For at least two years, Erickson Inc. has been working with Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin to develop a new pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution for helicopters, integrating Sikorsky’s MATRIX technology into a forest fire suppression system. This would allow the S-64 Air-Crane, originally manufactured by Sikorsky, to fight forest fires day or night. Fire Aviation first wrote about this project in February 2020.
Of course, Sikorsky does not limit this optional pilot capability to the Air-Crane. On February 5, they performed the first of what they sometimes call an “unmanned flight” with a UH-60A Blackhawk. On the runway at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, one of Sikorsky’s pilots in a Blackhawk helicopter flipped the optional piloted cockpit switch from two to zero, exited the aircraft, and crossed the runway.
Moments later, the plane, identifiable by the DARPA logo and tail number N600PV, performed a pre-flight checklist, started its engines, spun its rotors and took off with no crew on board. Everything happened completely independently.
Equipped with ALIAS (Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System), the Blackhawk began to execute a 30-minute mission. To demonstrate its ability to adapt to a variety of mission environments, the unmanned BLACK HAWK cruised at typical speed and altitude through a simulated cityscape, avoiding computer-generated buildings while replanning the route in real time.
The BLACK HAWK helicopter then autonomously performed a series of pedal turns, then maneuvered and made a perfect landing. Once it died down, the two pilots approached and re-entered the plane. The OPV (optional piloted vehicle) switch was reversed from zero to two, then the pilots descended the runway.
This flight marks the first time a Blackhawk has flown autonomously. It illustrates how ALIAS-enabled aircraft can help soldiers successfully execute complex missions with selectable range levels — and, Lockheed said, with increased safety and reliability.
We wrote last March that the helicopter that might be Erickson’s best-known Air-Crane, the one named Elvis, was being torn down to the studs, so to speak. The company planned to rebuild the N179AC as an S-64F+ that could operate unmanned in the cockpit or autonomously.
Thanks and hats off to Tom.