The phone rang — it was my dad, and it was bad news.
“I’m standing on the sand,” he said, using a phone borrowed from the resident of a Malibu beach house. “I’m looking up the hill and the fire’s heading right for our house. The guys fighting it on the ground can’t get in there. The only hope we’ve got is those big helicopters. One of them’s filling up right behind me.”
In the background I could hear roaring turbines and whopping rotors. Living in Oregon, I knew exactly which big helicopters he meant. The huge orange Sikorsky Skycranes owned by Erickson Air-Crane are based in the southern Oregon town of Central Point. Now, with southern California burning up, they’d flown south and were in the air constantly, pumping tons of water out of the ocean and delivering it minutes later into otherwise inaccessible folded hills and canyons, trying desperately to save homes, stables and entire communities.
As it turned out, nothing — helicopter or otherwise — could have saved my childhood home, but Skycranes have certainly saved others … perhaps thousands of others. And they’ve also delivered towers to mountaintops, air-conditioners to skyscrapers and the injured to hospitals. They’ve hauled timber without needing roads and pulled wrecked aircraft out of combat zones. The bronze Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol? A Skycrane put it there.
A Big Idea
Designed half a century ago, the Skycrane derived from an idea promoted by Igor Sikorsky himself. In 1955, he proposed a helicopter that would carry all its loads externally. A minimal airframe would consist of just the structure necessary to hold the engines, rotors, fuel and crew. Unencumbered by doors or internal dimensions of a cabin fuselage, it would handle objects of sizes and shapes that could never be carried internally. Essentially, it would be a crane that was free to move in three dimensions. The only restriction would be the amount of lifting capacity available — and that could be overcome by building a very big, very powerful helicopter.
Sikorsky’s first effort at a “sky crane” was the S-60, which flew in 1959. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 piston radial engines, it was essentially a “backbone” fuselage with a tail rotor on one end, a cabin for a crew of two seated in tandem in a pod on the front, and a big rotor in the middle. The engines were mounted in pods, high on each side. Long, spindly landing gear allowed the helicopter to sit high off the ground and straddle loads. The rear-seater could turn his seat around and fly facing the load.
The S-60 did its job, demonstrating the usefulness of the crane idea and impressing military planners and buyers. But it wasn’t really a practical machine. The piston engines were at the limit of their development. It was obvious that lighter and more powerful turbine engines would be the key to the crane concept. By the time the S-60 was lost in an accident in 1961, its turbine-powered successor was well under way.
Powered by two Pratt & Whitney JFTD12A turboshafts producing about 4,000 shaft horsepower each, the S-64 Skycrane reminded many people of a huge insect. It does look like one, if you can imagine an insect 88 feet long and weighing 10 tons with a six-blade fan 72 feet in diameter on its back. The engines and immense transmission were mounted in the open on top of the fuselage. The aft-facing pilot feature pioneered on the S-60 was retained, although it required an extra crew member. A large winch could lift loads up to the hovering aircraft, or the craft could simply straddle loads the size of a large bus, hook on and fly away.
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.
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.
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.