San Diego Gas & Electric makes their Air-Crane available year-round

Previously it was on contract for four months each year

SGE&E's Erickson Air-Crane helicopter
SGE&E’s Erickson Air-Crane helicopter. Click to enlarge. SDG&E photo.

Since 2009 San Diego Gas and Electric has made an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter available to assist wildland firefighters in San Diego County for four months each year, July through October. The company just announced that they are modifying the contract they have with Erickson and will now have it stationed year-round at Gillespie Field near El Cajon, California. The 2,650-gallon helicopter is flown by Erickson pilots under the direction of Cal Fire.

This change, according to SGE&E officials, is in response to “what is now the year-round threat of wildfires”.

It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, has been picking up the $1.75 million annual tab for four months of availability each season as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. San Diego County pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

19-year old uses SkyCrane to fight wildfires

Ann Hansen co-pilots the huge helicopter that can drop about 2,600 gallons of water or retardant.

Above: Ann Hansen of Philipsburg, Montana is shown standing beside a Sikorsky helicopter at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “They’re big guys,” she deadpanned about Sikorskys. Photo by Matt Johnson.

(This article first appeared in the Mariposa Gazette in California. It and the photos are used here with permission.)

By MATT JOHNSON, Mariposa Gazette Assistant Editor

Ann Hansen is young, but she isn’t letting that stop her from living her dream, even if it is a dream fraught with danger.

Hansen, 19, was in Mariposa over the last few weeks battling the Ferguson Fire — just not as a firefighter on the ground.

She is a copilot of a Sikorsky CH-54A Sky-crane helicopter. Along with her captain, Gregg Deacon, she has been flying into dangerous areas near the fire and dropping water and retardant to douse the flames.

“At most times out here, people ask if I’m with my dad or grandpa,” said Hansen in an interview while stationed at the Mariposa Yosemite Airport. “I look young for my age, like I’m still in high school.”

Indeed, Hansen looks like she could still be in high school. But don’t let the youthful face fool you. She’s up to the task.

erickson skycrane
Ann Hansen, a helicopter copilot, is shown inside a Sikorsky used to battle flames in Mariposa County. The irony is that Hansen is afraid of heights. “I’m terrified of heights,” Hansen said. “It’s way different when you’re in an aircraft. You focus on what you’re doing.” Photo by Matt Johnson.

“I’ve been very impressed with her, especially considering her minimal amount of experience,” said Deacon, the pilot. “It’s a complex aircraft and our mission is complex. She’s monitoring a lot of instruments and dealing with most of the radio calls. She’s doing a lot of multitasking. And we go into some difficult types of places.”

Hansen is from Philipsburg, Mont. It was there that she developed an interest in flying. Her father worked as a ranch manager. Every year, Hansen would be inspired by watching crop dusters fly overhead.

Adding to her interest in flying was the fact that her father also wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Only he never took the opportunity.

“I always had that in my head growing up,” she says of wanting to fly a helicopter.

Ten days after she graduated high school, she started in flight school at Rocky Mountain Rotors, in Belgrade, Mont. Shortly thereafter, she transferred to Jerry Trimble Helicopters flight school in Oregon.

“I never had any previous aviation experience,” Hansen said. “It was overwhelming.”

She stuck with it, and in a short period of time, she became certified to become a helicopter co-pilot.

“My parents are thrilled with it,” Hansen said, acknowledging that in a way, she is fulfilling her father’s dream of flying.

She now works for Helicopter Transport Services and has the opportunity to work on fires as well as other special projects.

“It just depends where they need me to go,” said Hansen. “The challenge is fun.”

She admits there is danger in what she does. Engines could fail on the copter, or worse.

“Everything we do has a little risk,” Hansen said. “(But) it’s fun, for one, and you’re helping with something.”

Hansen’s end goal is to become a “PIC,” or a pilot in charge. Essentially, it’s the rank of captain.

“There is still a lot to explore,” she said.

There may be plenty to explore, but for someone who is only 19, Ann Hansen has already experienced quite a bit.

A power company and the county share cost of a Skycrane

Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter wildfire
File photo: A Sikorsky Skycrane drops about 2,600 gallons of water on the Red Canyon Fire 9 miles southwest of Pringle, SD July 9, 2016.

San Diego Gas and Electric is in its ninth year of contracting for an Erickson Skycrane helicopter. It is a unique financial arrangement that shares the cost with the County of San Diego. SDG&E, via its ratepayers, picks up the $1.75 million annual tab for availability each season, July through October, as well as the first two hours of flight time when used on a fire. The county pays for hours three and four. If it is needed for more than four hours it would most likely be on a large fire and the additional cost could be paid by another agency such as the state or federal government, if they needed the aircraft.

The current contract for the Skycrane, which carries up to 2,650 gallons, is in effect through 2022.