesn’t ramp up until summer or fall.

In the coming years, increased wildfire damage from climate change is expected nationwide because of “higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt, spring growth and expanded insect and disease infestations,” according to a report from Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group.The U.S. Forest Service says changing climate will be the reason behind “at least a doubling of area burned by the mid-21st century.”

That could be a lot of acres. Although the number of wildfires in 2013 was down, the six most damaging fire seasons since 1960 have taken place since 2000, based on total acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The worst include 2006, 2007 and 2012, when flames claimed more than 9 million acres every year.

Short worries about California’s ongoing drought. “The water sources that we normally see that we can use to snorkel from are way low this year in our local area,” he said. “If it does happen to be an active fire season, our challenge is going to be trying to get water and be effective.”

Gone in 60 seconds: 1,000 gallons of water

When it’s time to drink, the Firehawk can chug it. Sucking all that water into a hovering aircraft is no small feat. Doing it in 60 seconds is nothing short of amazing.

Here’s how it works: the chopper hovers about six feet above a water source near the fire, such as a lake. The crew extends the Firehawk’s retractable, 12-foot-long collapsible Kevlar hose, called a “snorkel.” A crewman watches the snorkel through a gunner’s window behind the pilot’s seat and coordinates with Short to make sure all is working correctly. Short then hits a pump switch on a stick lever near his left hand called the “collective.” A level gauge on his instrument panel shows Short that water is indeed filling the tank. “When I get the water load that I want, I stop pumping, we retract the snorkel and we go on our way to the fire.”

Toting a full tank of water, the Firehawk handles completely different. “You can feel it,” he said. It still accelerates, but not as fast.

The county’s Firehawks often are among the first aircraft at the scene of a wildfire. “You size up what the fire’s doing in terms of winds, the terrain, what the fire’s burning and what structures are nearby,” Short said. Then the pilot must choose his target – where to drop the water.

Hitting flames with the water isn’t an exact science, Short admits. “We all have our good days and bad days,” chuckles the 13-year Firehawk veteran.

Much of it depends on the winds. If you have 20-30 mph winds or less, you’re probably going to hit it where you want it 99% of the time.”

Some of it depends on your altitude. Usually that’s from 50 to 100 feet off the ground. Too high – the wind might blow the water off target. Too low – and the chopper’s blades will blow the fire in the wrong direction, possibly threatening firefighters on the ground.

Remember, this is all happening as the helicopter is moving forward at speeds between 60 and 80 mph. A release switch to open the water tank doors is on another stick lever called “the cyclic,” near Short’s right hand. He adjusts the water drop with the wind so that when the water is released, it drifts with the wind into the fire.

“You try to play with the swirling winds down on the fire line. You play that Kentucky windage,” Short said, using a sharpshooter’s term for aiming a gun off target to adjust for the wind. “You’re like a marksman.”

Sometimes Short is able to check his work by looking out the window, other times he relies on reports from crew or other pilots nearby. “When you release the water weight, you immediately notice the performance goes up on the aircraft,” Short said. “It’s more agile, more maneuverable.”

If you miss the mark, Short said, “You go, ‘doggone it, I’ll be back with another load and try it again.’”

Coordination between firefighting ground crews and aircraft is a "kind of a dance," said pilot Tom Short.

He describes the coordination between ground crews and aircraft as a “kind of a dance. We call it choreography and it goes back and forth.”

“Experience is learning by your mistakes,” Short said. “It’s a calculation that you make constantly. You’re trying to read all these conditions, like the effects of heat on the performance of the aircraft and how you plan to fly your way in and fly your way out.”

It helps to have backup from the county’s two other Firehawks and six Bell 412 medium helicopters.

Close to combat

The chopper – officially called the Sikorsky S-70 – is a machine designed to save property and lives. But it was born from an instrument of destruction: the Army’s fearsome Black Hawk.

General Electric – which manufactures the Firehawk’s engines- said it sent engineers to Iraq and Afghanistan to study Black Hawks to learn how to make the chopper more impervious to intense heat.

Result: they added special nickel alloys that helped the engines perform during extreme temperature swings. It’s rated to operate in temperatures above 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, GE said.

“Because it’s a combat-proven machine, we have a lot of confidence in its ability to fly,” Short said. “If you lose one engine, it flies on the other one. If you lose a hydraulic pump, you have two more. It has three different electrical systems – if one fails you’ve got two more. Excellent visibility. It’s fast, maneuverable, powerful – all the things that make it a good combat aircraft.”

The Firehawk is basically a re-purposed version of the Army's Black Hawk combat helicopter.

Short flew iconic Huey helicopters during his time in the Army, but he never saw combat.

“We do have a couple of guys here who flew in combat in Vietnam, and we have one pilot who flew combat in the Middle East recently,” Short said. “I’ve heard those guys say that firefighting is close to combat, except nobody’s shooting at you.”

But it’s still dangerous. Short describes hairy situations fighting fires after sundown while using night vision goggles. The terrain is more difficult to see, he said. “You’ve got to be very, very safety conscious,” as you look for trees and wires strung on telephone polls and towers. “Those are some of the most challenging fires, the night fires.”

Among Short’s several hundred rescue missions, he remembers responding to a call for help by hikers, stuck on a steep hillside near Pasadena, who were “literally hanging on by their fingernails.” Short lowered a paramedic who was attached to a cable down to help the hikers. Suddenly the hiker slipped.

“I could feel the aircraft lurch with the dead weight of this kid falling,” Short said. But he didn’t fall to his death, Short said, because the hiker was tethered to the paramedic.

At age 60, with 34 years of chopper piloting under his belt, Short said he plans to be a flying firefighter for the foreseeable future.

“I love it,’ Short said. “I love this job.”