Revered as one of the most venerable and versatile helicopters in the history of vertical flight, the Sikorsky S-61 has served for nearly a half century around the globe in a variety of roles, from VIP transport to heavy lifter. Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson sees no reason the iconic machine should enter retirement anytime soon.
Based in British Columbia, Coulson owns and operates one of the world’s largest civilian S-61 fleets.
The company began its S-61 operations in 1986, and has made significant use of the type ever since, even earning recognition by Sikorsky for the highest annual utilization of any operator in S-61 history.
Currently, one of Coulson’s fleet operates with Canadian helicopter carrier Helijet as North America’s only scheduled S-61 passenger service, carrying customers several times daily between downtown Vancouver and Victoria. Another is serving the petroleum industry, shuttling oil field workers to Caspian Sea platforms off Azerbaijan’s coast. A third is helping fight brushfires Down Under in Melbourne, Australia, as a water bomber and for fire crew transport. Two others are working in repetitive heavy-lift operations, one under contract for the U.S. Navy recovering test missiles off the coast of Hawaii and the other locally in logging operations.
Yet another airframe is undergoing major overhaul, and Coulson has three more S-61s in storage. The oldest of the airframes dates to 1968, while the youngest, Coulson said, was one of the last to come off the assembly line before production ceased in 1980.
The stable has been assembled from a variety of sources. Most served with now-defunct regional helicopter operators such as New York Airways (see sidebar), Los Angeles Airways and San Francisco Airways. One was used by Donald Trump’s Trump Air to shuttle high rollers from Manhattan to Atlantic City, N.J. casinos.
Making its debut in 1959 as the U.S. Navy’s Sea King, the heavy-lift helicopter was used for anti-submarine warfare and even recovering astronauts from their floating space capsules. Licensed by Westland in the UK, Agusta in Italy and Mitsubishi in Japan, 140 of the Sikorsky-built large helicopters are still in operation. The legendary ruggedness of the S-61 only adds to Coulson’s enthusiasm for the aging helicopters. “Some of the airframes get bent, and we just go out and fix them,” he said. “They’re like big old buses. They’re just absolute tanks flying through the air, they are such a good airframe.”
Far from reaching the end of its useful life, upgrades promise to keep the S-61 flying for years to come. Carson Helicopters in Pennsylvania is offering composite rotor blade upgrades for $250,000 per blade, which offer improved lift, airspeed, range and even rotor lifespan, while at the same time lowering operating and maintenance costs. Coulson said he believes that such modifications could eventually earn the S-61 a higher FAA top-speed certification, perhaps as high as 140 knots. “If they did that, then that’s a competitor to the S-92,” he said.
While Coulson Group’s S-61s are known for their heavy-lift capabilities–during the 1990s the company averaged 2,500 hours flying time a year on each helicopter–the future could see them refurbished for VIP passenger service. “The President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, he flies in an S-61 every day,” Coulson said. “You’ve got the Pope, he’s got five of them. You just can’t have a better sales pitch for an aircraft.” Coulson even promotes the age of the S-61 as a plus: “From a customer’s perspective, if the issue is safety, there probably isn’t an aircraft that’s been tracked as well as the S-61 as far as hours on components and what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
Coulson envisages creating a private VIP helicopter with all the amenities and comforts of a head-of-state transport. He said he believes such a helicopter could fill an unexploited niche in the transportation industry. “Simplistically, how we looked at it is, there are roughly six hundred 12- to 14-passenger business jets in the world. But there’s really no helicopter airframe matched to that,” Coulson said, adding he plans to convert one of his stored airframes into an ultra-deluxe S-61, one that will seamlessly accept passengers deplaning from a $50 million business jet.
But Coulson acknowledged he has his work cut out for him. “There are some upgrades that people really haven’t done” to bring the S-61 up to the standards VIP clients expect. “One of the customers that came to us a year ago said, ‘I want to be able to park my aircraft in 100-degree weather and I want to be able to shut the motors off, cool the cabin, and I want to be able to run a fridge and a microwave.’ Those customers are out there and nobody has really addressed those types of components that we’re interested in pursuing,” which would require fitting the S-61 with a lightweight APU and air conditioning.
The company’s prototype plan calls for a state-of-the-art machine with an all-glass cockpit, walk-around cabin, onboard auxiliary power and even a bathroom. With such modifications, Coulson said he believes an S-61 costing between $5- and $6 million and with a capacity of 12 to 14 passengers would be an attractive alternative to the smaller AgustaWestland AW139 and the Sikorsky S-76 and S-92.
Coulson has started by ferrying vacationers to a group of fishing lodges on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. Where he goes from there is anybody’s guess. “When we talk about a head-of-state aircraft, we’ve designed a quick-change interior so it can go from being a 26-passenger airliner to a VIP transport in four hours,” he said. “We think there are some hotel and casino people throughout the world, in places like Hong Kong and Macau, who are just starting to open up the gaming world down there.” So far they have been using S-76s to transport visitors, but the S-61 could serve this role more cost-effectively, Coulson said. Another possibility would be using S-61s during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games, where the helicopters could transport dignitaries, Olympic officials and visitors.
Coulson said he expects the first of his company’s VIP S-61s to be completed by the fall. He plans to show it off at next year’s Heli-Expo in Houston.