A Rare Look At The New Portuguese Firefighting-Capable Black Hawk Helicopters

Portuguese Black Hawk
UH-60 Blackhawk 29802 arriving at the landing site. (All images credit: Sergio Antunes)

The two former-U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were delivered to the Força Aérea Portuguesa at the end of last year.

Last month, for a week, five Portuguese Air Force helicopters operated in Seia, on the northwestern slope of Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal, to train procedures for search and rescue missions on land and mountain operations within the framework of the integrated system of protection and relief operations.

This mission took place in conjunction with the National Emergency and Civil Protection Authority (ANEPC) and the National Institute of Medical Emergency (INEM).

Throughout that week, flight and mountain rescue procedures were tested using three light AW119 Koala helicopters from Squadron 552 “Zangões”.

Koala 29705 and a stretcher during a simulated SAR mission.

As this is a mission that involves coordination with civil entities, it is essential to test and standardize procedures, creating synergies and harmony between everyone involved, thus ensuring the success of the mission.

During the exercise, the Squadron promoted lectures on the search and rescue mission in a terrestrial environment and provided simulations, which made it possible to improve the national search and rescue device, resulting in greater efficiency, effectiveness and a reduction in response time.

Arrival of Koala 29704 with injured person to be handed over to firefighters.

The exercise, which took place in the region of “Beiras” and “Serra da Estrela”, in the town of Seia, involved 37 Air Force soldiers and around 300 Civil Protection operatives, elements of the ANEPC Command structure, elements of the Special Civil Protection Force and Firefighters coming from Fire Departments from the north to the south of the country as well as elements from INEM.

The two Blackhawks of the Portuguese Air Force parked at Seia Aerodrome while waiting for the next mission.

During the same week, the UH-60 Blackhawks from Squadron 551 “Panteras” were also deployed at the airfield in Seia where they were carried out operational landing missions in the mountains. These are the first two out of a total of six second-hand helicopters that the Portuguese Air Force acquired in 2022.

These former US Army UH-60As will be supplied and modified for the firefighting role by an American company, Arista Aviation Services, based in Enterprise (AL). According to a press release by the company,  “the contract includes the delivery of six aircraft over the next three years, training for six pilots and 21 mechanics, and five years of onsite maintenance and logistical support. With the addition of these helicopters, Portuguese Air Force aerial firefighting capabilities are greatly enhanced, as each Arista-modified Black Hawk will have the ability to quickly transport 12 firefighters and over 750 gallons of water to rural areas when needed.”

The first two aircraft were delivered in November 2023. The fleet is expected to be complete by 2026.

UH-60 Blackhawk 29802 arriving from mountain training mission.

Squadron 551 is equipped with UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and is headquartered at Air Base No. 8 in Ovar and its mission is to carry out forest firefighting and air mobility missions.

According to information from the Portuguese Air Force, over the next two years, the 551 Panteras Squadron will undergo a rigorous period of training and crew qualification, so that capacity can be built by 2026, when the unit will be able to carry out the mission. for which it was reactivated.

The first training missions to adapt to the “Bambi” suspended bucket, essential for firefighting missions as well as mountain training missions, among others, have already been carried out.

The Author wishes to thank Sergio Antunes who provided the photos you can find in this article.

Both the Black Hawk and the Koala helicopters sport the peculiar day-glo high-visibility stripes.
About Jorge Ruivo
Jorge Ruivo is a freelance journalist based in Marinha Grande, Portugal. Since 2000, he has contributed with photography works and articles on the topic of Military Aviation published by the Portuguese press. More recently he has started working with various international media outlets publishing articles and photographs in several magazines, including Combat Aircraft and Airforces Monthly. His main areas of interest are the Portuguese Air Force, its flight squadrons, foreign deployments and military exercises.