Massive helicopters used in heavy-lifting operations such as Sunrise Powerlink
By Miriam Raftery
June 16, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Acting on a tip from a caller who said he used to work under sky cranes during forest fire operations, ECM has conducted an investigation into the safety record of massive sky crane helicopters such as the Erickson S-64F sky cranes that dropped two 16,000-pound tower sections last week during construction of SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink.
“One significant issue not being reported is the number of aircraft they, Erickson, have lost due to mechanical issues or operator error,” said the caller, who asked not to be identified but indicated he has worked on a ground crew under the aircraft and has never worked for any Erickson competitor. He provided details on several specific accidents which an ECM investigation has independently verified.
Sky cranes are used for major construction projects as well as fighting wildfires, logging operations, and other heavy-lift operations.
In San Diego’s East County, the massive helicopters are being flown near homes and over roadways, carrying objects ranging from bulldozers to high-voltage tower components.
“They are effective at fighting fires,” the caller said, calling sky cranes “a good tool” when used effectively and said they are nimble despite their large size. However, he indicated, they have also been involved in a number of serious accidents. An ECM investigation has documented many of these below, though it is uncertain whether there may be additional incidents since sky cranes are used around the world and many investigations are conducted by foregn governments.
In 1971, Erickson Lumber Company, owned by second-generation logger and entrepreneur, Jack Erickson, leased an S-64E Skycrane helicopter from Sikorsky Aircraft and renamed the company Erickson Air-Crane in 1971, according to the company's website. Jack Erickson acquired the type certificate for the Sikorsky ACFT. Models: CH54A, CH54B, S-64A, S-64E and S64F.
According to Erickson’s website, these flying cranes have constructed over 8,000 miles of electrical transmission towers across North America. They have also performed admirably in Viet Nam for the U.S. Army, helped build the world’s tallest free-standing structure in Canada, and were contracted by the U.S. government to remove and replace the “State of Freedom” atop the U.S. Capitol dome.
But sky cranes, including those made by Erickson, have also been involved in a number of prior crashes and accidents, including some with fatalities.
On July 6, 2005, An Erickson Air Crane S-64F, the same model used by SDG&E, was destroyed after a crash and post-impact fire at the international airport in Rome, Italy, killing a maintenance crew chief and injuries several others. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, “The American pilot reported dthat the helicopter suddenly pitched up approximately 75 degrees, fell backwards permitting the antitorque rotor to impact the asphalt. He said that the aircraft rolled on its left side and immediately started to burn.”
On April 26, 2007, an Erickson Air Crane S-64F was destroyed during a post-crash fire after an emergency landing and impact with trees near La Spezia, Italy. According to the initial notification, NTSB indicates, during a turn a pilot noticed the main rotor speed decreased and lowered the collective. “The main rotor speed increased; howver the flightcrew experienced flight control problems and performed and emergency landing.” Both pilots were able to evacuate safely.
An S-64F model suffered substantial damage in Arizona in 2003 when tall rotor blades contacted trees.
On June 26, 2010, an Erickson S-64E sky crashed in mountainous terrain while conducting logging operations in a remote rain forest on Borneo Island, Malaysia. The pilot was killed and a pilot sustained minor injuries.
The NTSB indicates an Erickson S-64E air crane had an accident en route to Ojai, California in October 2006. The accident, which resulted in two minor injuries, occurred after the helicopter snorkel snagged on a dip tank and the pilot in command lost control of the helicopter during a retardant dropping mission during a fire.
An Erickson S-64–A aircraft sky crane has been sold to the U.S. Army where it is know as the CH -54A. It performed with an “outstanding service record in Viet Nam” according to Erickson’s website.
CH-54A sky cranes have crashed during logging operations in Alaska in 1996 and while delivering a bulldozer in Laos for the U.S. Army, according to the Skycrane History of Inventory, though the site does not list Erickson as the owner or operator in those incidents.
A CH-54B sky crane from Erickson had a fatality crash in Malaysia in 2004 following impact with trees during a descent during logging operations.
According to the Skycrane History of Inventory in 1997, an S-64E model Air Crane had an uncontrolled lift-off and crashed in Washington state. Back in 1968, the same model Air Crane owned by Erickson had a tail rotor collision with the ground/water and suffered a fire after impact.
Also in 1968, an S-64E Erickson Air Crane had a collision with ground/water in Laramie, Wyoming.
ECM has asked Erickson for comment, including whether any prior accidents involved a digitalized hook release mechanisms implicated in a California Public Utilities Commission preliminary investigation into the two local incidents in which a pair of Powerlink tower sections were dropped.
Erickson has not returned calls by press deadline.
SDG&E has requested a replacement helicopter, according to a CPUC preliminary incident report, that would have a hook control system that predates the digital system. The replacement helicopter will not be permitted to resume hoist operations locally until cleared by both the CPUC and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the CPUC has indicated.