Written by Ben Cox – It’s hard to miss: big, orange and flying through the sky saving the day, but how did it get here and where did that giant, odd looking helicopter come from?
Familiar to many for it’s odd shape and distinctive abilities, the Air Crane has been a work horse for many years. You would be forgiven for thinking it’s a Sikorsky helicopter, because it is, or at least it used to be.
According to pilot Brad Warren, “Erickson bought the type certificate, so Sikorsky no longer owns it (that model). Erickson builds and sells them. Italy has bought a few, Korea bought some. It used to be a Sikorsky Sky Crane, but it’s an Erickson Air Crane now.”
Crewed by two pilots based out of Oregon, the helicopter is stationed for the time being at the Brownwood Regional Airport and dispatched as needed to help fire crews across Texas during this years fire season. Fire season occurs once in the winter and fall when everything is dried out from the cold, and again during the heat of the summer when, like now, everything is dry because of the heat.
In response to the question of how they got into fighting fires with a helicopter, Warren, who is a pilot with 26 years of experience says “A lot of the guys are former military. I was not, I’m a civilian as is Ryan. (Porhola, the other pilot currently stationed in Brownwood) I started out as an aircraft mechanic, and got in the business that way.” Warren says many civilian pilots start with smaller companies and work their way up to pilot status. “I never figured ‘yeah, I’m gonna fly an Air Crane one of these days’ but I just kinda worked into that.”
Porhola was “a firefighter for the state of California, and I decided I wanted to fly so I used the income from that to fund for my flight training. It took about three years, and then I went up to Alaska to fly tours for a year and then started mixing into charter and utility operations.”
Erickson also supplies aircraft and pilots for work in other areas. Warren has flown the same model aircraft he is currently using to “lift air conditioners onto sky scrapers and things of that nature.”
Erickson sends their aircraft and pilots, across the globe fighting fires. They currently have aircraft fighting fires in Sweden as well as in Greece to battle the monstrous fires there.
Porhola and Warren have seen a fair amount of the world through this job, having been sent to China, Scotland, Malaysia, Canada, Europe, South America, Chile, and Peru, “There’s stuff going on all over” according to Warren.
Porhola says of his time in Brownwood “It’s really nice, the people are great!” Arriving last week to relieve the previous crew, they will stay on for about another week or so if they’re not called to another part of the state.
Once fire season here is over, however, their work is not done. Warren says “Fire season in Australia starts up right when it’s ending over here.”
The helicopter is referred to as the Swiss army knife of aircraft, as it can do several different things, such as hauling heavy payloads of equipment or material to industrial or commercial sites, as well as fight fires.
In it’s current configuration, the Sky Crane can haul up to 2650 gallons of water, depending on conditions, sucked up by the hose hanging from the side of the aircraft. “It takes 45 seconds on average to fill up, and the tank can be opened up just a little bit or all the way to meter the water out.” It can also split the drop into four separate drops for initial attacks.
The aircraft was used to help put out the fire on McCartney Island this past Sunday, as well as combat a recent blaze that crossed the freeway near Ranger. In the just over 30 minutes of flight time it took to extinguish the McCartney Island blaze, the helicopter dropped 13,000 gallons of water on the island. “The tank can drop from one side of the island to the other, it was kinda cool!”
The aircraft are given names, and some have become famous in their own right. “Annie” is stationed here in Brownwood, but Australia has requested one particular aircraft named “Elvis” for a number of years. According to Warren, who has flown that particular aircraft in Australia, “people take pictures with Elvis. I saw one family who thought they were standing in front of (Elvis) scrap a picture entirely because it wasn’t Elvis!”
According to the Texas Forestry Service, who helps coordinate the deployment of firefighters, there have been almost 7,000 wildfires this year, burning over 492,000 acres. Currently 98 firefighters from 29 different departments in 20 counties are being mobilized to assist with the largest wildfire in California’s history, the Mendocino Complex.
Charlie Rudacille, the Federal Helicopter Manager, assigns the helicopter crew to fires around Brown county, and oversees the operation of the aircraft. There are also three mechanics and two tanker truck drivers who support the helicopter. “It’s kinda like the old MASH units, we can pack up everything and go, take our fuel and everything.”
The aircraft was also used to fight the massive Zephyr fire three weeks ago, flown by a different crew. It is a big, bold, loud and tough machine, and we are grateful “Annie” and her crew are in Brownwood.