I captured some pictures of N237AC at the Medford Airport on June 16th doing some ground tests. This S-64 is destined for the Italian Forest Service sometime this year. After doing their ground tests they returned to Erickson’s Willow Springs facility in Central Point, Oregon.
Erickson Incorporated, operator of large firefighting helicopters, is cutting the pay and requiring furloughs for some of their employees. The Digital Marketing Manager for the company, Christina Kalman, describes it as temporary:
Consistent with peers in our industry, Erickson is taking precautionary measures on a short-term and temporary basis to protect against additional future impacts and the unexpected costs caused by the global pandemic. As part of this effort, a portion of our employees, including the CEO and all members of the management team, will participate in a temporary pay reduction or short-term furlough program in May and June.
Erickson manufactures, owns, and operates large Type 1 Air-Crane helicopters that are used around the world for firefighting and construction. In April after the bushfire season ended in Australia they loaded approximately half a dozen of them onto a ship for a weeks-long voyage to Greece for the northern hemisphere fire season, arriving May 4. The company now has six Air-Cranes in Greece, Ms. Kalman said.
A person might assume that companies involved in aerial firefighting with multi-year contracts could weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well, however they could have increases in operating costs related to managing their personnel and equipment. Their employees might also be quarantined or stricken by the disease, creating staffing challenges. Erickson is involved in much more than firefighting and works extensively for the military. They also sell helicopters, recently delivering two Air-Cranes to the Korea Forest Service.
One issue that could be causing stress for operators of large helicopters is, as we wrote April 22, the four-year U.S. Forest Service exclusive use (EU) contracts for Type 1 firefighting helicopters issued in 2016 expired April 30, 2020. Since new contracts based on the solicitation issued November 15, 2019 have not yet been awarded, the USFS has given 30-day contracts to a handful of vendors. The agency has refused to provide to us any details about the 30-day contracts, but Fire Aviation has learned that approximately five to seven helicopters are presently working on 30-day deals.
Since many of the USFS procurement actions for firefighting aircraft are protested, which delays activation for several months, these 90-day contracts for up to 30 helicopters may be a safety net in case of a protest, in addition to filling the void while there are no long term contracts. If a company receives one of the Type 1 EU contracts, the Forest Service’s solicitation states, they “will then remove your awarded helicopter from consideration for this one-time [90-day] opportunity.”
With the shadow of the pandemic affecting everyday life this is a bad time for the USFS’s dysfunctional aircraft contracting operation to again be too slow in processing a contract that should have been awarded no later than November, 2019 in order to allow time for the typical protests and still be functional from March through November.
Several years ago Erickson grew to the point that they were no longer qualified to bid on USFS helicopter contracts that were limited to “small businesses”. But after their chapter 11 reorganization in 2017, Erickson emerged with new owners and a new ownership structure and the Small Business Administration restored their “small business” status. Ms. Kalman said Erickson submitted a proposal for the latest Type 1 EU contract and is hopeful for an award.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined that the Air-Crane helicopter that crashed into a lake January 28, 2019 in Victoria, Australia was a victim of vortex ring state (VRS). The accident occurred on a firefighting mission as it descended to draft water at a narrow lake with steep sides.
From the report released April 17, 2020:
The topography, high rate of powered descent, and steep flare that reduced the airspeed, created conditions conducive to the onset of VRS. The crew reported that the rapidity of onset and dimensions of the dip site did not provide enough time or space to maneuver sideways to effect a recovery.
If the helicopter was attempting to hover to draft water to refill its tanks, the fairly narrow section of the lake with what appears to be steep rising terrain nearby may have been a factor in the confined space. The Air-Crane has six blades on the main rotor with a diameter of 72 feet. It may have encountered what helicopter pilots refer to as a “Vortex Ring State” or VRS. The canyon slopes may have prevented the massive rotor wash from diffusing and could have caused the cushion of air beneath it to become chaotic as the helicopter neared the water surface, reducing lift.
VRS in addition to density altitude was a factor in the crash of the MH-X Silent Hawk that transported Seal Team 6 as they attacked the hideout of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The helicopter was landing inside a yard surrounded by high walls when it lost lift. The pilots had practiced landing in a full-scale model of the site, but the walls in the model were represented by chain link fencing material, and were not solid like the walls around Osama bin Laden’s house. The rotor wash would have been more easily diffused through the chain link fence during the rehearsals.
…After a number of water drops, the aerial attack supervisor (AAS) re-tasked the crew to fight a flame front further north, which was east-northeast from the dip site. Each drop was also incrementally further north. This resulted in the crew gradually tightening the approach to the dip site.
During the occurrence approach, the tighter approach resulted in a greater than normal flare to arrest the aircraft at the aiming point in the dip site. The higher nose pitch up prompted the SIC to advise the PIC to move forward of the trees before descending any further to ensure tail rotor clearance. Clear of the trees, the flare was increased.
While descending with a nose-high attitude, the aircraft struck the water tail-first, submerging and removing the tail rotor, causing rapid rotation to the right through one and half turns. While rotating, the main rotor blades separated as they contacted water. The right cockpit door separated from the fuselage, and the aircraft came to rest on its left side, submerging the cockpit.
Each crewmember recalled the rehearsed drills from their helicopter underwater escape training (HUET). They identified their seat belt and nearest exit to orientate themselves in the aircraft. They all waited until the last moment to draw a breath, and did not unbuckle and exit the helicopter until motion had ceased. The crew reported that it was not possible to see anything underwater, and that jet fuel contamination was present.
The SIC in the right seat exited through his doorway, from which the door was already missing. The PIC could not open his door so he swam across the cabin (up) and was assisted by the SIC to exit through the right hand door. As the rear door was jammed, the crew chief in the aft seat pushed out a window from the rear of the cabin, and exited through it.
Neither pilot unplugged their helmet. However, the extension cords from the aircraft to the helmet plug allowed the plug to release, preventing the helmets from snaring the pilots. All three crew escaped, and inflated their life jackets. Two crew were uninjured, and one crewmember sustained a knee injury.
At the time of the accident, crews aboard S-76 and S-61N helicopters were assessing the potential of the dip site for later use in night operations. An AAS aboard the S-76 relayed details of the accident to an incident controller who enacted the emergency response plan. Neither the S-76 nor the S-61N was equipped or able to provide direct assistance, other than monitoring, and relaying information. Following exit from the helicopter, the only form of communication available to the Skycrane crew was hand signals. They gave thumbs-up indications to the crew of the overhead S-61N to advise that they were okay. The Skycrane crew then swam to shore and trekked through dense bush to a road where they were met by rescuers.
Findings These findings should not be read as apportioning blame or liability to any particular organization or individual.
The crew conducted a tight descending right hand turn into the dam [lake], inside the upper margins of the flight envelope. This approach required a steep flare on arrival and likely resulted in the rapid onset of vortex ring state.
The dam’s [lake’s] steep sides and narrow tapered body provided limited opportunity for vortex ring state recovery actions, contributing to collision with water.
The Crew Chief’s presence aboard the aircraft during firebombing operations exposed him to unnecessary risk.
All crewmembers credited their survival to skills learned and practiced in Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. In addition, the helmet cord extension cables detached easily from the aircraft, contributing directly to the crew’s egress from the flooded cockpit.
Erickson Incorporated announced this week that the company has received FAA approval for composite main rotor blades for S-64 and CH-54 helicopters.
After many years of manufacturing metal blades, the company invested in the future of the S-64 by designing, certifying, and building composite main rotor blades that will bring many benefits. Erickson began the process of designing the new blades in 2008, working closely with the FAA and various industry partners. In 2013 they collaborated with Helicopter Transport Services (HTS), so the blades could be utilized on CH-54 rotorcraft as well.
To maintain close control of blade manufacture, Erickson built a composite manufacturing facility from scratch in 2015. After thousands of hours of design, testing, and analysis by their engineers and partners, the new composite main rotor blades are now approved by the FAA for the S-64E with an initial life that will increase as fatigue testing continues. Certification for the CH-54A is expected to follow quickly in the coming weeks, and certification for the S-64F and CH-54B should be received this summer.
In February Erickson announced the S-64F+ which will have composite main rotor blades, an enhanced cockpit and flight control system, an improved water cannon, and what the company calls a modern engine enhancing range and fuel efficiency.
Erickson, the manufacturer and operator of the S-64 Air Crane helicopter, has announced a new venture with Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company. They intend to develop a new “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”, integrating Sikorsky’s MATRIX™ Technology into a digitally enabled fire management system never-before used in night firefighting. Erickson said it will enhance cockpit awareness and flight crew safety during day and night operations.
We have asked Erickson for more information, but it sounds like it could operate with or without a pilot on board, in other words, remotely piloted or autonomous.
Systems intelligence that will give operators the confidence to fly their large rotorcraft safely, reliably and affordably as autonomous or optionally piloted aircraft.
Air Cranes, which are sometimes referred to as helitankers, can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water.
A new Air Crane model
Erickson also announced a new production line of the legacy Air Crane helicopter, introducing the S-64F+.
The upgraded model will include composite main rotor blades, an enhanced cockpit and flight control system, an improved water cannon, and what the company calls a modern engine enhancing range and fuel efficiency.
This month Erickson Incorporated delivered another Air Crane firefighting helicopter to the Korea Forest Service (KFS), completing the delivery of the latest two-aircraft order. Another S-64 was delivered to the KFS in November. This brings the KFS operational fleet up to six S-64 Air Crane helicopters.
In 2001, KFS became the first foreign government to purchase S-64 helicopters from Erickson. The recently delivered versions have composite main rotor blades and glass cockpits. Some of the S-64 helicopters in the KFS fleet have the optional front-mounted water cannon.
Flight Global reports that the helicopter delivered in December, registration HJ9659, is a re-manufactured aircraft built by Sikorsky in 1968 that has been out of service since 1993. Erickson purchased it in November 2018.
Two S-64 helicopters have crashed while hover refilling in the last six years. One owned and operated by the KFS crashed into a lake May 9, 2013 near the Andong Dam, Kyeongbuk Province, South Korea. The two pilots died at the scene and a maintenance crew chief on board sustained serious injuries. On January 28, 2019 an Air-Crane impacted the water while assigned to a wildfire in Victoria, Australia. Three crewmembers sustained minor injuries.
Tim Crippin sent us these photos of a new S-64 Erickson Air-Crane that is being tested before it is delivered to the Korea Forest Service.
“Heard it is supposed to be delivered to them in the next week,” Tim said. “It’s temporary N- number registration is N915AC. It’s been doing plenty of flight testing the past few weeks around Southern Oregon. I heard it is the first Air-Crane to have composite rotor blades.”