Almost immediately they found that flying from the aft-facing seat, while it was perfect for precision work from a hover, just didn’t work for the large load changes and rapid climbs and descents logging required. The S-61 pilots had learned to fly the long cable from the left seat, twisting around until they could see it swing, more than 100 feet below. But in the Crane, the left seat was almost two feet inboard of the door, and there was no way to see down and out. Erickson parked the Crane and told the Sikorsky crew that the seat and controls would have to move over to the far left side of the cockpit. They immediately pointed out that making such drastic changes would require considerable engineering and fabrication, not to mention FAA approval.
“Move that goddamn seat over,” Erickson told them, “and let me worry about the FAA. I want this thing back in the air tomorrow.”
During the night, Erickson’s millworkers welded up brackets for the seat and modified the collective lever. Erickson called an FAA inspector he knew in Reno, Nevada, and told him about the modifications that were already under way. The inspector left Reno in the small hours of the morning, drove to the western slope of the Sierras and issued a Form 337 approving the mods. The aircraft was flying shortly after sunup.
As good as the Cranes were, they were now being operated in ways and on schedules the designers never considered. A typical logging turn might consist of picking up a 15,000-pound load of logs with a cable and grapple, lifting it clear of the surrounding forest and then descending at 4,000 fpm to a valley floor a couple of thousand feet lower. The logs would be swung onto “deck” and released, and the helicopter would head back up the hill, again at 4,000 fpm. The entire cycle would take a couple of minutes. The wear began to tell on the machinery, and there was only so much maintenance that could be performed in the woods.
Major assemblies, like gear boxes and rotor heads, had to be shipped to Sikorsky for maintenance and overhaul. With Erickson on one coast and Sikorsky on the other, it was a difficult logistical problem.
Operator Becomes Owner
The gear boxes finally brought the situation to a head. When two of them failed in the field after less than an hour of flying, a helicopter had to be grounded. Fuming, Erickson took the red-eye east and showed up at the head offices of United Technologies (by then the parent corporation of Sikorsky) first thing in the morning. If anybody had thought to film the ensuing encounter between the corporate suits and the irate logger, still dressed in jeans and boots, it could still go viral today. (The problem was eventually found to be Sikorsky’s own test rig, which was improperly calibrated and was putting about twice as much power into the gear boxes as they were designed to handle. They were on the ragged edge when they were shipped west, and failed almost immediately when they were installed on the aircraft.)
Distance, and Sikorsky’s increasing reluctance to support a few aging aircraft, led Erickson to a simple, if expensive, solution. In 1994, he bought the type certificate for the S-64 helicopter, along with Sikorsky’s tooling and maintenance data, and moved the craft west. The man who had wanted to see if a helicopter could haul logs was now in the heavy-lift business.
Logging is a seasonal trade, so Erickson was always looking for ways to keep his fleet of Aircranes employed. (Erickson’s aircraft are called Aircranes and, like boats, are known by names: Camille, Goliath, Peaches, Incredible Hulk and many more.) He found a real niche in fighting fire.
Now housed in a modest cluster of buildings in Central Point, Erickson Air-Crane supports Aircranes and Skycranes worldwide. It can, and does, build major airframe components like fuselages and tail booms. It tests overhauled engines in its own test cell. It overhauls gear boxes and rotor heads.
Although it has not yet built an Aircrane from scratch, it has the ability and the part manufacturing authority (PMA) to do just that if a customer comes forward. What it has done is to fully remanufacture almost half the airframes remaining. When they are done, the data plate reads “Erickson Air-Crane,” and the S-64F Aircrane is essentially a new aircraft with 9,600 shaft horsepower on tap. It can lift 25,000 pounds and place it within an inch or two using an automatic flight control system to aid stability.