Sikorsky built three prototypes and began flying in 1962. Interestingly, the West German government bought two of the first three, but the design really found its home with the U.S. Army. Over the next several years Sikorsky delivered 95 CH-54 Tarhe Skycranes, including the improved CH-54B model with bigger engines and a higher lift capacity.
The Army put them to work in Vietnam, using them to deliver artillery pieces, retrieve downed aircraft, move cargo and unload ships … and sometimes in ways Sikorsky had never envisioned. Veteran Army aviator Dale Kemp flew the Skycrane on active duty in Southeast Asia in 1971.
“One of our more unusual missions was as a heavy bomber,” he remembered. “We’d carry 10,000-pound ‘daisy cutter’ bombs. They had proximity fuses and would explode just above the ground. The blast blew away enough vegetation that smaller helicopters could land in the clearing.”
As the end of military Skycrane production became visible, Sikorsky accelerated its efforts to find a civilian market. Between 1967 and 1971, team members from Sikorsky took a Skycrane on the road, demonstrating its capabilities every way they could. They unloaded container ships in Connecticut, delivered sand rigs to drill platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, set electrical transmission towers in otherwise inaccessible swamps of Louisiana and supported oil exploration on the North Slope of Alaska. They didn’t sell a single one.
A Rugged Vision
The man who finally put the Skycrane to work in the civilian world was a logging contractor named Jack Erickson. His father, Axel, had founded the Erickson Lumber Co. before World War II, and the company was known for inventing innovative ways to pull huge logs out of Oregon and California forests. In 1971 a logging sale became available, at very attractive rates but in extremely steep and rugged country. Putting in roads and taking out logs by truck would have been prohibitively expensive, so Jack started wondering if a big helicopter could do the job. It was a natural thing for him to do. Ten years earlier he’d received his helicopter rating — in three days.
“Back in 1960 Wes Lamatta, who ran a company called Columbia Helicopters, had a Bell he wanted to sell,” Erickson said. “I said I’d buy it if he taught me to fly helicopters. … I’d been flying fixed-wing since 1953. I started with Wes on Monday. By early Wednesday, I had the 15 hours of solo that was required at the time. I took my check ride that afternoon, and by evening I was on my way to Canada in the Bell. So when I wanted to try helicopters in the logging business, I went to Wes. He brought his Sikorsky S-61 out from Denver and we partnered up.”
They learned that the S-61 was just not enough helicopter. It could lift about 6,000 pounds, but a “turn” of 10 logs might average 18,000 pounds. Taking logs out two or three at a time wasn’t viable. Erickson immediately thought of the Skycrane.
As it happened, Sikorsky had five of them sitting on the ramp. Erickson hammered together an agreement to lease a Skycrane for a year and buy it if it could do the job. Sikorsky flew a “Crane” from Connecticut to California, where it and Erickson set about learning how to make it productive in this new and very demanding environment. It was an interesting mix of cultures — the industry mindset of Sikorsky, used to engineering studies, prolonged testing and government regulation, and Erickson’s “do what you’ve got to do to make it work” philosophy of a deep-woods logging operation.