blackhawk helicopter for civilian use

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There is now a growing market for ex-military Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks for civilian, government and para-public users. TIM ROBINSON talks to RUSSELL DISE from JetLease.

With over 4,000 built, it is fair to say that the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter family, first flown in 1974 has become like its iconic predecessor, the Bell UH-1 Huey – an icon itself. While the US Army represented the biggest customer for this utility helicopter, its versatility has seen it adopted  by nations ranging from Australia to Turkey. Multiple variants developed, including naval ASW, medical, combat search and rescue, and even an alleged ‘stealth’ version, used in the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011. However, one area that this helicopter has yet to exploit fully, is the commercial market, bar a handful of S-70s being used in the police and airborne firefighting roles (as the the Fire Hawk).

black hawk helicopter for sale

Blackhawk Helicopter For Civilian Use

This, though, is changing fast as in the past few years retired US Army ‘A’-models have become available – opening up a new civil market for the Black Hawk. In 2015, the FAA relaxed rules on civil-owned Black Hawks, allowing the UH-60A to be used in firefighting or special operations in the restricted category. This allows many missions and roles – such as logging, law enforcement or EMS, apart from charter.

Already the past two HeliExpo rotorcraft exhibitions in the US have seen new conversions of ex-military Black Hawks on show, with the aim of informing potential customers that a ‘new’ utility helicopter has entered the market for government and parapublic uses. One company is Florida based BHI2(squared) which has more than 30 Black Hawks available at the moment, while Idaho-based logging, firefighting and heavy-lift Timberline Helicopters also offer conversions. Meanwhile PJ Helicopters offers a modified UH-60A ‘Utility Hawk’ for the civil market. The OEM, Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, also sees a healthy future for new civil UH-60/S-70s, taking a S-70i Fire Hawk firefighting chopper to this year’s HeliExpo in Las Vegas.

Enter JetLease

ex-US Army Black Hawk available for lease from JetLease. (JetLease)

One company aiming to cash-in on the availability of ex-US Army Black Hawks and a growing demand for this iconic helicopter is JetLease of Palm Beach, Florida. Founded in 1983 by Russell Dise, JetLease is the world’s largest private aviation leasing company. The company mainly deals in leases for business aviation but about five years ago, recalls Dise, he was in Colombia arranging the sale of a corporate jet to the country’s military, when the generals he was dealing with sprung a surprise with an additional requirement: “They wanted two Black Hawk helicopters with air-to-ground missiles. I’m like what the…what?”. One phone call to an FBI buddy later and Dise found out he needed an ITAR licence to export US military equipment. “So, I ended up getting my ITAR licence,” he says. Dise is careful to note that despite the age of these early-model Black Hawks, ITAR restrictions still provide constraints on who the final customer is: “I can’t sell them to anybody who’s on the bad boy list,” he notes.

Conversion and refurbishment

Surplus UH-60As are stripped down and rebuilt by Arista Aviation (Jet Lease).

For Black Hawks for the civil market, JetLease has partnered with helicopter conversion specialists Arista Aviation, based in Alabama, conveniently close to Fort Rucker, the US Army’s aviation training centre and giant helicopter hub.

From surplus ‘A’ model Black Hawks, Arista Aviation (which also converts military UH-1s), an extensive remanufcaturing process sees the helicopter stripped down and expertly overhauled. Says Dise: “The engines don’t need to be zero life but we have to overhaul the transmissions, all the rotor blades, those have to be overhauled.”

One might think that ex-US Army Black Hawks might be worn, tired and ready for the scrapyard but Dise’s partners at Arista are careful to select only the best airframes to be refurbished when they come up for auction. “Our standard aeroplane only has 6,500hrs on it,” says Dise, “our guys, being Arista Aviation, those guys all are very well tuned in to what helicopters are good ones to buy and what ones are not, because they’re right in Alabama right next to Fort Rucker.”

Dise explains that the legendary toughness of the Black Hawk makes it ideal for conversion: “But 6,500 hours (which most of the corporate jets you fly nowadays have that kind of time on them) isn’t really that bad if you look at the airframe on them, they’re like a flying truck.”

Depending on the customer requirement, new avionics and radios can be added as an optional extra – such as Garmin 500s or a Genesis cockpit upgrade. Others may prefer to retain the original avionics. “It really depends on what you want and what your utilisation is. If you’re a standard logging company, the avionics that come with it are quite fine,” observes Dise.

Additional mission equipment, such as medvac beds, Kevlar armour, rescue hoists, fast rope systems and  searchlights can also be fitted by Arista – with the exception being any offensive weaponry.

With leasing an attractive solution to cover short-term rotary-wing capability gaps for governments (either due to accidents or perhaps budget shortfalls), JetLease and Arista can provide helicopters quickly – turnaround of Black Hawk can only be 90 days.

Aftermarket support

Optional upgrades can include a Garmin glass cockpit or specialised mission equipment. (Jet Lease)

As well as putting together aircraft finance deals, the conversion with Arista Aviation, JetLease also provides support to its leasing customers: “We have pilot training by Flight Safety International, we have mechanic training by Flight Safety International, they’re a half mile from our office here in Palm Beach, and they have full motion simulators too. So, you can learn basically anything you want before you even get into the helicopter. And then Arista has used or new parts.”

Customer base

There is now a growing demand for the super-rugged H-60/S-70 in the aerial firefighting market. (Alan Wilson/Wiki)

So who then comprises JetLease’s customer base for refurbished Black Hawks? “My base is everything from a rich guy to third world countries or other entities like special ops groups” says Dise. “For example the Bahamas just lost three of their US Coast Guard helicopters due to budgetary constraints so they came to us to talk about the Black Hawk.”

Another intriguing customer, revealed Dise, was interested in a Black Hawk to intimidate local drug-dealers from visiting a high-end island resort. “I’ve had people down in Latin America that own islands they have a resort on, and they have a lot of drug traffic around their island, meaning that they have boats going by it. They want a Black Hawk, not only for prevention of that, but as a way to instil fear in people to not come by their island. They put on some kind of standard tactical manoeuvres around the island just to make sure you don’t have people stopping on the island. That’s a good way to deter any of those kinds of activities because the Black Hawk is a very intimidating piece of equipment.”

Meanwhile in the US, a lot of interest from potential customers has been for firefighting – a growing need given a swathe of recent giant forest fires that have taken place.

Despite being fairly new on the commercial market, the Black Hawk is already attracting attention around the globe, says Dise who has been handling about 400 inquiries: “I’ve been marketing aeroplanes my whole life, I’ve never seen anything that has drawn so much attention.”

He has already secured an order for 20 Black Hawks from an unnamed country that was pondering upgrading its UH-1 fleet, until it saw what Astria could do.

Dise notes that it has taken couple of years for the Black Hawk to build awareness for commercial operators: “I talked to the guys at Bell Helicopter because we’re sending a lot of information out and we weren’t getting a lot of orders, per se. What they said is when the UH-1 came out, out of the Vietnam War days, it took about 24 months for it to mature in the market because people have to understand what it is, how to use it, how to maintain it, where can I get the parts, how to get people to fly it and stuff like that.”

UAV leasing

Leasing of medium/high end UAV systems is a new niche sector. (UMS Skeldar)

As well as Black Hawks, JetLease is pioneering the lease of UAVs, with UMS Skeldar’s V-200 rotary-wing drone. Though this is a brand-new market, initial signs show that interest is picking up in the V-200, a VTOL UAV that can deploy from ships as well as land, and with a five-hour endurance.     

 Says Dise: I’ve got two other people handling that area of the company and I get blindsided with inquiries, which is kind of interesting. We’re not talking about the little dinky things that you buy at the store. The problem is they’re expensive, so not everybody can just plop down three million bucks so we developed a three-year lease programme that people can invest in to have access to our systems.”

Dise reports that UAV leasing interest for the V-200 is coming from ‘all three’ civil, government and military customers – including surveillance of tribal land for a US Native American tribe and sugar companies interested in keeping tabs on their plantations.  

black hawk helicopter price

It has taken time for awareness of civil Black Hawks to build in the market, says Dise. (JetLease)

With other companies now offering Black Hawk conversions for the commercial this market is set to be increasingly crowded in the coming years. However, Russell Dise believes that Jet Lease will maintain its edge, noting that these new competitors lack Jet Lease’s 35-years of experience in professional marketing aircraft, and that “these companies don’t have the depth of support that Arista has and they don’t have a finance arm where you can actually buy it from Arista and lease it to the customer or I can just do the financing on it.”

Says Dise: “I like to maintain contact with my customers, then I know what they need so I can either upgrade them or downgrade them or sell them something or lease them something. It’s a better customer service, I think.”

 Despite the Black Hawk being a 44-year old design, there is still plenty of life ahead of it, says Dise: “When you fly in it you realise this aeroplane probably has another minimum 40-50 years left in the market. Even a 1985 aeroplane. Because they’re built like tanks.”

THE BEST PHONES TO BUY IF YOU’RE A PHONE ENTHUSIAST 2021

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G

1. SAMSUNG GALAXY Z FOLD 2 5G

THE BEST FOLDING PHONE BECAUSE YOU KNOW YOU NEED ONE IN YOUR COLLECTION

Folding phones are the future, right? You can’t call yourself a Real Phone Enthusiast without one in your life. Hands down, the best folding phone you can buy right now is Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G. It’s got everything you might want from a modern smartphone, but it also opens up into a tablet-sized screen that lets you put more than one app side-by-side or look at a giant version of Google Maps. It’s easy to justify because you can tell yourself that you will get SO MUCH WORK done on it, right after you finish watching that YouTube video. Promise.

The Fold 2 costs more than most laptops, you have to baby it, and there’s a really good chance the screen will crack or break on you even if you are careful, but that’s just the price you have to pay to be on the bleeding edge.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

  • $1,799

If you’re buying a folding phone and are willing to pay the cost to get one, you should buy the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2.

iPhone 12 mini
Apple iPhone 12 Mini

2. APPLE IPHONE 12 MINI

THE BEST IPHONE FOR WHEN YOU’RE DOUBLE-FISTING AN ANDROID PHONE

Look, I know that you know that everyone in the world has an iPhone and it’s the farthest thing from an “interesting” phone. But at the same time, it’s hard to ignore what Apple’s doing, and really, iMessage and the Apple Watch are pretty great. Lots of people carry an iPhone alongside an Android phone, and you could be one of them.

The best iPhone for doing this is the iPhone 12 Mini. It does everything its bigger siblings can do, but it can easily fit in a secondary pocket and isn’t a burden to carry around. The battery life is kinda lousy, but who cares, that’s why you have a second phone on you anyway, right?

Apple iPhone 12 Mini

  • $699

The iPhone 12 Mini is the smallest phone in Apple’s lineup and the best small phone you can get.

Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate
The Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate comes with a clip-on fan and has 18GB of RAM.

3. ASUS ROG PHONE 5 ULTIMATE

THE BEST PHONE FOR SEEING WHAT THIS “GAMING PHONE” TREND IS ALL ABOUT

Gaming phones are so hot right now (unless they’ve got a great cooling system) — it seems like a new model is released every three months. You can’t call yourself a true phone enthusiast without being up on this trend, and the best one to dip your toes into it with is the Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate.

The ROG Phone 5 Ultimate has a ton of features that can make any mobile accomplisher swoon. A massive battery. A ridiculously high refresh screen. An OLED screen on the back you can customize to show whatever you want. A bunch of accessories to make gaming better. 18GB of RAM! How could you not buy this phone?

Asus ROG Phone 5

  • $1,000

The Asus ROG Phone 5 is the quintessential example of a modern gaming phone. It has over-the-top specs, lots of gaming accessories, and a head-turning design.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

4. SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 20 ULTRA

THE BEST PHONE FOR PRETENDING YOU’RE GOING TO USE A STYLUS

Writing on a phone screen with a pen is so cool! It feels futuristic and is just so natural. At least, it is for the first week until you forget about it and it never leaves the little garage built into the side of the phone again.

If you’ve been telling yourself that little “I’m gonna be a stylus person” lie, you need a phone that supports one and it’s hard to see buying anything other than Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20. It’s got a low latency S Pen, a bunch of software features that can utilize the stylus, and all of the other bells and whistles of a modern smartphone, which means it works quite well long after you’ve forgotten about the stylus.

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

  • $950
  • $1,300
  • 27% off

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is one of Samsung’s top-tier non-folding phones, and it has excellent battery life.

The Google Pixel 4A has an incredible camera.
The Google Pixel 4A

5. GOOGLE PIXEL 4A

THE BEST PHONE FOR MESSING AROUND WITH THE ANDROID 12 BETA

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to recommend anything rational in this guide, but this is perhaps the recommendation that makes the most sense: if you want to mess around with the Android 12 beta but don’t want to install it on your main phone, you should just buy a Google Pixel 4A. It’s only $350 (that’s just $20 more than it costs to fix a broken screen on an iPhone 12 Pro Max) and can work with Google’s latest and greatest software even before it’s released to the public.

You know the Android betas are going to be messy — battery life is going to be bad, there will be lots of bugs, certain apps might not work correctly — so you don’t want to put it on a device you actually need to rely on. Once the beta period is over, the Pixel 4A is a great device for experimenting with the aftermarket ROM world. Get a Pixel 4A and flash those ROMs to your heart’s content.

Google Pixel 4A

  • $349

A very inexpensive smartphone with one of the best cameras for photography you can get on any smartphone at any price.

The Microsoft Surface Duo

6. MICROSOFT SURFACE DUO

THE BEST PHONE FOR MAKING PEOPLE GO “WHOA, IS THAT A PHONE?”

As a phone enthusiast, you already know this harsh truth: the Microsoft Surface Duo is not a good phone. It has an old processor. The camera is worse than any iPhone of the past five years. The battery life is decidedly Not Great. It gets hot doing simple tasks. There are SO MANY software bugs. It’s got a generation-old version of Android. It doesn’t even support wireless charging or NFC payments! Oh yeah, and there’s that questionable build quality to worry about.

But there’s something undeniably cool about the Surface Duo, like it’s a device from the future coming here to bless us in the early 21st century. It’s so thin, it has two screens, the hinge is incredibly neat. Open it up in public and you’re sure to get someone to ask “wow, is that a phone?” which we all know is the ultimate goal here. You can then show them all of its cool features, right after it’s done rebooting itself for the fifth time that day.

Microsoft Surface Duo (unlocked, 128GB)

  • $636
  • $1,400
  • 55% off

Microsoft’s first Android phone was its ambitious foldable Surface Duo. It features two OLED displays, and its high-end design fits in with the greater Surface family of products.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

7. APPLE IPHONE 12 PRO MAX

THE BEST PHONE FOR TELLING YOURSELF THAT YOU DON’T NEED AN ACTUAL CAMERA

For years now we’ve been told that phone cameras are so good that you don’t need an actual camera. The iPhone 12 Pro Max might be the best example of that yet. It’s got a bigger sensor! It’s got three focal lengths! It can shoot video in Dolby Vision HDR!

At the end of the day, it’s still a phone camera and can’t really hold a candle to the image quality or creative control you get with a larger mirrorless camera. But hey, it’s fun to live in that lie and you can totally see the difference between the 12 Pro Max images and other phones. When you blow them up on a big screen. And zoom in.

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max

  • $1,099

Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone 12 Pro Max has a better camera system than you can get in the other iPhone models this year.

Oppo Find X3 Pro

8. OPPO FIND X3 PRO

THE BEST PHONE FOR SAYING “YOU CAN’T GET THIS IN THE US”

Perhaps the ultimate phone flex is pulling a phone out of your pocket that nobody else is going to have. If you’re in the US, the Oppo Find X3 Pro is that phone. It’s got features you can’t get on any American phone and a design you won’t see everywhere, like a microscope camera and softly rounded camera bump. Sure, it won’t really work great on the cellular networks here, importing it is an expensive hassle, and you won’t have any warranty whatsoever. But just think of the envy on your friends’ faces when you tell them they can’t have this phone.

Oppo Find X3 Pro

  • $1,178

Oppo’s Find X3 Pro is the company’s latest flagship and it’s not sold in the US. It has a unique camera system and head-turning design that you won’t see on American phones.

The OnePlus 9 Pro
OnePlus 9 Pro

9. ONEPLUS 9 PRO

THE BEST PHONE FOR WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT PIXEL PHONES AREN’T GREAT, BUT YOU DON’T WANT A SAMSUNG EITHER

Google’s Pixel phones have such great software and then… mediocre everything else. Samsung phones have incredible hardware but are laden with heavy software and actual ads inside of the stock apps. The OnePlus 9 Pro splits that difference — it has software that’s similar to Google’s on hardware that’s virtually a Samsung with a different logo on it.

The 9 Pro is just what the phone enthusiast ordered: a high-end, bells-and-whistles device with All Of The Specs but none of the cruft.

OnePlus 9 Pro

  • $1,069

The latest flagship phone from OnePlus. It features a 6.7-inch QHD+ display, an adaptive refresh rate of 120Hz, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

10. SAMSUNG Z FLIP 5G

THE BEST WEEKEND PHONE FOR WHEN YOU’RE “DISCONNECTING”

Here comes the weekend, with all of its promises of relaxation and enjoyment. You don’t need a phone that’s going to make you more productive, you need something that’s going to slip into your pocket and won’t distract you with a colorful display unless you absolutely need it to.

The Z Flip 5G is this phone. You can flip it closed to ignore it and then pop it open and have a full smartphone inside, complete with every feature you get on non-flippy phones. You’re making a compromise without really making a compromise, because we all know that you had no intention of actually disconnecting for the weekend.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5G

  • $1,200

The Galaxy Z Flip is a folding phone designed to fit a full smartphone easily into your pocket.

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