Helicopters hauling buckets full of water had been used for years, but it was Erickson’s innovations that transformed the Aircrane into one of the world’s most effective firefighting machines. Dick Foy (later to manage the company) designed a huge tank that carried 2,500 gallons of water. Triangular in cross section, it fit neatly under the Aircrane. “Bomb bay” doors on the bottom opened to release the water. In the cockpit, pilots could control the dispersal pattern and amount of water dropped. Landing to fill such a large tank from a hose kept the helicopter idle for too long, so Erickson devised methods for filling it “on the fly.” If the source of water is fairly small, a snorkel is dropped from the hovering helicopter and a powerful pump fills the tank in less than a minute. If the water source is large enough, the helicopter can lower a hydrofoil resembling a small manta ray at the end of a large tube. As the helicopter flies at a steady 30 feet and 30 knots, the device dives under the surface and water is forced through orifices in its leading edge up through the tube and into the tank. No power other than the forward motion of the helicopter is necessary — but that’s enough to put more than 2,500 gallons on board in 30 seconds. These systems are so effective that an Aircrane can deliver 30,000 gallons, precisely where it is needed, in about an hour.
Aircranes have fought fires in countries all around the world (Italian and Korean governments have each bought four Aircranes for fire suppression), but they really came to the world’s attention in Australia. In December 2001, during the height of the Australian summer, fires raged around Sydney. For five days Elvis, flown by Kenny Chapman and Grant White, was in the air constantly. Chapman and White were credited with saving more than 300 homes and even a small town. Their efforts made them, and the Aircrane, national heroes.
The skills necessary to fly an aircraft accurately in the extreme conditions the Aircrane encounters are not found just anywhere. (Just as an exercise in armchair piloting, imagine controlling a large flying machine, close to the ground, while it gains or loses more than 10 tons in less than a minute!) Pilot Rob Chambers, one of the youngest of Erickson’s pilots at age 43, has about 2,000 hours in the Crane. He came on board after 10 years of flying smaller helicopters for another company.
“The first thing you learn about the Crane,” Rob said, “is that it is flown by a team. The Crane has steps, like ladders, all over the airframe. When we start the engines, our ground crew climbs those steps, right up there under the spinning rotors and by the jet exhaust, looking for blown hoses, leaks, anything that might give us a problem. In the air, there’s no way one pilot can fly a Crane. For one thing, the throttles are on an overhead console, so if I’ve got one hand on the collective and the other on the cyclic, I’m depending on the other guy to run the engines, handle the center console and keep situational awareness. When we’re fighting fire, there are usually just two of us. When we are setting towers or doing precise construction work, we have another pilot in the rear seat. He works with guys on the ground — or more likely, strapped onto a tower hundreds of feet above the ground — and together they have to fly the load accurately enough to align bolt holes. Two hours of this kind of work and you’re really ready to trade seats and let the other pilots take a turn.”
Erickson operates its own fleet of 17 Aircranes all over the world. In the front office, Brenda Peterson, aka “Chief Chick,” keeps track of the aircraft, the crews and the support on a board that spans the wall overlooking two more Aircranes being built in the main hangar. Six clocks above the hangar window help her keep track of the time zones in which her “chicks” are flying.
This winter, you could find Aircranes setting transmission towers in California, harvesting logs in Malaysia, fighting fire in Australia and building 1,400-foot-tall communications antennas in Nevada. If necessary, in a very short time, they could be rescuing people trapped on the roof of a burning high-rise, delivering an essential bulldozer, stringing cable across a canyon or transporting a small building to a remote site. They fly in the Arctic, in jungles and in deserts. The pilots who fly them consider them the most versatile flying machines ever devised by man.
Somewhere, Igor Sikorsky is smiling.