While the 2008 fire season has been pretty mild in this part of the state, we nonetheless got an up-close-and-personal visit with one of the frontline wildland firefighting tools, an Erickson Air Crane S-64E. Heading home from Washington State to Hemet, the crew of Tanker 744, nicknamed ''Jerry'', stopped by Mojave for some gas today.
Considered a "Type 1" helitanker, the Aircrane can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water. The helicopter's flexible snorkel uses a high pressure impeller, and can draw water from a source as shallow as 18 inches, and can fill the tank in 45 seconds
The Aircrane / Sky Crane has a long history. Sikorsky started work on the type in 1958, and the first prototype, which Sikorsky called the S-64, flew May 9, 1962 (three days after I was born, for the record). In all, six pre-production aircraft were built, which the Army designated as YCH-54. Meeting with approval, the CH-54 Tarhe went into production, with the Army buying 105 of them. (The helicopter's namesake, Tarhe, was a Chief of the Wyandot Tribe in the Ohio area, and lived from 1742 to 1818. His nickname was "The Crane".) In addition to the military aircraft, Sikorsky also built a small number of civilian certified S-64s Skycranes, but did not seem terribly interested in aggressively marketing the model.
The CH-54 was phased out of Army service, being supplanted by the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, but found a unique niche in the civilian world, where it was quickly recognized as a useful tool as a helitanker for aerial firefighting. In 1992, Erickson Air Crane purchased the FAA Type Certificate from Sikorsky, thus becoming the Crane's manufacturer, as well as the largest operator of the type. Erickson has "remanufactured" old military-surplus airframes, as well as built brand new ones.
Jerry started life during the Vietnam era as a CH-54A, serial 68-18450, but was then rebuilt by Erickson as a civilian certificated S-64E, serial 64052.