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Flying High in a Low Log Market

Erickson Air-Crane specializes in versatility

By Jeff Mullins

Skyrocketing fuel prices and depressed log markets have many timber harvesting operations struggling to survive, but Erickson Air-Crane’s (EAC) niche in the industry enables them to have steady work.

John Smith, manager of Erickson’s Canadian division, says, “Like everyone else, we have had to make adjustments, but we currently have four helicopters logging and, even at peak times, we have had only six helicopters supporting timber harvests.” Smith attributes the company’s steady demand to its unique machines and methods, which meet an industry need that can be met in no other way.

Manufacturing Aircraft
Although timber harvesting is one very visible part of Erickson’s business, the Central Point, Oregon-based company’s primary focus is the manufacture, operation, and support of the S-64 Aircranes worldwide.

In addition to harvesting timber, which accounts for 60 percent of their flying time, the company’s 18 Aircranes are extensively used in construction and firefighting as well as hydro-seeding and providing emergency response.

Working Worldwide
Since its founding in 1971, Erickson has experienced constant growth and today employs more than 900 people worldwide.Growing demand has led to establishing subsidiaries, which include Canadian Air-Crane Ltd. (British Columbia, Canada, 1985), Erickson Air-Crane Malaysia Sdn. Bhd. (Miri, Malaysia, 1993), and European Air-Crane S.p.A., headquartered in Florence, Italy, in 1999.

Whether harvesting timber in Malaysia, fighting fires in Greece, or erecting an 1850 foot tower in Ontario, it is the versatility and utility of Erickson’s fleet of S-64 Aircranes that generates a demand for their services. Over its 37-year history, Erickson’s helicopters have flown nearly 250,000 hours to harvest timber in 5 countries, fight fires in 11 countries, place more than 40,000 air units on skyscrapers across the United States, and build over 8,000 miles of power lines in North America.

John Smith explains that although helicopter operations are relatively expensive, when there is no other way to get the job done, using an Aircrane is both economical and efficient. He admits, “When conventional means can be used to harvest timber, then using a helicopter is not the most economical option. But when the harvesting of high value wood is limited by access, geography, and environmental considerations, then helicopter logging becomes viable and financially feasible.” Smith emphasizes that although sometimes romanticized, logging with helicopters is constrained by overhead and the market, just like every other type of logging operation.

Operating in a Tight Economy
In the spring of 2008, even in a depressed timber market when fuel costs were escalating, EAC was flying three S64 Air-cranes in British Columbia to harvest timber. John Smith explains that although the market is down for most species, BC’s Western Red Cedar is bringing a good price that makes it economical to use helicopters to harvest large stems in inaccessible locations.

All of EAC’s harvest operations utilize a grapple suspended 200 feet below the S-64 Aircrane to remove stems from forests and transport them to landings. When terrain and harvest prescriptions allow, trees are felled, limbed, and topped. When the fallers are clear of the area, full-length stems are grappled and whisked to landings in a matter of seconds. Pilots strive for efficiency by grappling a full turn of stems that approach the S-64’s 20,000 pound lifting capacity. Sometimes multiple landings are used to keep the wood flowing at the S-64’s maximum production rate.

Standing Stem Harvests
Erickson also utilizes “standing stem” harvests where terrain, concern for log quality, or environmental concerns dictate. In this method, trees containing between 1100 and 1500 board feet each are topped at diameters between 4-8 inches, completely limbed, and then cut so the tree stump has only one inch of holding wood slightly offset from center, but the bole is still standing.” Several trees are prepared in this way at one time.

Flagging ribbons mark treetops, and arrows formed of ribbons on the ground instruct pilots which way to pull to “fell” the trees. When the area is clear of ground personnel, S-64 pilots use horizontal grapples to grab the standing stem 20-30 feet down from the top. A slight pull in the direction of the ground arrow snaps the holding wood and the freed stem is flown to the landing.

Standing stem harvests are profitable when each high value tree has a weight that approaches the full capacity of the S-64 Aircrane. This method allows productive harvesting of large trees in treacherous terrain where felling them onto steep ground would shatter them into useless fragments. At the mill, another advantage has also been realized.

Weyerhaeuser has compared fiber recovered from logs produced by standing stem harvests with those felled to the ground. They have found that “ground felled” trees, in addition to the obvious breakage, often have internal cracks that reduce recovery while standing stem harvests are free from such defects.

The helicopter costs for standing stem harvests are the same as ground felled harvest, but the felling costs are nearly 2.5 times as much. However, the ability to harvest otherwise un-harvestable trees, as well as the upticks in yield, more than offset the higher felling expenses.

An Environmental Solution
The environmental advantages helicopter logging provides over ground logging operations are significant as well. John Smith says that the demand for helicopter logging increases in proportion to environmental concerns. He explains, “There is a growing resistance to building roads, especially across steep hillsides. We offer a means to harvest those same areas with no roads, and wherever we harvest there is essentially no impact upon the ground.”

Another benefit to aerial harvest is the ability to remove as much as 60 percent of the fiber from a stand without leaving behind a visible blemish of any kind. Smith says this allows harvest of trees from areas near roads and population centers where opposition to ground operations may prove prohibitive.

Erickson has explored using its Aircranes to fly pre-bundled turns of smaller wood to landings. In this method, mechanized equipment assembles turns sized to the S-64’s grapple and the helicopter advances the fiber to a landing. Although an economically viable harvesting technique during a strong market, current low log prices make it cost prohibitive.

Construction and Firefighting
In addition to EAC’s timber harvesting operations, the services Erickson’s Aircranes provide continue to be in high demand for particular construction functions and firefighting operations. EAC’s innovation has enabled the company to routinely secure firefighting contracts.

A computer-controlled fire retardant delivery system automatically adjusts flow from a 2,650 gallon tank to match air speed to obtain the desired retardant coverage. More maneuverable than fixed-wing tankers, the S-64 can refill in 45 seconds or less in any water source as shallow as 18 inches. These features enable precise delivery of up to 30,000 gallons an hour to a fire.

Like every other timber harvesting operation, Erickson Air-Crane finds slow times and high overhead to be concerns for their operation. However, innovation and providing a unique unequalled service allow them to continue operating profitably, even during the slow times.

John Smith says that the future looks bright for helicopter logging as environmental concerns and awareness grow. He also expresses confidence that the log market will rebound in the future, and there will be even more opportunities for all types of logging operations when that time comes.