Thousands of people were evacuated from Cape Town this week as wildfires raged in the Table Mountain National Park.

Destruction caused by bushfires are a growing problem for both South Africa and the wider continent. With an ever-growing focus around sustainability within the defence industry, one South African company is extending military equipment lifecycles, adapting and using surplus aircraft as a force for good.

At the Stellenbosch aerodrome in the heart of the winelands, a UH-60 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter is ready to do battle against bushfires which have ravaged the hills of the Western Cape during the summer season. Stripped of its military identity and now registered in South Africa as a restricted utility helicopter, the Black Hawk adds to the fleet of Bell 205 helicopters operated by Leading Edge Aviation, a family owned company operating across the low veldt of South Africa.

Leading Edge Aviation is contracted to assist Working on Fire, the South African aerial firefighting organisation charged with a contract to help control seasonal bushfires in the eastern low veldt and western cape regions of South Africa.

Black Hawk is safer option for firefighting applications

Mark Jackson, Operations Manager, explained how a 1981 Black Hawk, sold to Leading Edge Aviation as military surplus, was incorporated into the fleet: “Basically, we started off with the Hueys, and then in 2016, we heard that they were going to be auctioning off Black Hawks and the company that we dealt with when we bought the first two Hueys suggested that we should look at going into the Black Hawk market. Again, surplus ex-military aircraft that were going to be auctioned, because they felt that it would be a safer option than operating with the Hueys. And that’s kind of what started the ball rolling is to look at a safer and more efficient means of doing firefighting.”

Helicopters are used to rapidy deploy water onto bushfires. The Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter, weighing in at 22,000 pounds, can spread loads of two and a half tonnes of water over fires burning across mountain slopes, threatening livestock, agricultural properties or residential properties.

Operating in the challenging conditions, the ex-military capabilities of the Black Hawk make it a safer option for firefighting, as Jackson explained: “Given the parameters that we work in: in and around fires, mountains, high winds, the safety factor comes in the form of mostly three things. You have two engines operating on the Hawk, it can operate on one engine, and you’ve got a four bladed main rotor and tail rotor system. The main rotor system is fully articulated head which means in turbulence, as we have in the Cape here, each bite can move independently up and down and forward and backward. So it dampens out most of the turbulence that you don’t easily get rid of in the Huey.”

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