Erickson Air-Crane: Back-Seat Driving

Using the Erickson Air-Crane in construction projects is an exercise in communication, trust and skill.

Erickson Air-Crane

Erickson Air-Crane

Erickson Air-Crane

Placing large loads onto small pins using an Erickson Air-Crane, a machine with 9,600 shaft horsepower and a 72-foot rotor, is a bit like threading a needle with a leaf blower. The key is the back-seat driver.

Unique among helicopters, the Erickson Air-Crane has a third pilot’s seat, facing aft toward the tail rotor. An enclosure similar to a glassed-in phone booth contains flight controls that operate the helicopter’s trim systems, making small adjustments possible. Perched on the tiny cushion, the rear pilot has a perfect view of the area beneath the machine.

A National Geographic crew filmed Max Evans in Olga as he assembled a 1,400-foot-tall TV tower using the Erickson Air-Crane. It’s a carefully choreographed job, including a crew in the helicopter and another on the tower. Watching Max fly tons of roaring machine and dangling steel is like watching Rembrandt paint. … Small, almost imperceptible movements put each tower section exactly on the pins of the tower section below. An error of just a couple of feet could kill one of the tower crew, so the operation is an exercise in communication, skill and trust.

When the tower section slides over the pins, Max lowers the aircraft slightly to put slack in the cables, triggers the release clamps and then lifts up and away as the guys on the tower start ratcheting down nuts. He’ll get a minute or two to relax as the front-seat crew flies back to the staging site, and then he’ll do it all again.