Erickson announces FAA certification for composite main rotor blades

Erickson announces composite main rotor blades
Erickson announces FAA certification for composite main rotor blades. Erickson image.

Erickson Incorporated has announced final FAA certification for the composite main rotor blades on the S-64F and CH-54B helicopters. Earlier this year, the company received approval for the S-64E model. This recent announcement finalizes the certification of the S-64F and CH-54B, solidifying FAA certification for the entire fleet of S-64 Air Crane® E & F models, as well as the CH-54 Skycrane A & B models.

The advanced design of the blades provides a significant performance advantage, especially with hot and high conditions.

This Certification brings considerable advantages, such as:

  • Performance gains
  • Fuel savings
  • Reduced vibration, meaning reduced wear and fatigue on the entire aircraft
  • Blade interchangeability with the E/A models
“It was quite difficult, but extremely satisfying to see this
project through to completion. There are a lot of blood
sweat and tears in those blades.”
– Billy Johnson, Chief Engineer at Erickson Incorporated

Helicopter lineup for Australia this fire season

The helicopters will be phased in over the next several weeks.

 Updated October 16, 2020   |    8:17 a.m. MDT

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. Chris Matei photo.

The first of six Erickson Air-Crane helicopters that will assist firefighters in Australia arrived at the Sydney airport October 12. “Gypsy Lady” was unloaded from an Antonov 124-100 after spending the summer fighting fires in Greece. It has since been reassembled and flown to Bankstown, New South Wales where it will begin its mandatory availability period on November 1.

The other five are also coming from Greece, but will be receiving less deluxe treatment lashed down inside the holds of ocean-going freighters like they were in April on the way from Australia to Greece.

Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney. NSW RFS photo.

Richard Alder, General Manager of the National Aerial Firefighting Centre in Australia, said on October 15 the positioning of the Air-Cranes will be the same as last year:

  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT730, N189AC, Gypsy Lady, starts 11/1/2020
  • Bankstown, New South Wales, HT739, N247AC , Jerry, 12/1/2020
  • Essendon, Victoria, HT341,  N154AC, Georgia Peach, 12/2/2020
  • Moorabbin, Victoria, HT342, N194AC, Delilah, 12/23/2020
  • Brukunga (Adelaide Hills), So. Australia, HT743, N218AC, Elsie, 12/17/2020
  • Serpentine (Perth), Western Australia, HT740, N243AC, Marty, 12/20/2020

There will also be three Sikorsky S-61N ships and a Sikorsky S-76B owned and operated by Coulson:

  • Colac, Victoria
  • Mansfield, Victoria
  • Ballarat, Victoria; night-flying capable, along with the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter for night supervision and intelligence gathering.
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady arriving at Sydney
Air-Crane Gypsy Lady being reassembled  at Sydney. Kestrel-Erickson photo.

In addition to the lineup for the Type 1 helicopters, there is news about a couple of smaller Type 2 helicopters in Australia. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) has purchased two new Bell 412 helicopters. One of them, like Gypsy Lady, received deluxe transportation (compared to a cargo ship) when a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A hauled it from Vancouver International Airport, Canada, to Richmond, NSW on September 15.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter to Richmond, NSW for the NSW Rural Fire Service. RAAF photo.

Bell Helicopter Textron Canada, based in Mirabel, Quebec since 1986 has manufactured more than 5,000 aircraft.

Royal Australian Air Force transports new Bell 412 helicopter
NSW Rural Fire Service’s new Bell 412 helicopter after arriving at Richmond, NSW. RAAF photo.

Air-Crane heading to Italy

Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon
Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon June 16,2020. Photo by Tim Crippin.

Tim Crippin sent us these photos:

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.

Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon
Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon June 16,2020. Photo by Tim Crippin.
Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon
Air-Crane N237AC at Medford, Oregon June 16,2020. Photo by Tim Crippin.

Thanks Tim!

Erickson enacts pay cuts and furloughs for some employees

Their Air-Cranes have been shipped from Australia to Greece for the northern hemisphere wildfire season

Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters Australia Greece
Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters to be shipped from Australia to Greece. Erickson photo, April, 2020. Erickson photo.

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.

Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters Australia Greece map
The map shows the location of the Sider Jasmine carrying Air-Crane helicopters on April 20, 2020, at about the halfway point on its voyage from Australia to Greece. Erickson image.

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.

Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters Australia Greece
Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters to be shipped from Australia to Greece. Erickson photo, April, 2020. Erickson photo.
Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters Australia Greece
Erickson loads Air-Crane helicopters to be shipped from Australia to Greece. Erickson photo, April, 2020. Erickson photo.

Report released for crash of Air-Crane helicopter into lake

The accident occurred in Australia in January, 2019

Air-crane helicopter crash Australia report
From the ATSB report.

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.

Air-Crane crash Australia helicopter
The Air-Crane crashed in a lake surrounded by rising terrain.

Here is what I wrote about the accident on January 28, 2019 in a comment below the report of the accident:

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.

Air-Crane 341
Air-Crane 341. From the report.

Two crewmembers were not injured, but one sustained a knee injury. In May, 2019 the helicopter was recovered after a complex salvage process.

Air-Crane extracted from lake crash

Below are excerpts from the ATSB report about the Air-Crane incident (which you can view here):

…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.

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.

Elsie and Delilah are on the way to Greece

Air Cranes have finished their assignment in Australia

Elsie And Delilah S-64
Two S-64 Air Crane helicopters ready for an ocean voyage to Greece. Erickson photo.

Two S-64 Air Crane helicopters have completed their assignments in Australia and are loaded on a ship. They will soon be en route to Greece to help firefighters suppress wildfires.

Erickson receives FAA approval for composite main rotor blades

The blades will be used on S-64 and CH-54 helicopters

Erickson composite main rotor blades
Erickson introduces composite main rotor blades. Erickson photo.

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 is working on a “pilot optional nighttime firefighting solution”

The company also announced improvements to the Air Crane

Erickson S64F+
Erickson image

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.

Sikorsky’s description of MATRIX:

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.