Airport busy with heli-loggers, pilots
The Madras Municipal Airport was a hub of activity over the past week, with the testing of Erickson Aero Tankers for fire season, and a reunion of helicopter loggers from all over the Northwest.
The 2018 Heli Logger Reunion, which brought together at least 185 people May 7, at Erickson Aircraft Collection, was an all-day event, billed as "No speeches or events, just show up, mingle and enjoy the stories."
"They were employees or retired employees or ex-employees of either Erickson Air-Crane or Columbia Helicopters; both companies did helicopter logging," said Michelle Forster, assistant manager of the Erickson Aircraft Collection.
Among the guests at the reunion was Jack Erickson, who owns Erickson Aero Tanker and the aircraft collection.
Erickson, whose father had been in the logging business, grew up around sawmills. He first started logging with a helicopter in the 1970s.
In January 1971, he acquired his first helicopter. "We did not have a helicopter at that time, so I went to Columbia Helicopters — Wes Lematta was the owner — and told him I wanted to start (helicopter logging)."
"He had an S-61 Sikorsky," Erickson recalled. "He said, 'Take it and give me what you think it's worth.'"
So Erickson rented the helicopter and began a short-lived joint venture with Columbia Helicopters. After experimenting with the helicopter for about three months, he determined that the S-61 was too small for logging, so he leased a more powerful S-64 Sikorsky.
"We did that for the rest of 1971, and then he went his way, and I went mine," said Erickson, who formed the pioneering Erickson Air-Crane company in December 1971. Before he sold the company in 1997, it had become the world's largest manufacturer and operator of the S-64, which he renamed the S-64 Skycrane, after buying the manufacturing rights to the helicopter.
Kenny Chapman, who was at the reunion, has worked for Erickson Air-Crane for the past 39 years. Chapman flew one of the Erickson helicopters, named "Elvis," which became famous in Australia during the Black Christmas fires in the Sydney area, in the state of New South Wales, in December 2001. The helicopter could carry 2,500 gallons of water or fire suppressant.
As a result of an ongoing drought in Australia, more than 100 fires started that Christmas day. "I had worked there for about four years," said Chapman, who had been in the Sydney area for about six months when the catastrophic fire started.
"It was like Yellowstone in '88 and last year in Los Angeles," he said. "It was the most severe conditions I've ever observed."
The "Elvis" helicopter, named after a firefighting stint in with the U.S. National Guard in Memphis, was brought in to New South Wales from Melbourne, in the neighboring state of Victoria, and was deployed just after Christsmas, with Chapman as pilot.
"A truck with firefighters was being burned over," said Chapman, who made a drop to save the firefighters' lives, but had no idea whether or not it was successful until the next day.
"I read about it in the paper the next morning," he said.
"Elvis" and Chapman were credited with saving the lives of 14 firefighters, and helping save nearly 300 homes.
The reunion event, along with the shared stories, lasted until 7 p.m., before the helicopter loggers dispersed. "One flew all the way up from Los Angeles," said Forster. "Some people hadn't seen each other in 40 or 45 years."
Erickson also has stories involving work on the U.S. Capitol building, the CN Tower in Canada, which was the world's tallest structure at the time, and more. The Madras Pioneer will profile Erickson in the upcoming issue of Sageland, which will be out in June.