September October, 2004




Innovation Keeps Erickson Air-Crane Flying High

The heli harvester is a proto-type developed by subsidiary, Canadian Air-Crane. It’s cut-to-length from the air. The pilot lowers the grapple saw down the stem of a standing tree and cuts at the desired length. The grapple saw is still in development.

By Bob Bruce

In the early 1970’s, Erickson Air-Crane entered the helicopter logging business with the purchase of a heavy lift capacity Sikorsky S-64E Skycranes. These helicopters, originally designed for and sold to the military, are capable of lifting and transporting payloads of up to 20,000 pounds from terrain that would be inaccessible to conventional ground equipment. Despite the high cost of operation (around $5,000 per hour of flight time) company founder, Jack Erickson, and his crew spent long hours developing an efficient heli-harvesting plan that would eventually prove to be, by far, the most economical and efficient method when harvesting large timber from remote locations.

By the late 1990’s — with the harvestable supply of big timber diminishing — the company found they needed to re-think some of their services if they were to remain competitive. They had already successfully expanded into firefighting and heavy construction — two applications that were well suited to the S-64’s heavy lift abilities. “We think that in order to maintain a healthy business, we want to have a diversity of markets,” says Erickson CEO Ralph Torney. “The pie slices vary from year to year naturally. Last year was a very hot fire season for example, so firefighting was probably around 45 percent of our market, with logging about 40 percent and construction the remaining 15 percent.”

Firefighting has generally been a growing percentage of the company’s business in recent years Erickson engineers have responded with a number of innovations that have greatly improved the speed of water tank refilling, the adaptability of the water refilling system itself (they now have a ram scoop hydrofoil that refills in sea water in 30 seconds and a flexible hover snorkel that can siphon water from water as shallow as 18 inches) and — with computer-controlled release doors and a new aerial water gun — the ability to more accurately delivery water to the fire.

All these improvements are significant given the dangerously high fuel loads in many regions of the Western states, along with the increased frequency of “interface” fires — residential property fires that take place in what are essentially forest environments; a condition brought about by the public’s increased desire to live a more “rural” lifestyle. Heavy construction — which includes power line construction, moving oil rigs, pouring cement, and transporting ground based heavy equipment into and out of remote locations — will probably always be a viable component of Erickson’s business model since the needs of the task are so closely matched to the capabilities of the equipment.

The hot saw grapple was created to harvest timber in areas where trees have been downed due to heavy winds.

With regards to timber harvesting however, with the industry shifting (of necessity) toward small-stem second and third growth harvests, the challenge was to either find a way to make small-stem harvesting cost-effective for the big S-64’s, or invest in a fleet of smaller (and less costly to operate) helicopters. They decided to stay with what they knew. “A lot of our competitors have the medium and smaller helicopters, and they do a great job with them,” says Torney. “We felt that we have a specialty product and that our management’s attention and our resources and energy were better spent focusing on the S-64 to make it a better Aircrane.” In terms of developing new and more efficient ways of meeting the needs of the marketplace, Erickson came up with three main innovations: hydraulic grapple retrieval, single stem harvesting, and small-diameter bundling. While all three improvements are very much related, they each address separate concerns and opportunities.

The primary benefit of the hydraulic grapple is that it eliminates the need for ground crews to set chokers, thus cutting down on manpower needs and increasing worker safety. The grapple also lets the aircrane fly bundles of small-diameter logs rather than a single log at a time — an approach that uses the helicopter’s full lift capacity and increases cost-effectiveness. Ground crews stack the timber in approximately 7 cubic meter unstrapped bundles, and the aircrane swoops in, snatches the bundle with the grapple, and transports it to the landing. By developing a way to suspend and control the grapple horizontally, Erickson has come up with a technique they call Standing Stem harvesting.

A ground crew limbs and tops the selected trees, and flat-cuts the base leaving just enough holding wood to keep it from falling. The aircrane can then fly in, grab the top of the tree with the grapple, snap it off the stump, and take it to the landing. Because the stem doesn’t fall to ground, it doesn’t run the risk of breaking or splintering. The result is a very high quality product. In fact, Erickson has been performing standing stem removal for Weyerhaeuser for some time under a program they call “diamond picking.” According to one report, the method has yielded up to 30 percent more volume and thus 30 percent more value compared to a traditional harvest. Erickson has always been more than just an operator of the S-64’s — from the beginning they had to re-purpose the airframes from military to commercial use, and then maintain the machines in top flying condition.

In 1992 Erickson purchased what is known as the “type certificate” from Sikorsky so that the helicopters officially switched identity from being Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes to S-64 Erickson Air-Cranes. Taking the process even further, just recently Erickson received supplemental type certificate approval for their unique redesign of the S-64’s cockpit from traditional analogue readouts to all-digital multifunction displays — something they call the “glass cockpit.”.

Within a few years, according to Torney, the company plans to be building new S-64’s from the keel up. “We think the aircrane fulfills a real niche market,” said Erickson. “It was the only helicopter that was designed at that weight category specifically for lifting — other helicopters that size were designed primarily for internal loads.” Sikorsky is not producing any new versions of the S-64, and Torney believes the result is a strong market opportunity for Erickson. “There are none [of these type of aircraft] on the drawing boards, and I don’t think there is going to be an aerospace company that will go to the expense of doing the research and development for a heavy lift helicopter of this size.”

As a result, Erickson is positioned to become not only the sole supplier of the S-64 to other companies, but the primary service provider flying the Aircrane heavy-lift helicopters on contract. It is a combination that bodes well for Erickson. Torney has a similar optimism about the timber industry in general, and the Pacific Northwest timber industry in particular. “I’m probably more optimistic about the timber industry on the West Coast in general now than I was five years ago,” says Torney. “I am in very strong disagreement with those people that say we have a sunset industry. “From Northern California to Alaska, we’ve gone through more changes in the last ten years than most people deserve to do in a lifetime, but I think we’re through it. I think the industry is full of smart, innovative people, and I believe we’re going to have a very healthy coastal industry.”


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This page was last updated on Saturday, November 20, 2004