When an emergency strikes, it’s all hands-on deck for Northern California-based helicopter lift service fleet, PJ Helicopters. Often utilized as a first response team, the helicopter company relies on its equipment to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
PJ Helicopters’ fleet includes eight Sikorsky UH-60A Utility Hawks (the civilian version of the military’s Black Hawk). They are the strongest helicopters in PJ’s fleet of 32, capable of lifting 8,000 pounds or transporting 14 people. Other helicopters in the fleet can haul anywhere from 750 pounds to 6,000 pounds – each used for different applications.
When a helicopter is assigned a job site, a fuel truck is paired with it for constant refueling. Working with the Utility Hawks are a fleet of Kenworth T880s, purchased through NorCal Kenworth in Anderson, California. The T880 straight trucks have a short wheelbase at 250 inches to improve maneuverability in tight areas, and along skinny forest service roads, according to Ted Rawlings, fleet operations manager for PJ Helicopters. Equipped with PACCAR MX-13 engines rated at 510 horsepower and 13-speed Eaton Fuller transmission, PJ Helicopters’ T880 drivers have enough power to make it through all road conditions, and grades.
“We never know what conditions we might face on forest roads,” said Rawlings. “Oftentimes we have to climb a steep grade, sometimes through mud. With 510 horsepower, we have power in reserve for those situations that may require it. In this business, it’s key to have a dependable truck that will get you where you need to be. You can’t leave a helicopter stranded without fuel.”
Rawlings said it was an easy decision to go with the PACCAR engine because of its reputation for reliability and durability. “When we were working with our dealer on the specs, he told us how well the engines have been performing for NorCal Kenworth’s other customers,” Rawlings said. “He told me, ‘if we only had PACCAR engines to work on, we’d go out of business.’ He’s probably right — we’ve been very pleased with our PACCAR MX-13s. They’re a well-performing engine and our drivers like them.”
During fire season, the Utility Hawks are equipped with 780-gallon buckets, which are dipped into lakes, ponds, or rivers, then strategically positioned to douse fires from above. “When we get the nod we need to help in an emergency, we get there quick,” said Rawlings. “We’re still in fire season so we’re helping with containment, plus if a new fire kicks up, it’s crucial our team gets there to slow down the blaze. With our helicopters, we can get to remote locations and help control the burn in areas that may be difficult for planes or ground crews to hit. For example, when we had some of the first helicopters on the scene when the Santa Rosa fires broke out last year, our helicopters protected structures while fire crews on the ground were still trying to access those remote areas.”
When a Utility Hawk is in operation, it can burn through its entire 300-gallon tank of fuel in as little as two hours. “We have two Kenworth T880 straight trucks fitted with 4,000-gallon tanks for fuel, one T880 tractor that hauls a semi-trailer that can carry around 7,300 gallons of fuel, and two tractors that haul custom tanks that are shorter and can carry 6,500 gallons of fuel,” said Rawlings. “The custom tanks are nice because they are much easier to maneuver through forest service gates and tight roads. They’re just easier to operate.”
Since the helicopters operate a majority of the time in the forest, or in off-road locations, PJ Helicopters needed a truck that had the ability to traverse through all conditions, while carrying a heavy payload of fuel. And, according to Rawlings, it needed to count on the trucks to perform flawlessly. “The Kenworth T880s have performed well for us,” he said. “Reliability was the biggest reason we went with Kenworth with ergonomics and style a close second. Our helicopters absolutely have to have their fuel truck ready to go…and looking good next to the aircraft.”
When on the jobsite, days can be long. Of PJ Helicopters six T880s, four of the trucks are spec’d with 40-inch flat top sleepers and one is equipped with a 52-inch mid-roof sleeper to give crew members room for their luggage or provide an area to power nap.
“It can be exhausting out there for the crew, especially during fire season because of the long flight hours,” said Rawlings. “Each flight crew for a Utility Hawk consists of two pilots, and a mechanic. So, being out all day can take a toll, which is why we felt it was necessary to accommodate our crews with the sleeper and a place to catch some sleep. They can rotate using the bunk and take advantage of any downtime they might have.”
Though fire season and utility work make up a large portion of PJ Helicopters operation, the company has their hand in logging, transportation, agriculture, and water services. And, last year, PJ Helicopters was instrumental in operating two helicopters to drop bags of aggregate and rock on the eroded areas surrounding California’s Oroville Dam. The reservoir had swelled to capacity causing the spillways to become overrun. For several days, authorities were worried about the 50-year old dam bursting, flooding the towns below. “We were there for over a week in the support effort,” said Rawlings. “We dropped more than 700 loads with our Utility Hawks, each turnaround taking only about 3 minutes. In the end, the dam was stabilized. It was quite the process.”
While crews operate predominately in California they often work in Western states in the U.S. and once went as far south to Louisiana to help with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
While the Kenworth T880s are used with the ‘big birds,’ two Kenworth T370s are also in the PJ Helicopter fleet. One is used as a water truck for dust abatement and the other hauls “clean” (purified) water that is devoid of many minerals. That water is transferred from the T370 to a helicopter, which then hovers close to ‘live’ power lines. “Part of our work for PG&E is pressure washing insulators on the high-tension power lines,” explained Rawlings. “Clean water isn’t conductive, so we stay safe while cleaning the insulators.”
According to Rawlings, the business is not for everyone, but for him it stays challenging. “Every day is different – our work is not routine at all. We never know where the next call might come from. We’ve hauled Christmas trees in Oregon. Several years back, we dropped trout into some high mountain lakes. And, in this business, you can’t afford to have downtime. Kenworths have been solid support for our helicopters. If the trucks can’t run, neither can our helicopters…and so far we haven’t run into that issue.”
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