The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter has been the U.S. Army's go-to aircraft since the beginning of NATO's mission in Kosovo in 1999. Over the years, the iconic Army utility helicopter has been used in numerous applications, including its use as a troop transport, assisting with extinguishing wildfires and rapidly transporting injured personnel via medical evacuation, or MEDEVAC.
Its use as a transportation platform has been the most commonly used capability of the Black Hawk in order to meet mission needs throughout the region. In addition to personnel, the helicopter also can move supplies throughout the area more rapidly than by ground transportation.
The Fast Rope Insertion/Extraction System, or FRIES, on the helicopter allows soldiers who have undergone air assault training to insert themselves into locations via fast rope when land or sea transportation is not feasible or timely enough for the mission.
"We provide aerial resupplies, conduct FRIES movement, move troops, conduct reconnaissance and anything (else) that allows the ground force commander to move troops in places that you can't get to on the ground, or maybe even get there in a timely manner that he couldn't otherwise get with a ground force," said Capt. Joseph Inglett, commander of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade, Virginia Army National Guard.
Another unique capability of the Black Hawk is its ability to combat wildfires. Wildfires have posed a significant threat in Kosovo, claiming dozens of lives over the past few decades. Kosovo Force aviation assets have used water buckets, also called "Bambi" buckets, to assist in extinguishing these fires.
"You have a bucket on the end of the aircraft that's hooked up by sling load, and you're able to put the bucket into water, and then the bucket submerges, filling it with water," Inglett said. "Then you lift off, you take it to where you need to, and there's an internal ejection button that you press (dropping) the water onto the fire to try to put it out or at least mitigate how big the fire can get and where it can spread to."
For medical uses, the U.S. Army has equipped a special version of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter known as the Sikorsky HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. The helicopter is fitted with bedpans for litters and includes special rigs for all the medical equipment needed. Additionally, the MEDEVAC version has a hoist for evacuating injured personnel in the event the helicopter is not able to land safely.
"This aircraft is capable of carrying four litter patients as well as four ambulatory patients," said 1st Lt. Jonathan Murray, an operations officer with Detachment 2, Charlie Co., 1st Bn., 169th Aviation Regiment, VaARNG. "We have all kinds of equipment to provide in-route critical care, such as ventilators, drugs, fluids and we can carry blood as well."
"In addition to that, if we're unable to land somewhere because it's a tight landing zone, or if it's on the side of a mountain, we also have hoists capability to be able to pick up a patient, whether their litter or ambulatory, and get them to safety," he added.
Even though the initial version of the Black Hawk helicopter was first flown in 1974, continuous updates and revisions have made it the Army's go-to aircraft due to its versatility and capabilities. For nearly 40 years, the Black Hawk has proven itself to be an affordable and reliable helicopter and is expected to continue service for years to come.