Erickson Aircranes find niche battling wildfires across the U.S.

 - July 28, 2009, 6:15 AM

Northern Wisconsin forests are experiencing their worst drought in 70 years. The area’s abundant freshwater lakes have receded to record low levels and, although the spring had been unseasonably cold, by the end of May fire danger was high. More than 946 wild fires had consumed over 2,600 acres throughout the state and fire danger in the vast 1.5 million acre Cheqaumegon-Nicolet National Forest was so severe that the U.S. Forest Service contracted with Erickson Air-Crane to keep an S-64E Aircrane on ready alert at the Rhinelander, Wis. (KRHI) airport.

For weeks the S-64E sat idle on the secure ramp, flanked by Erickson’s maintenance trailer and a 6,000-gallon fuel tanker that trails the helicopter on the ground. The six-man crew–two pilots, two mechanics, and two drivers–were rotated out every 12 days. At first, the presence of the crew and their giant helicopter “Olga” was a local curiosity, but then an area Internet news site reported the cost of keeping the helicopter on station–a figure subsequently denied by Erickson executives–and some local coffee house derision began to set in. That all changed on the afternoon of May 20.

As temperatures climbed into the 80s, the wind gusted to 45 knots. Seven miles east of nearby Park Falls, power lines blew down and ignited the forest near Blockhouse Lake shortly before 2 p.m. By 3 p.m. Olga and its 2,650-gallon belly tank were in the air, joined by an AT-802F Fire Boss, a converted crop duster on amphibious floats, from Minnesota. By nightfall, the Aircrane had dropped the lion’s share of 55,000 gallons of water on the Blockhouse fire, quickly helping ground crews bring the 112-acre blaze under control and saving 20 homes.

Getting air support on a wildfire quickly is essential to its early containment according to the California-based Wildfire Research Network. A U.S. Forest Service (USFS) spokesman credited the helicopter’s quick application to the Blockhouse fire for preventing more widespread damage.

Erickson began flying a leased S-64 Skycrane from Sikorsky in 1971 in support of its aerial powerline construction and heli-logging operations. The company bought four S-64s the following year. Since 1971, Erickson has constructed transmission towers over more than 8,000 miles and heli-logged across the U.S., Canada, Indonesia and Malaysia. Erickson Aircranes lifted the seven-ton steel sections that topped Canada’s CN tower and removed and replaced the “Statue of Freedom” that tops the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington during its restoration in 1993.

In 1992 Erickson began applying the Aircrane to firefighting. That year it purchased the type certificate for the S-64E and S-64F from Sikorsky and rebadged the helicopter the Erickson Aircrane. It also designed the microprocessor-driven Aircrane water tank for aerial firefighting. A hydraulic snorkel system can refill it from any freshwater source in as little as 45 seconds, from depths as shallow as 18 inches while the helicopter is in a hover. Over salt water, a separate sea snorkel with a hydrofoil ram scoop is lowered while the helicopter skims the surface at 35 knots, refilling the tank in 30 seconds and minimizing the corrosive impact of sea spray on helicopter components. The tank allows a pilot to select multiple dispersal rates and area coverage settings that are then calibrated to the helicopter’s airspeed by the microprocessor unit–levels that vary from the equivalent of light rain to a total tank dump. The system gives the Aircrane the precision drop capabilities of a helicopter combined with the volume of a large, multi-engine, fixed-wing water bomber. With a nearby water source, a single Aircrane can drop up to 25,000 gallons an hour on a fire.

It wasn’t long before Erickson’s fleet of 17 Aircranes began seeing firefighting duties worldwide, from the American West to France, Greece, Italy and even Australia. The company also sold “new” Aircranes remanufactured from the carcasses of reclaimed U.S. Army CH-54s. (Eighty-nine of these were built during the 1960s and flew aircraft and vehicle salvage missions during the Vietnam War.) Six of these were sold for aerial firefighting to governments in South Korea and Italy in recent years for contracts approaching an average of $25 million per ship, according to information released by the company. At this year’s Heli-Expo convention, Erickson announced plans to place the S-64 back into new production within two to three years as opposed to continuing the remanufacturing process of older airframes. Over the years, Erickson has made more than 1,300 changes to the aircraft, mostly through STCs. These included the addition of a fixed maintenance platform mounted directly above the aircraft’s twin aged and fuel-thirsty (550 gph) Pratt & Whitney JFTD12-5A engines, and built-in steps that run from the boom to the massive 16-foot diameter tail rotor.

With a length of 88.5 feet, a main rotor diameter of 72 feet, and 9,000 (E Model) or 9,600 (F Model) shaft horsepower, the Aircrane can be a handful to fly, according to Dave Barnett, Erickson’s chief pilot, mainly because of the massive main rotor torque and rotor wash. The Aircrane is flown with a crew of two or three. A third aft-facing pilot position has a collective and a cyclic but no tail rotor pedals. During construction or logging lifts the aft-facing pilot has an unobstructed view of the load and gives tail rotor inputs to one of the forward-facing pilots via intercom. Aircrane firefighting pilots face a long apprenticeship–an average of five years–before they can qualify for pilot-in-command on those missions.

Erickson has five Aircranes on firefighting contracts with the USFS this year and another three on-call if needed. The USFS moves them around the country to locations where fire conditions are acute. Aircranes log an average of 4,000 hours annually fighting fires, but the Aircrane’s unique capabilities do not come cheap.
While a company spokesman declined to elaborate on terms of the USFS contract, Erickson’s contract with the City of Los Angeles this year is a matter of public record. The $2.6 million deal covers the cost of stationing one Aircrane in the area for 170 days along with the first 70 flight hours. Additional flight hours are billed at $5,500 each. Erickson’s director of marketing, Dennis Hubbard, calls it “cheap insurance” when contrasted with potential losses from a wildfire with a good head start. Hubbard maintains that an Aircrane can put water on a fire for 20 percent of the cost of trucked-in water.