Mark Jackson is the proud owner of the first civilian registered Black Hawk helicopter in Africa. Bought primarily for firefighting operations, the mighty Black Hawk proved ideal for a particularly challenging task, one that its makers could never have imagined.
Two rhino bulls had taken each other on in a dispute over territory that could have ended in the death of at least one, if not both, of the irreplaceable animals. Eventually the dominant rhino had managed to chase the other into a deep and inaccessible valley on a neighbour’s farm. Despite intense ground-based efforts, the rhino could not be extracted from its refuge.
So an urgent call was made to Mark Jackson at Leading Edge Aviation in Nelspruit Airport. As reported in SA Flyer, at the end of last year Mark Jackson had taken delivery of his Black Hawk.
Mark’s son, Peter and SAA pilot and helicopter supremo Tosh Ross, who had done their initial conversions to the Black Hawk in the USA, were assigned by Mark to do the flying to lift the rhino. The entire operation was meticulously planned. Tosh Ross has vast experience, having already airlifted more than 200 rhinos using the Huey with its maximum sling load of 1800 kg. But lifting a 2300 kg male from a confined area at a 5500 ft density altitude on the Highveld was going to be particularly challenging.
Mark knew that his prodigiously powerful, former US Air Force Sikorsky Black Hawk was the only available helicopter capable of doing the job. The Black Hawk weighs about 11,000 pounds empty, and has a max weight of 22,000 pounds, so it is one of those rare aircraft powerful enough to lift its own weight. Key to the rhino relocation operation, the Black Hawk has an ‘on-the-hook’ external load lifting capacity of 8,000 pounds, giving ample reserve for the estimated 5,000 lb rhino.
It’s a big, complex and demanding machine to operate, so the minimum crew is two pilots. Mark Jackson says that for fire-fighting operations, they use at least one flight engineer in the cabin to assist in getting the 3000 litre capacity Bambi bucket in and out the Hawk. The bucket’s empty weight is about 150 pounds, and the strop that carries the bucket below the Hawk is 120 feet long, which is much longer than the Huey’s usual 50 ft strop, and the one used by the SAAF’s Pumas. Mark says the long strop is a great help when firefighting, as it minimises the rotor downwash, especially when hovering or lifting water from near a fire, as the downwash can fan a fire and cause more problems.
A further key advantage, especially for confined area operations and over water and built-up area flights is that, as a twin engined helicopter, the Hawk can easily maintain altitude on one engine. Further safety is provided by the Hawk’s excellent system redundancy. It has three independent hydraulic systems, an emergency oil system for both engines, and two stability augmentation systems, to name just some of the redundancy components.
The Black Hawk is one of the fastest fire-fighting helicopters around. With a fully articulated rotor, consisting of four main and four tail rotor blades, it has a smooth and fast cruise speed of 150 knots, and a VNE of a remarkable 193 knots. Mark Jackson points out that the four blade rotor system is also safer, as the start limit regarding high winds is 45 knots, and turbulent conditions are handled with greater safety. The noise level is lower than most helicopters of similar size.
It was therefore the ideal helicopter to rescue the recalcitrant rhino. After consultation with the veterinary surgeons, it was estimated that this particular rhino weighed about 2,300 kgs. The operation was planned in meticulous detail. It was even given a typically incongruous military-style codename - Operation Ebony and Ivory, chosen as a Black Hawk may be thought of as ebony black – even through this one is white, and the rhino as ivory – even though its horn is made of hair, and not an ivory tusk.
Anyway, it was decided that the Hawk should position from Nelspruit, but land and shut down well away from the intended lifting area. A thorough briefing of all the people involved with the lift was held, and everyone allocated their specific tasks. A detailed risk assessment was done, as well as an emergency plan reviewed. A second helicopter, a Robinson 44, was needed to dart the Rhino while the Hawk waited on the ground, until called in for the lift.
The ground operations were fraught with the challenges of getting the large support team and vets to the remote site and involved at least one tyre blow-out on the rocky terrain. Finally, the rhino was found and darted from the R44 and the sedated animal was herded to a suitable open area for lifting by the Black Hawk.
Specially designed harnesses were used to secure the huge animal by its feet and have its head supported by a fifth strap for transport, upside down beneath the helicopter, to the new location, where a ground team was in position to accept the inbound pachyderm.
Thanks to proper planning and briefing, and having the right equipment on hand in the Black Hawk, the actual lift went off without a hitch and with minimal stress for the sedated rhino, who hopefully wasn’t too aware of the indignity of being hoisted by his feet for a wild sling ride, hundreds of feet in the air.