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Helicopter Express purchases Erickson’s operating division — and its entire fleet of Air Cranes

By Oliver Johnson | April 29, 2024

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 46 seconds.

Helicopter Express has acquired Erickson Inc.’s aerial firefighting operations unit, as well as its entire fleet of aircraft, the companies have announced.

“The acquisition of Erickson’s firefighting operations and fleet furthers our growth plan into new aerial markets and makes us the premier heavy-lift operator globally,” said Scott Runyan, CEO of Helicopter Express.

The move is the latest — and most dramatic — expansion of the Chamblee, Georgia-based operator’s move into the heavy-lift firefighting space, following its initial purchase of a single S-64 Erickson Air Crane in 2022.

Helicopter Express added a further five Air Cranes to its fleet in 2023, and now has a total of 19 Air Cranes. Sixteen of those are airworthy, with the other three in the process of a refit. The rest of the operator’s fleet includes the Kaman K-Max, Bell 205A-1, Bell 470HP, Airbus AS350 B3, Bell 206B-3, Bell 429, and Bell 412EPX. It has become the biggest operating customer of Erickson the OEM.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, Erickson said its original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and business units would “continue as a standalone and separately capitalized” entity. Those units are responsible for the ongoing production of the Air Crane, as well as the support of the global Air Crane fleet.

“This transaction provides us with a sustainable plan to enhance our operations and provide better support to all of our customers”, said Barry Kohler, CEO of Erickson. “Erickson can now be fully focused on manufacturing, support and supply chain services for the global fleet.”

In December, the two companies announced a “strategic alliance” that would “support and diversify” S-64 operations in North America, as well as “meet growing worldwide demand for heavy-lift, S-64 sustainment, modernization and production.”

Few details as to what this practically entailed were given at the time, although a press release announcing the alliance noted that there would be “a seamless transition with no disruption of service.”

The acquisition is just the latest in a raft of recent changes at Erickson, which has endured significant headwinds over the last decade.

Founded in 1971 by Jack Erickson, the company has become synonymous with the S-64 Air Crane after it purchased the type certificate for the heavy-lift giant from Sikorsky in 1992.

Erickson produces two variants of the type: the E model (which can lift 20,000 pounds/9,000 kilograms) and the F model (25,000 pounds/11,340 kilograms).

After years of gradual fleet expansion during which Erickson served as operator, OEM and MRO, the company made a dramatic leap with the purchase of Evergreen Helicopters in 2013.

Following the controversial acquisition (which later became the subject of a shareholders’ class-action lawsuit), Erickson had a mixed fleet of 86 rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, including Bell 212s, 214STs, 412EPs, Airbus AS350s, AS330Js, AS332 L1s, and Sikorsky S-61s and S-76C+ aircraft — in addition to its S-64 Air Cranes. But it was also saddled with debt.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016, citing “numerous business challenges” that impacted its operating results and asset values.

The company emerged from Chapter 11 in April 2017, following fleet rationalization and restructuring that had reduced its debt by $400 million.

As recently as 2018, the company still had an operating fleet of 20 S-64s, as well as Bell 214s and Airbus AS330/AS332s.

Current CEO Barry Kohler joined the company in May 2023, at which point the company’s operating fleet had shrunk to 15 S-64s. It was supporting a global fleet of 44 S-64s at the time.

Recent developments for the heavy-lift stalwart have included the development of a new glass cockpit based on the Astronautics’ Badger Pro+ Gen 2.0 integrated flight display system; the certification of night vision goggle (NVG) capability from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2023; and the development of a composite main rotor blade.

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