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.

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 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 delivers another Air Crane to Korea Forest Service

This brings the KFS operational fleet up to six S-64 Air Crane helicopters

Korea Forest Service S-64 Air-Crane
File photo of a Korea Forest Service S-64 Air-Crane using its water cannon. Yonhap news Agency Photo, 2017.

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.

Korea Forest Service S-64 Air-Crane load Antonov
Korea Forest Service S-64 Air-Crane being loaded into an Antonov An-124 transport for the flight to South Korea. Erickson photo.

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.

Erickson receives contract to build two Aircranes for South Korea

aircrane helicopter

Above: An Erickson Aircrane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 11:58 a.m. MST January 10, 2018)

Erickson Incorporated has received a contract to build two new Aircrane firefighting helicopters for the Korea Forest Service (KFS). These aircraft are in addition to a previously ordered S64E Aircrane currently under construction at Erickson and due to be delivered in the third quarter of 2018.  These two additional aircraft will be equipped with firefighting tanks, sea snorkels, foam cannons, glass cockpit, composite main rotor blades and night vision goggle capability.

In 2001 KFS became the first foreign government to purchase S-64s from Erickson. To date it has operated five Aircranes in South Korea while maintaining a contract for parts and service support.  This new contract brings the total number of orders for the KFS Aircrane fleet to eight, with the expectation of delivering the seventh and eighth aircraft by the end of 2019.

Erickson owns 20 S-64 Aircrane helicopters as part of their total fleet of 50 aircraft. The S-64 Helitanker is equipped with a 10,000 liter (2,650 gallons) tank capable of rapid snorkeling either fresh or saltwater.

Erickson emerges from bankruptcy

erickson air-crane

Above: An Erickson Air-Crane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Erickson Incorporated, known to wildland firefighters for their Air-Crane helicopters that can carry up to 2,500 gallons of water, has emerged from bankruptcy after declaring for Chapter 11 on November 8, 2016. Soon after the company purchased Evergreen Helicopters and Air Amazonia and their 78 aircraft in 2012 and 2013 the bottom fell out of the oil exploration industry and they lost military and firefighting contracts. Suddenly finding themselves no longer a small business Erickson lost their eligibility to compete for U.S. Forest Service firefighting contracts.

President and CEO Jeff Roberts said on April 28, 2017, “We are very pleased to have completed our financial restructuring in such an efficient and timely manner. Chapter 11 allowed us to achieve rationalization of our aircraft fleet and deliver our balance sheet by over $400 million in debt. We are exiting the restructuring process with significant available liquidity to fund the company’s present and future business opportunities.” Mr. Roberts continued, “With a stronger financial foundation and reduced cost structure, we are well positioned under the new business model to fund our operations and to further develop and expand our business in order to better serve our customers and enhance value for all stakeholders for years to come.”

Mr. Roberts said the company will move forward as a privately-held small business, effective immediately.

Susan Bladholm, a spokesperson for Erickson, told us that they currently have 20 Air-Cranes, but could not comment on the potential to bid on or obtain firefighting contracts since the company is under new ownership and some issues still need to be worked out.

Erickson files for bankruptcy

aircrane

Above: An Erickson Aircrane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

On Monday, November 8, 2016 Erickson Incorporated filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The company called it a financial restructuring, saying the company will continue to operate “in the ordinary course of business” and they are “committed to the same level of operational integrity, safety, compliance, and customer service that its partners are accustomed to.”

Between March, 2012 and April, 2016 the company had eight Type 1 Aircrane helicopters on contract with the U.S. Forest Service. When the next round of contracts was announced in February, 2016 conspicuous by its absence was Erickson, receiving none. It is likely that when they purchased Evergreen Helicopters, Inc. in March, 2013 (and their 64 aircraft) and the Brazilian company Air Amazonia (and their 14 helicopters in November, 2012), they no longer qualified as a “small business” and lost their eligibility to compete for USFS firefighting contracts.

These large helicopters can carry up to 2,500 gallons of water. Erickson bought the manufacturing license and type certificate from Sikorsky in 1992 for the military version, the CH-54 Tarhe. In addition to dropping thousands of gallons of water, it can be fitted with an optional front-mounted water cannon that can shoot water horizontally at 300 gallons per minute.

Monday Erickson provided more information about the bankruptcy:

…Under Bankruptcy Court supervision, the Company expects to file a consensual plan of reorganization with the support of its major creditor constituencies which the Company anticipates will significantly reduce its total indebtedness. Additionally, our first lien lenders and second lien noteholders have entered into a credit support agreement which is expected to result in approximately $60 million in new financing to further fund ongoing operations over the course of the restructuring.

Erickson Inc. struggling financially

aircrane

Above: An Erickson Aircrane reloads with retardant while fighting the Beaver Fire in northern California, August 12, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Last year Erickson had eight Type 1 firefighting helicopters, Aircranes like the one above, on exclusive use contracts with the U.S. Forest Service. There are none on the new contract that was issued February 26.

While it may be only partially related to losing those eight contracts, Erickson Inc. is struggling financially. Their stock, (EAC) that reached a 5-year high of $28.10 on May 13, 2013, has dropped like a stone since early in 2014 and Friday closed at 99 cents.

In 2012 and 2013 the company went on a buying spree, and purchased two companies that had a total of 78 aircraft. When Erickson acquired Evergreen Helicopters, Inc. (and their 64 aircraft) and the Brazilian company Air Amazonia (and their 14 helicopters), they no longer qualified as a “small business” and lost their eligibility to compete for the federal firefighting contract. Evergreen Helicopters had 400 employees. Last year Erickson laid off 150 workers.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Oregon Live:

…Erickson is not a big player in oil and gas. But it has its own problems. It recently lost a crucial wildfire fighting contract with the U.S. Forest Service. It also borrowed heavily three years ago to buy the helicopter business from Evergreen Aviation in McMinnville, only to see the U.S. defense business that was Evergreen’s forte go into a tailspin.

The toll on Erickson’s financial performance has been dramatic.

The company lost $10.2 million in 2014 and another $86.7 million in 2015. So far, 2016 has brought little relief, with Erickson losing another $26 million in its first quarter…

Erickson had six aircranes working in Australia during their 2015/2016 summer fire season.  There are still nine Sikorsky helicopters similar to the Aircrane that are on contract for the next one to four years in the United States. Helicopter Transport Services has five and Siller has four. The models are CH-54A, CH-54B, SK-64A and SK-64E.