Life After the Service - At Work With Timberline
Over the course of recent decades the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk has become as ubiquitous in military service as its legendary predecessor, the Bell UH-1 Huey. Now, however, the type is also becoming a fixture on the civil scene and Timberline Helicopters is putting the type to work in a variety of civil missions.
When Brian Jorgenson first started flying a Kaman Huskie on logging operations for his father, he was a youngster with a mere 350hrs. Today the 36yr old has over 15,000hrs logged and virtually all of that has been accumulated on longline work. Brian and his wife Ammy co-founded Timberline Helicopters in 2007, commencing business with a single Kaman K-Max performing logging operations in the northwest United States. Gradual and steady growth over the years saw the addition to the fleet of additional K-Max, a Bell UH-1H Huey, an MD530F, two 500D’s and a Schweitzer 300CB. More than three years ago, Brian heard the disturbing news from Kaman that in the absence of further orders for the K-Max, the type may be discontinued. In an attempt to bolster the company’s business, he purchased a new B3e A-Star but sold it not long after, when he realized that that segment of the market was hotly contested and difficult to break into with a brand new aircraft.
The unusual move to Black Hawks was not really a gamble for Timberline, as Brian elaborated. “The original thinking was we know this marketplace. We’d flown the K-Max for ten years at that point, and we already had a solid customer base. We knew there was definitely a ready-made market for a 6,000lb plus lifting machine and we figured that we could make it work.” At the time he had a couple of mechanics that had experience working on Black Hawks, both with the military and with a civilian company. When the ex- US Army UH-60A’s came up on the GSA (US government general services administration) auctions website, Jorgenson and two of the crew flew over to look at them. “We ended up jumping on a plane and flew down there, kind of as a lark,” remarked Jorgenson. “When we got down there, our mechanic crawled all over ten of them and told me ‘these things are in really, really good shape. If you’re going to do this, these are the right ones to do it with.’” As a result, Timberline bid on and bought two of the aircraft in that October 2014 auction. Jorgenson continued, “After we bought them I sat in an office with Travis (Travis Storro, Timberline’s Chief Operating Officer) and told him, ‘now I’ve bought them, you’ve got to certify them.’” Then began the major undertaking of making the aircraft suitable and legal for civilian operations. The paperwork to fly them out of Alabama to Timberline’s base at Sandpoint airport in Idaho took until late February 2015 to come through, and in the interim Jorgenson took Flight Safety’s S70 type-rating course. In March 2015 he and a National Guard pilot known to one of his mechanics flew the two ‘green’ Black Hawks home. On arrival, one of the aircraft was kept flying to enable training to get underway for SICs (second in command pilots) and for Jorgenson to maintain currency, while work began shortly thereafter on the other aircraft to obtain the FAA type certificate.
The aircraft was stripped down, inspected, and the necessary modifications made to meet the requirements of the restricted category usages that Timberline would engage in. This included the fitment of the remote hook cockpit control systems for the hook and firefighting buckets. While not necessarily required for the type certificate, a lot of unnecessary wiring, equipment, soundproofing and systems were removed, and then the aircraft was completely stripped, etch/alodined and repainted – in a striking metallic blue and bright orange scheme that is virtually up to show quality. Jorgenson explained, “The military works on the principle that you wire the aircraft up for every conceivable system that you might want to deploy in it, but only plug in the systems that you actually want to use at the time. We needed hardly any of those extras and the end result is that each aircraft we convert loses between 800 and 1,000lbs of excess weight.” Major weight reductions came from the replacement of the standard 125lb HIRSS (hover infrared suppression system) exhausts with simple 29lb units, and the stripping of enough wiring from the aircraft to fill two 55-gallon drums.
Jorgenson cut the original flight manual down by half, to around 500 pages, and Timberline gained their own type certificate for their Black Hawks, which meant working closely with the FAA’s Seattle ACO (aircraft certification office). This was not an easy working relationship to begin with, as the Seattle office was not the rotorcraft directorate but dealt primarily with commercial transport airplanes – understandably, with Boeing being on their doorstep. Jorgenson believes that due to this, the Seattle office held Timberline to some demanding standards than might have been the case with another directorate. “They understand transport airplanes,” remarked Jorgenson, “but throw a restricted category helicopter at them and they’re on the back foot. That actually cost us about three or four months as we worked out the process with them. However, on the other side of the coin,” Jorgenson is quick to point out, “once they understood that we knew what we were doing with the aircraft and were keen to learn how to meet their requirements, they were still kicking stuff back to us but it was always for good reasons that I could agree with. Since then they have been extremely good to work with.” The difficult start to the relationship was well worth enduring according to Jorgenson, who stated that the process with subsequent aircraft has been efficient and streamlined; and that several people within the FAA have subsequently advised him that the Timberline Helicopters UH-60A type certificate has come to be regarded as the ‘gold standard’ against which others are judged.
The military BEST (Blackhawk Exchange and Sales Team) program ensures that the aircraft all come with copious necessary documented information when they go to the new owner, and this is crucial for putting the aircraft into civilian service. This includes proof that it was sold with the intention of further flight, that it’s never been involved in an accident unless either the OEM or the military repaired it, that it’s never been submerged in salt water, and an equipment list of the exact aircraft configuration at the time of disposal. The first aircraft finally obtained its type certificate from the FAA on the day that it flew to Heli-Expo at the end of February 2016, almost exactly a year from the day it flew out of Alabama for Sandpoint.
There are now three UH-60A’s in Timberline’s fleet, although one is still ‘green’ and was put into service before the usual refurbishment to fulfill a STC project that required a configuration similar to the Army. The UH-60s are flying between 80 and 200hrs per month and long term, Jorgenson sees the fleet including a total of four airworthy Black Hawks, along with some spare-parts airframes. He is also adamant that the two K-Maxes will remain, as will the MD530 and 500. There is little to no chance that there will be additional K-Maxes though, as the base price for a new one is around $7 million USD. “The actual price out the door is probably higher, so I simply can’t make it pencil to buy a new one,” he commented. “They are an exceptional repetitive heavy lifter and ours are basically paid for, plus we have millions of dollars of spare parts for them so I’ll always keep them around. In comparison, the current value on a refurbished and Type Certificated UH-60A ranges from two and a half to four million dollars, so the K-Max is at a distinct pricing disadvantage, and the Black Hawk is undeniably a more capable all-round helicopter.” Considering the current market value of a “green” UH-60A is about $1.5 million, the decision has been a major financial win for the company. More recently, the US government has decided to give around 200 Black Hawks to Afghanistan and Iraq, so there are currently no flyable airframes becoming available for purchase from the GSA as they are all being snapped up by the State Department. “What come to auction now are only those airframes that have been stripped for parts to complete other aircraft for those foreign military sales,” explained Jorgenson.
Other than the fact that both types are great heavy lift platforms, they have very little in common. Jorgenson likes the K-Max and has flown it extensively, so is in a good position to compare the two aircraft. “Above 10,000ft the K-Max and Hawk are pretty comparable. As you come down below that, the Hawk starts to pull ahead of the K-Max and down at 4,000ft it’ll lift eight thousand pounds to the K-Max’s six. The K-Max is cheaper to operate, and we can sell it to the customer at a lower rate, but the Hawk is one and a half times as fast so even at the higher price, the customer will often get the job done cheaper with a Hawk if there’s any distance involved.” Jorgenson reports that the K-Max is comfortable to fly at just below its 100Kt Vne, while the Black Hawk will cruise all day at 70% and 145Kts. Timberline’s work is almost exclusively longline and the type certificate allows for the UH-60 to be flown with the doors off. The pilot flying the external load flies from the left seat, while the right seater monitors all instruments and provides a constant flow of information to the load pilot. “Basically, whenever a load is under the machine the guy in the right seat is operating the aircraft, while the guy in left seat is operating the load. The PIC will be flying the external load in most cases but there’s no reason that the SIC can’t do it, provided he’s suitably qualified. The type certificate requires that we have a type rated pilot and a second-in-command in the machine. It doesn’t restrict the SIC from flying the machine as long as the PIC is in the machine too.” explained Jorgenson. As a happy coincidence, the machine’s configuration makes it sit nicely three and a half degrees left side low and the stretch to the door opening is less than that in a Kaman Huskie. The Black Hawk’s AFCS (automatic flight control system) provides dynamic stability and maintains static stability, making the big machine extremely smooth and stable; ideal attributes for precision external load operations.
Jorgenson is impressed with the handling qualities of the Hawk and stated, “It actually flies just like a big 500, its super-stable and it does exactly
what you ask it to do. One thing that’s a really crucial characteristic of the Black Hawk is that it has absolute, hard engine limits. If you reach
the temp limit for example, the computer will hold the fuel controller at that flow and not allow you to access any more power. You can pull as much
collective as you like beyond that but you’ll only droop the rotor. It’s a great feature, but it can be a real ‘gotcha’ if you’re not prepared and
have a plan for that eventuality when operating at high altitudes! Although a customer always wants you to carry the absolute maximum weight, because
of the unforgiving nature of the limits, I always try to keep a margin in hand so that I have a little extra performance available in the event that
I need it.” To begin with, Jorgenson went with the published numbers to establish the Hawk’s maximum capabilities and he has found that the machine
will do a little better than that. He then used the experience gained in operational use to come up with his own set of numbers based on real-world
experiences. “It depends on conditions of course but with everything going our way on a cold day with minimum fuel, we’ve set 8,000lbs at 8,000ft.
Just two weeks ago we set 4,500lbs down on top of a tower at just over 11,000ft. We also flew 6,000lbs to a mountain top at 11,000ft and set it down.”
Jorgenson explained that loads taken to the ground can always be heavier than loads that are to be held over working crews, as the margin is necessary
to ensure the maximum safety for the personnel working beneath the helicopter. Jorgenson advises customers that on work over 10,000ft altitude, Timberline’s
Black Hawks will take 4,500lbs to the ground and 4,000lbs held over personnel.
Customers didn’t immediately accept the type and Jorgenson recounted his experience. “After the first three months, I thought that if I heard one more customer tell me that you can’t longline out of a Black Hawk, I was going to puke! That was the impression in the marketplace though.” Firehawk Helicopters/Brainerd had already been operating the UH-60 since about 1995, but predominantly in the firefighting role using a camera system to view the external load. Jorgenson eventually charged the UH-60 out to an existing client for a construction job on a ski lift at the same hourly rate as a K-Max. He proved his point when the aircraft out-performed the K-Max by a considerable margin. “Pouring concrete is one job where the Hawk will definitely outperform the K-Max, if there’s any distance at all involved because it just goes so much faster.” The machine costs clients around $1.50 per second so being more efficient means substantial potential savings. Although the company was founded and built up on heli-logging, Jorgenson estimated Timberline’s workload now at around thirty percent electrical, thirty percent firefighting, twenty percent ski-lift work or ski-related construction and ten to twenty percent logging. It is not intended that the Black Hawks will be used in the logging mission, however, as Jorgenson sees that as the real forte of the K-Max.
Now that the UH-60 is well established and accepted by heavy-lift clients, the machines are proving to be popular and capable. Firefighting jobs have proved
to be a strong point in the Black Hawk’s repertoire, despite initial concerns from firefighting agencies about what they perceived to be a high hourly
operating cost. However, the Hawk’s high airspeed, combined with Timberline’s extremely versatile power-fill Bambi buckets, has been a real eye-opener
for those agencies, which are now very keen to utilize the type. The Black Hawk can access water in places most other machines can’t and can power-fill
the 900gal bucket in 38 seconds, from less than two feet of water. After an introduction at HeliExpo, Timberline has developed a strategic partnership
with Pay’s Helicopters, based in Scone, NSW, Australia. This partnership led to a Timberline Black Hawk being shipped to Australia last year for their
firefighting season and the machine flew about 100hrs on firefighting missions. The UH-60 performed so well on its Australian firefighting debut that
the firefighting agencies are very keen to have the machine back for future seasons, although Timberline again had to disprove the initial concerns
about cost. The UH-60 is charged out at three times the cost of a Huey but it immediately proved that it was delivering well over three times the volume
of water or retardant that the Huey was capable of putting down, and after the first couple of fires it was wanted everywhere. International shipping
involved one added difficulty though, as the ex-military UH-60 required an ITAR (international traffic in arms regulations) license for export from
the US. This entailed a lengthy and tedious application process and although permitting for the helicopter itself has now been transferred to the US
commerce department, the machine’s spare parts are still subject to ITAR permits. The whole permit process does seem somewhat redundant, considering
that the Australian military is also a Black Hawk operator.
Another common perception about the Black Hawk is that as an ex-military type, it will demand an inordinate amount of maintenance input. Jorgenson has found that not to be the case and detailed the minor issues that have surfaced so far, stating, “Not a lot of our work is carried out down at or near sea level and it’s been a pleasant surprise at just how well its done and how reliable it’s been. I don’t think we’ve had anything that’s caused a failure-to-dispatch on any of our missions apart from a single tail-rotor input gearbox seal that exceeded leak limits, and that was directly due to the aircraft sitting idle for a couple of years before we obtained them. A couple of other items, such as elastomeric rod-end bearings have also degraded for the same reason, but they haven’t caused any dispatch failures.” The battlefield maintainability aspect of the UH-60’s design is a real benefit to civil operators. “The T700 engine in this aircraft is the first one I’ve seen that is not only modular, but all the accessories sit on top and everything is quick-change. We can change a starter, for example, in about five minutes and if we have to change a main servo, it takes longer to re-safety everything than it does to actually change the servo. With a couple of good mechanics, we can pull in a flying aircraft, do an engine change and have the aircraft flying again, shafts balanced, in around two and a half hours,” reported Jorgenson. One experienced mechanic can take care of the aircraft in the field, and a rotable set of components prepared ahead of time can significantly reduce the down-time for phased maintenance inspections (PMI).
Another advantage the type offers is that Sikorsky still sells new parts for the type and has so far been willing and able to supply everything Timberline has ordered, at or before the promised delivery date - something that has not always been the case with other manufacturers – and Sikorsky parts have so far proved to be cheaper than the equivalent items from other OEM’s, although Jorgenson added the proviso that there are a lot more Black Hawks. In time, Jorgenson intends to build up a substantial parts inventory and much of the Black Hawk’s componentry is on-condition, rather than limited with a specified TBO. “The input gearbox, for example, is on condition,” reported Jorgenson. “We’ve got one on one of our machines that has a CCAD tag from 1995, so that hasn’t been overhauled for over twenty years and has passed condition inspections ever since installation.”
With around 1,600hp available from each engine, the Black Hawk has OEI performance that Jorgenson describes as ‘good, not great’ so a future upgrade that is planned for Timberline’s UH-60s is an engine change to the more powerful -701D engines as fitted to the AH-64 Apache and UH-60M. “When the military went to Afghanistan and were operating around 14,000ft, they realized they needed more power,” explained Jorgenson. “They then went to the 701D engine with a 701C fuel-control module. That gives you an extra couple of hundred horsepower per side, so when we’ve run the hours out on these engines, we’ll do that upgrade, which is available directly from GE. That’ll allow us to fly away in virtually any configuration we operate in because, once the external load gets dropped, we’ll be operating a 12-13,000lb aircraft with 1,800 to 1,900hp.”
The shift from a K-Max to the Black Hawk was massive, from a piloting perspective. Jorgenson admitted that he had been initially prepared to have difficulty
coming to terms with flying the new type after all his experience in the much smaller Kaman machines. “I’d had some preconceptions about flying with
another pilot but, so far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s someone to take a bit of the load off when you’re busy and someone to share a little
BS with when you’re not,” he said. “The K-Max is really basic. It has no hydraulics and its kind of loose to fly; kind of like driving a ’57 Chevy
pickup. It’s a great aircraft and I love flying it but it’s not very refined. I once heard someone ask Greg Haufel what it was like to fly a K-Max
with a tank installed and his reply, while not really making any sense, is about the best I’ve ever heard. He said it flew about like a ruptured walrus.”
Jorgenson also described how every K-Max seems to have a slightly different ‘personality’ and all feel a little different to fly, whereas every Black
Hawk feels almost identical and it is much easier to feel immediately comfortable when swapping from one aircraft to another.
“When we first got the Black Hawks we were flooded with military pilot resumes,” recalled Jorgenson. “I told many of them that while they have the credentials
to fly the aircraft, without vertical reference longline experience it’s cheaper, faster and simpler for me to take a solid longline guy and send him
to school to fly the Black Hawk than it is to train a Black Hawk pilot to fly a longline, because at the end of the day, it’s just another helicopter.”
There are currently only three Black Hawk pilots with Timberline and they were all already with the company; no new pilots were taken on to fly the
type. “We may hire guys in the future with the intention of putting them in the Black Hawk, but they’ll all be guys that we know already have that
solid longline skill. I would say that we’ve got a good reputation in the industry for bringing guys to the job that can move your stuff to exactly
where it needs to be. A lot of the time in this job, you’re dropped in the deep end and guys that can take the knowledge they have, apply it to the
situation they find themselves in and then act accordingly and correctly; well, they’re pretty hard to find.”
The first of the Black Hawks to enter Timberline service has now done over 1,200hrs, so how does Brian now view his decision to put the Black Hawk into the fleet? “I try to look at everything I do through the customer’s eyes. They’re paying a lot of money for us to be there so lets be efficient and move as fast as we can, without compromising safety. The Black Hawk lets us lift more and do it faster. I really try to drum into all my guys that when we’re on the job, we’re not pilots, we’re really crane operators. The customer doesn’t care what lifts his stuff up, just that it gets where he needs it, as cost-effectively and safely as possible. There’s not much that’s not to like about the aircraft and I’ve been pretty impressed with it. Maybe one day I’d like to see a bubble door that actually works and lets you see out properly, and no doubt there will be a tank developed for it at some point. Built to mil-spec, it’s a really rugged aircraft and it’ll really take a pounding. Heck, in the military hitting the ground at 540fps is a normal landing under 16,000lbs!” The only durability question that remains in Jorgenson’s mind is how well the airframe will cope with being constantly stretched under the demands of the external load mission. “Sikorsky builds tough stuff though. Look at the S61,” he opened, “That wasn’t built specifically for lifting, but look how it did in service with operators that treated it properly. The Black Hawk is the first crash-worthy helicopter the military has had. The seats are built for ten g’s, the landing gear is built for ten g’s, it has a fully break-away fuel system and those two long keel beams that run the length of the bottom of the fuselage are designed as skids basically, so if you hit the ground going forward it won’t buckle, it’ll just slide. This aircraft was a paradigm shift in aircraft design and has features that the FAA is still trying to get included in current-production standard category aircraft.” Overall, Jorgenson believes the UH-60 is the safest aircraft there is for carrying out the work that Timberline does and he says he has absolutely no regrets over the decision to adopt the Black Hawk. “The thing I’m most proud of with Timberline is the group of people that choose to call it home,” said Jorgenson, who is one of the few owners of companies as large as Timberline who still spends most of his time flying. “Another K-Max operator once said to me that the company was growing so much that I would have to consider getting out of the cockpit and behind a desk to run the business. That’s just not me and I told him, ‘If it ever gets to that point, there’s a really simple solution; we’ll just sell some stuff and keep flying.’ I enjoy flying helicopters and doing this job. It’s why I do what I do and I’ll keep doing it as long as that’s the case.”