Fighting fire with an Air Crane

When wildfires are at their worst, as they have been in recent years, there are few more potent weapons than the giant orange dragonfly that is the Erickson S-64 Air Crane helicopter. 

Erickson bought the manufacturing rights to the S-64 Sky Crane from Sikorsky in 1992, changed the name to Air Crane and has been building, operating and improving the 70-foot-long (21 meter) bus-faced super-heavy lift helicopter ever since. 

S-64 pilot and training captain Keith Gill joins Rotor Radio to discuss the unique helicopter’s firefighting abilities. Flying for Oregon-based Erickson, Gill has followed the fire season around the globe from Australia to Greece to the western U.S. most years for the better part of four decades.

“There’s no magic to firefighting,” Gill said. “The faster you get there and the sooner you put a lot of fire retardant on it, the faster you can put it out. It’s really that simple.” 

Gill explained how the S-64’s Sea Snorkel can gulp 2,600 gallons of water in 45 seconds from almost any source while flying at 35 miles per hour (50 kilometers per hour). If a fire is 15 minutes from a dependable water source like a lake or the ocean, the aircraft can drop 40 to 45 loads of water on a fire in under two hours. 

Exciting technological developments loom for Erickson, the Air Crane fleet and aerial firefighting in general. Erickson and Sikorsky have signed a development agreement to integrate Sikorsky’s Matrix Technology for semi-autonomous and autonomous operation into the S-64.

S-64 pilot and training captain Keith Gill in front of an Erickson S-64 Air Crane, which he has flown for 40-plus years. Keith Gill Photo

The company is also developing an enhanced version of the aircraft called the S-64F+ that will feature new full-authority digital electronic control (FADEC) engines — Gill would not divulge which engine but said it has been selected — composite main rotor blades, advanced cockpit avionics and flight control system and an improved water cannon.

With fire seasons not only becoming more severe, but also lengthening in many blaze-prone locations, aerial firefighters and their helicopters are feeling the stress, Gill said. The future holds more fires that need dousing and a potential lack of pilots and maintenance personnel that need specialized training to fill seats vacated by retiring veteran firefighters, he said. 

The S-64 is a twin-engine, six-bladed behemoth capable of gulping up to 2,600 gallons of water in less than a minute. Keith Gill Photo

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