Photo above: Vasilis Kranitsas Photography
Celebrating a 50-year legacy and the aircraft that made it possible.
As Erickson Inc. marks 50 years in business, the Oregon-based helicopter OEM and maintenance organization is the world’s largest operator of and foremost expert on the S-64 Air Crane, a distinction earned through its long-lived relationship with the iconic aircraft.
In 1971, nearly a decade after Sikorsky first flew the S-64 Skycrane, Jack Erickson, who worked for his father’s logging business, had the idea to use helicopters to remove timber from a steep slope in Northern California.
“The original logging job was with Columbia Helicopters. They had an S-61 and Jack had the wood. When it proved successful, he formed Erickson Air-Crane,” says Kenny Chapman, an S-64 Air Crane pilot and 43-year Erickson veteran.
Wanting more power, Erickson leased three S-64 Skycranes from Sikorsky. With the help of the distinctive aircraft, he pioneered aerial timber-harvesting techniques and expanded into firefighting, power-line construction, and airlifting heavy HVAC units onto high-rise rooftops. Erickson’s early success and the S-64’s capabilities ensured the two legacies would be intertwined for the next 50 years.
Innovative Ideas, Bold Moves
From the beginning, Erickson leaned into innovation, continually searching for better, faster, safer ways to accomplish tasks. The company developed an antirotation device to stabilize heavy loads and created the shock and pendant lift to decouple the load from the aircraft and reduce vibrations during longline timber harvesting.
“Jack was always open to new ideas. For a lot of things, people would have said, ‘You can’t do that,’ but Erickson did,” says Chapman, who worked alongside the founder in the early days. “He was willing to try.”
By 1992, Erickson wanted control of the S-64’s type certificate. The aging fleet needed reliable support and parts supply as well as a solution for the frequent in-flight engine shutdowns plaguing the S-64 at the time, which Sikorsky lacked. In addition, the resourceful entrepreneur envisioned capitalizing on the aircraft’s unique design to expand its capabilities and his business.
That year, Erickson purchased the S-64 type certificate and renamed the aircraft the S-64 Air Crane. In acquiring the certificate, Erickson set the stage for rescuing the legacy S-64 from obsolescence and creating an aircraft modernization program that would extend the life of the fleet and give operators a truly versatile utility aircraft.
The Right Tool for the Job
Today, Erickson owns and operates 16 S-64 Air Cranes around the world for heavy-lift construction projects, timber harvesting, oil and gas support, and a whole lot of firefighting. Partnering with forest services, Erickson mobilizes its Air Cranes seasonally to fire hot spots—typically in the United States, Canada, Greece, Australia, South Korea, and Italy.
It’s a mission made possible because Erickson took its new type certificate and created a 2,650-gal. tank and fire-suppression system that attaches to the aircraft’s belly. With the tank, the S-64 can drop more than 25,000 gal. an hour. Along with ushering in an era of nimble aerial firefighting, the hydro-tank proved that the Air Crane could be a multipurpose tool akin to a Swiss Army knife.
“It’s not very fast. It isn’t made for going cross-country. It’s made for picking stuff up. Because of that, there are 32 hard points on the aircraft designed for bolting on equipment,” says Chapman, who has fought fires across the globe, including 25 seasons in Australia.
“We can bolt on the tank and take it off. We can bolt on gear for setting power-line towers and take that off. Erickson can build and adapt equipment for just about any mission. If you want to add a tank to the surplus military machines that are coming out, you likely have to make major structural modifications, usually cutting through the floor to put in the doors. From the onset, the Crane was designed to have systems added to it.”
In the years ahead, Erickson developed more bolt-on accessories—a water cannon for precise aiming, a Sea Snorkel for quickly scooping up water, and a hydraulic grapple that eliminated ground crews in logging operations, greatly increasing safety.
Despite its beefy airframe, the S-64 Air Crane feels remarkably maneuverable for a helicopter its size, according to Rich Foote, field maintenance aircraft manager for Erickson. “The Crane’s single-rotor system makes it so agile. It can juke and dive and do a lot of things other aircraft can’t.”
Chapman, who has logged some 17,000 flight hours in a variety of aircraft, agrees. “The S-64 doesn’t fly like a big helicopter. It looks kind of ungainly, like it would be sluggish, but it actually flies like a little helicopter. It’s amazing what it’s capable of. It’s so incredibly overpowered. The F model is certified for an external load of 25,000 lb., and it’ll do that quite handily, under certain conditions. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found,” says Chapman.
Adding to the aircraft’s unique design, the Air Crane features an aft-facing pilot seat for precision control of complex aerial heavy-lift operations such as transmission-line and infrastructure building projects.
“The big advantage is its productivity—the pounds per hour of wood, the picks per hour constructing towers, and the gallons per hour firefighting. It’s an expensive aircraft to operate, but when you compare its cost against hauling water in a truck or building roads or special scaffolding, it’s cheaper and faster,” says Chapman. “And it doesn’t have to be operations in rough terrain. We’ve built a lot of power lines on flat ground, setting as many as 105 structures in a day.”
Fifty Years Tackling Big Challenges
Erickson doesn’t shy away from unusual or difficult projects. Its engineers, fabricators, pilots, and maintenance technicians tackle them with pride—from relocating a 1,091-lb. endangered rhino in Borneo to placing 300-ft. communication towers weighing up to 18,000 lb. in rural Alaska to restoring sod and tundra in the Arctic.
Many times, accomplishing big missions means creating custom solutions as the team did in 1993 when Erickson was asked to remove the US Capitol’s massive, 19.5-ft., 15,000-lb. Statue of Freedom for restoration.
“I was involved in taking down and reinstalling the statue. I was underneath it when we were lining it up,” says Ralph Sembach, Erickson’s longtime product and technical support manager for the S-64. “They calculated the weight and thickness of the bronze statue and built a special, cagelike harness for it.”
The company names these hardworking helicopters—“Elvis,” “Olga,” “Isabelle,” “Lucille,” “Bubba,” “Incredible Hulk,” and so on, a trend picked up by other operators, including the Italian government.
“The Italians like to name their helicopters after famous Native Americans—‘Geronimo,’ ‘Toro Seduto,’ which is ‘Sitting Bull’ in Italian, ‘Aquila Rossa’ is ‘Red Eagle’; another is named ‘Cochise,’ ” says Sembach.
Whenever they’re out in the field, the aircraft’s unique, Instagram-worthy design—some say it resembles a giant dragonfly—along with its orange color, chosen by Jack Erickson, turns heads.
“It’s the big dog when it’s out there. Everybody wants to see it and get a picture in front of it,” says Foote, who’s worked at Erickson for more than 25 years.
A Dedicated Crew
Whether it’s logging timber or fighting fires, building bridges or placing power lines, such demanding work takes a toll on the aircraft. As part of its turnkey solution, Erickson supplies the S-64, pilots, and maintenance technicians, and manages the aircraft in the field. A dedicated maintenance team follows the Air Crane everywhere, a pit crew of sorts tending to the aircraft’s every fuel and maintenance need.
“The aircraft requires ongoing maintenance attention. We’re part of the daily operations. The assigned crew chief stays with the aircraft at all times along with a fuel truck and a service vehicle containing parts and consumables,” says Foote.
Technicians feed the S-64 fuel all day, then continue to work at night, visually inspecting the aircraft nose to tail; servicing fluids; looking for leaks, cracks, and worn parts; performing any necessary scheduled and unscheduled maintenance; and cleaning the aircraft so it’s ready for the morning. It can easily add up to a 16-hour day, according to Foote.
“Assigning a specific crew that knows the history and health of the aircraft means we can see things before they become a discrepancy. The continual maintenance keeps the aircraft flying, enhances safety, and leads to our operational readiness rate of 99% fighting fires in the US,” he says.
MRO, Manufacturing Expertise
Opened in 1997 in Central Point, Oregon, Erickson’s FAA Part 145 certified repair station performs maintenance, repair, and overhaul for its fleet of aircraft as well as those owned by third-party operators. Its sheet-metal experts fabricate components and light structural pieces. The company’s expansive warehouse stores rough forgings ready for machining and an extensive inventory of parts, which are shipped to operators worldwide.
As type certificate holder for the S-64 with OEM capabilities, Erickson offers in-house design, engineering, and production services, from creating mission-specific equipment to completely rebuilding legacy aircraft.
“We take old CH-54s, the military version of the S-64, and rebuild them with new skins, new formers, and new parts and pieces. We add all the improvements that Erickson has developed along the way, from ceiling materials and component connectors to the tail boom and parts on the landing gear. The aircraft is then about 90% new,” says Sembach. “Our goal is to make it last indefinitely.”
Over the past 50 years, Erickson’s engineers have made more than 1,350 improvements, large and small, to the S-64’s airframe, instruments, and payload capabilities. Still, the company continues to look for ways to improve and modernize the Air Crane, from adding a glass cockpit with night-vision capability to developing an automatic flight control system. Composite main rotor blades are one of the most recent and impactful additions.
“I flew the new composite blades last summer. At 8,500 ft. and 85 degrees, I could pick up an additional 700 gal. Plus, we noticed a slight decrease in the fuel burn because the aircraft wasn’t working as hard,” says Chapman. “The blades are just one more innovation. Erickson was the first to successfully log timber with a helicopter. We innovated many of the systems for power-line construction that improved productivity and safety.
We developed the tank for helicopter firefighting.”
Always Moving Forward
Today, Erickson employs 565 “problem solvers” who keep the global fleet of 30 S-64 Air Cranes flying, including the 14 owned by other operators. In addition to its civilian aviation services, Erickson flies, maintains, and modifies fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft for the US Department of Defense and other national security and government agencies. Erickson provides a variety of air services, from shipboard deliveries and troop transport to assisting with search-and-rescue missions, nighttime operations, and more.
As with any company, the accomplishments come with hardships—recessions, shifting regulations, declining log values, ownership changes, bankruptcy, pandemic-driven supply chain challenges, and more. Still, Erickson perseveres.
“It’s kind of like the US Marine Corps. Their slogan is ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome.’ That’s Erickson’s model. We keep going until we figure out how to make it work, to overcome the issue,” says Sembach. “We’re constantly pushing the aircraft to be more useful and more versatile.”
“We’re constantly working to ensure the Air Crane is always best in class. Most recently, in partnership with Helicopter Transport Services, we developed, produced, and received final FAA approval for the composite main rotor blades, allowing for increased performance and payload. We’re also finalizing flight testing on a new and improved water cannon that will really enhance the aircraft’s capabilities and effectiveness for a variety of mission types, including urban firefighting,” says Brittany Black, senior vice president of sales, marketing and business development, who has worked for Erickson for nearly six years.
Clearly, Jack Erickson’s pushing hard during the company’s early days has instilled a cultural mindset of try, try, and try again until it works. The employees continually tweak, add to, and perfect the S-64.
“It’s easy to just see the airframe. It’s an impressive machine. But we can’t forget the people. The real asset is the people who keep the aircraft flying, making sure that it’s operated safely and accomplishing the mission. I don’t think anyone realizes the commitment, amount of care, and maintenance that go into making sure these machines stay in great condition. I know from experience, when you’re a crew chief, the aircraft becomes a part of your life. I love that machine. I’ve spent more time with the Air Crane than with my own kids,” says Foote, who served as crew chief for “Incredible Hulk.” “It’s a labor of love. There’s an enormous amount of pride.”