WILLITS, 5/10/21 — The Cal Fire Mendocino Unit’s headquarters at the top of the Ridgewood Grade is getting small upgrade: a larger, more heavy duty helipad, to make way for a bigger upgrade, the arrival of a Sikorsky Cal Fire Hawk helicopter. The new copter will be able to carry more water, drop the water in a more controlled manner, and perhaps most impressively, make drops by night when necessary.
The Fire Hawk, called a Black Hawk in the U.S. military, will be a very substantial upgrade to the current Copter 101 that has become so familiar to our skies in the past few years. The impressive bird is expected mid-May, but will not begin active use for a couple months during which time local pilots will be trained on the new gear.
The copters are not technically part of the Mendocino Unit (MEU), they are instead associated with the state level of Cal Fire, but are hosted at the helobase at the Ridgewood Station. Currently any copters will be flying from the Ukiah airport airbase, due to the construction at the Ridgewood base.
For the next couple months both the older Huey and the Fire Hawk will be seen around the county, as pilots get their training and hours in — but by mid-July it’s expected that training will be complete and that pilots will begin taking the Fire Hawk out to directly fight fires.
Night flying will remain a rarity, as it adds a great deal of danger to the already very dangerous business of flying helicopters close above wildfires, and will be reserved for emergency lifesaving situations, as when fires make a night-run towards populated areas — something that’s unfortunately become a common occurrence in Northern California.
The Fire Hawks have a larger water capacity, and hold the water internally, rather than swinging below in a bucket. This allows them to drop the water on controlled bursts, and make several tactical drops before having to return to refill.sikorsky-s70i-2