Portland, Oregon-based Erickson is flying six of its S-64 Air Cranes on Australia’s record-setting wildfires. More than 12 million acres of that country have been charred during this year’s fire season—six times more than that consumed during California’s record-setting 2018 infernos that inflicted an estimated $3.5 billion in damages, consumed 1.9 million acres, destroyed 10,300 structures, and left 103 dead.
In Australia, some 130 blazes, mainly in New South Wales (NSW), have turned tourist beaches into refugee camps, incinerated in excess of 1,400 homes, and killed more than 23—so far, with fires predicted to linger for weeks. Damages are expected to top the $3.3 billion incurred during the nation’s 2009 “Black Saturday” fires that torched 1.11 million acres. Area wildlife has been decimated. An Australian university estimates that 480 million animals have been killed in NSW wildfires since September. The country is under a state of emergency, with daytime temperatures reaching 120 degrees F and high winds combining to overwhelm the efforts of firefighters on the ground and the 160-plus fleet of aircraft attacking the fires.
The ability to fight the Australian fires was retarded by the government’s underfunding of firefighting efforts and the slowness with which it responded with military assets, waiting until after the New Year to call up 3,000 reservists and devote the Australian Army’s modest fleet of Boeing CH-47F Chinooks and Sikorsky Blackhawks to the cause. Also compounding the aerial firefighting are the longer fire seasons in recent years in California, South America, and the Mediterranean, which makes it harder to obtain contracted fixed-wing and helicopter water bombers from those markets, places where local fire seasons generally did not overlap with Australia’s until recently.
Erickson has been working with Australian partner Kestrel for 21 years. In 2001, an Air Crane named “Elvis” saved the lives of 14 trapped firefighters there. Air Cranes flying during this season’s fires are based in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia and include N247AC (Jerry), N189AC (Gypsy Lady), N194AC (Delilah), N243AC (Marty), N218AC (Elsie), and N154AC (Georgia Peach).
Erickson lost an Air Crane last year while fighting fires in Australia. All three crewmembers survived when the 1967 S-64E, N173AC (Christine) crashed while fighting the Thomson Complex Catchment fires in Gippsland, Victoria on Jan. 28, 2019.
Erickson holds the type certificate for the S-64 and operates approximately 20 Air Cranes worldwide. It also services and builds S-64s for third-party customers, delivering two to the South Korean Forest Service (KFS) in 2019, bringing that organization’s fleet up to six S-64 Air Cranes. When rigged for firefighting, the aircraft is typically fitted with a 2,650-gallon water tank and a quick-fill snorkel.
Erickson began flying a S-64 Skycrane leased from Sikorsky in 1971 in support of its aerial powerline construction and heli-logging operations. In 1992, Erickson began applying the Air Crane to firefighting. That year it purchased the type certificate for the S-64E and S-64F from Sikorsky and rebadged the helicopter the Erickson Air Crane.
It also designed the microprocessor-driven Air Crane water tank for aerial firefighting. A hydraulic snorkel system can refill it from any fresh-water source in as little as 45 seconds, from depths as shallow as 18 inches while the helicopter is in a hover. Over saltwater, 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 Air Crane 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 Air Crane can drop up to 25,000 gallons an hour on a fire.
The aircraft is powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney JFTD12-5A engines, has a main rotor diameter of 72 feet, and a 16-foot-diameter tail rotor. Deployed Air Cranes typically travel with a six-man crew—two pilots, two mechanics, and two drivers—a maintenance trailer, and a fuel tanker truck.