top of page

Leading Edge Aviation – Leading the Edge in Firefighting

By Rob Russell Photos by Rayno Snyman

The sight of the huge Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter fighting fire around the Western Cape has impressed all those that have seen and watched it. Farm and landowners also are very grateful for the outstanding work the crews do, in extinguishing fires and preventing potentially further serious damage.

But who owns “the Hawk” as its crews fondly refer to her and where does she come from?

Flightline Weekly spent an enthralling few hours with Mark Jackson, at Leading Edge Aviation’s Stellenbosch base, chatting to him about his career in aviation, his passion for flying, fire fighting and his love of the Hawk and Hueys.

Mark was born in the Lowveld, living the first few years of his life at White River. After the unfortunate divorce of his parents, Mark’s mother moved to Rhodesia and took Mark with her. Always interested in aviation, he applied to join the Rhodesian Air Force in the 70s, with the idea of becoming a pilot. Problems with mathematics prevented him from becoming a pilot, but he joined as an apprentice and was soon qualified as an "appie" on the Alo's and subsequently the Huey. It was here that his love for the Huey grew. He spoke with great fondness of the Huey and what it could do.

In 1981, he left Rhodesia and moved back to Nelspruit, where took a loan and bought Lowveld Aircraft Services. In 1996 Mark sold Lowveld Aircraft Services to a friend and then started Leading Edge Aviation not just as an engineer but as a commercial pilot in both fixed and rotor wing. They acquired their first Huey in 2005 and the second Huey was added to the fleet in 2012. These two helicopters were used primarily for fire fighting and prevention duties, around the massive plantations in the Lowveld. Mark soon gained a reputation for providing outstanding service.

Leading Edge had looked at growing the fleet and getting more helicopters and in 2016 an opportunity arose to bid for a Blackhawk helicopter, via the US Government’s surplus stock auctions. It was a bold move and they were soon to hear they had been successful in their bid. In order to pay the deposit and finance the Blackhawk, Mark sold, in 2017, the first Huey that he had so successfully operated.

The Blackhawk arrived, after being shipped to Durban and trucked to Nelpsruit. It was registered with the CAA in 2017 on arrival and then was issued with its Certificate of Airworthiness in March 2018. It was the first-ever civilian registered Blackhawk in Africa and the second outside of the USA.

Consolidating their operations with the Blackhawk and 1 Huey, meant they were soon in a position to acquire another Huey in 2020. Leading Edge Aviation fleet now consists of a Blackhawk and 2 Hueys. Their main base is in Nelspruit and they move the entire fleet down to Stellenbosch for the Western Cape Summer fire season. The Blackhawk will leave Stellenbosch at the end of March, with the 2 Hueys staying until the end of April then returning to Nelspruit for the winter fire season.

Those that have been able to see the Blackhawk operating over the fires, cannot help but be impressed with its capabilities. Mark speaks fondly of her and what an amazing aircraft it is but never at the Huey's expense, as they have proven to be the backbone of firefighting aircraft in South Africa.

Mark the reason he bought the Hawk, was a more modern aircraft, with multiple redundancies for additional safety and greater capability.

  • The advantages it has over other helicopters are It is a fully integrated two-pilot operation

  • Has two engines

  • It has three independent hydraulic systems. Together with an onboard computer, continuous monitoring of the hydraulic systems gives the crew advanced warning of any possible hydraulic problems, which enables the crew to take action to mitigate any further complications.

  • There are three generators on board, providing more than enough backup power.

  • It has two Stability augmentation system (SAS) systems onboard. The SAS vastly assist the crew in providing a stable platform for fighting fires and vertical reference lifting.

The other massive advantage is that there is a 45 knot wind start limitation, so the Hawk can operate in any wind, whereas many other helicopters would have to stop flying due to unfavourable winds. Mark still sees the Huey as the mainstay of firefighting, and they will be extensively used for many years to come. Working closely with the Hawk they are able to pack a punch.

Not only is the Blackhawk used for fire fighting, but just last weekend, Leading Edge Aviation was tasked by the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre, to assist in the recovery of a paraglider accident, in the mountains near Wolseley. It was the only helicopter available to do this job, due to the excessive winds blowing in the mountains.

Added to that is the speed of the helicopter, as well as the load it can pick up, which translates into the ability to get to fires much quicker, as well as the much bigger load of water it can pick up compared to other helicopters, means it is far more efficient and cost-effective.

Depending on the distance to pick up water, to deposit on fires, the Hawk can pick up and deposit 45 tonnes per hour, whereas a Huey would only be doing about 15 tonnes an hour. So the Hawk effectively does the job of 3 Hueys. Another massive cost saving.

When questioned about who does the servicing and maintenance of the Hawk and Hueys, Mark replied that Leading Edge Aviation has its own AMO, his son Peter, being the Leading Edge Aviation maintenance manager. Together with Mark, his other son Stephen and Peter Fetting, the four are all qualified to carry out maintenance on the helicopters. It's not often that you find pilots qualified, and certified, to do maintenance on the aircraft they fly. Something Mark is also very proud of.

Flightline Weekly spoke to Mark about how they operate and to who they provide their services. Mark explained that Leading Edge Aviation, in Nelspruit, provided fire protection services to the huge commercial plantations as members of the Lowveld Fire Protection Association. During the Cape Summer Fire season, the Blackhawk is subcontracted to the Provincial Disaster Management Centre. Mark emphasised they operate together with other operators to ensure optimum service delivery. At present, all of Leading Edge Aviations’ pilots are rated Blackhawk Pilots.

Quick reaction force -a joint project between Winelands FPA and Leading edge.

Experience gained through fire fighting has shown it is critical to get to a fire and contain it within the early stages. With this in mind, Leading Edge Aviation and Winelands Fire Protection Agency (WFPA) developed the concept of a Quick Reaction Force,

LEA and WFPA negotiated with several Insurance companies to come on board with this proactive rather than reactive initiative. Companies include Lombard, Hollard, Bryte, Old Mutual, Santam and Infinity Insurance.

The moment smoke is seen, the helicopters will depart for the area swiftly. They are able to tackle the fire whilst it is still in an infant stage. The initial hour costs of this service are covered by insurance companies. If the fire is still out of control, after an hour, clients with the use of an MOU are able to grant authority to LEA and WFPA to carry on fighting the fire. Costs are then shared between Insurance companies and landowners. All landowners in the Winelands and Boland area are encouraged to contact Dale Nortje at WFPA for further information and the establishment of MOUs in advance of any fires.

In April 2022, Lightstone Actuaries were able to prove that the Quick Reaction Force services saved the insurance industry 94 % of their fire damage claims.

The concept has proven very successful, many fires have been contained and extuingished before any serious damage to property and land could occur.

In closing, Mark spoke of how humbling it was to operate in the Western Cape. The support and thanks that his crews got are nothing short of amazing, he said it made the job all the more rewarding. He mentions people coming to bring them food and water while on firefighting operations raising the morale of the firefighting crews.

If ever there was a humble gentleman of aviation, Mark certainly ticks that box. A fascinating person to speak to, passionate about firefighting and proud to have his team working alongside him to assist those in need.

If you are ever in the Stellenbosch area, with some time to spare, pop through to Leading Edge Aviation and if the helicopters are there, ask to have a look at them. It is a remarkable fleet and the personnel would be happy to show you around.



bottom of page