Jack Erickson builds extraordinary life around two passions: aircraft and logging
Until 2012, few people in Jefferson County had heard of Jack Erickson. That was the year that Erickson quietly visited the Madras Municipal Airport, considering it as a potential site for relocation of his aircraft collection.
It took another two years to complete construction of a new hangar to house his World War II-era aircraft collection — previously housed in the Tillamook Air Museum, but within a few months of that first visit, Erickson had acquired Butler Aircraft, which became Erickson Aero Tanker.
The owner of Aero Air and former owner of Erickson Air-Crane, Erickson, 83, has spent decades in the logging and aviation industries, expanding his businesses while carefully maintaining a low profile.
Today, he owns Erickson Aero Tanker and the Erickson Aircraft Collection, of Madras; the Erickson Group and Precision Aircraft Solutions, of Beaverton; and co-owns Aero Air, of Hillsboro, with the company's president, Kevin McCullough.
"All businesses, since 1939, basically, have been tied to forest products and aviation," said Erickson, whose father, Axel Erickson, started the family logging business — Buck Mountain Logging Co. — in 1939.
"Stay with what you know best," he advised.
Born in Portland in 1935, Jack Axel Erickson was a second-generation Oregonian, who spent his early years in logging camps in Tillamook County. "I was raised in a logging camp — bunkhouses, cook houses, family houses — that's what we lived in." His father, Axel Erickson logged, and his mother, Violet, cooked in the camps.
Merrill Moores, 90, of Nehalem, a longtime friend of Jack Erickson, who worked for both Erickson's father, and later, for Erickson himself, first met Erickson in the early 1940s in one of those camps.
"I've known him since I was probably 14," said Moores, who flew to Madras with Erickson in May. "I worked for his dad on fire watch in the summertime, at Salmonberry (River), where his logging camp was at. I worked for him until they got into helicopter logging."
"When I went to work there, I was 14, and he would come with his dad to the summer camp; he was only about 7," said Moores. "He's one heck of a nice guy in my book. I really do like him; I don't remember ever talking to anyone who had a bad thing to say about him."
Parents born in Oregon
Erickson's parents, Axel Erickson and Violet Gibson Erickson, were born on opposite sides of the state — his father in Clatskanie, and his mother in Baker City, but both ended up in the Portland area.
"Her family came over from Iowa on the Oregon Trail to Baker," he said, noting that his mother was born there in 1905. "Her father was ill, and died there about a year later. They stayed about five years, and then moved to Forest Grove in a wagon."
On his father's side, his grandfather traveled by boat from Sweden, around South America, in about 1885, and settled in northwestern Oregon, where his father was born in 1900.
Erickson admired his father, who was always hardworking and industrious.
"Looking back, Dad was a pretty good teacher; I learned a lot from him. He was a very hard worker. Work always came first," said Erickson, acknowledging that he shares his father's work ethic.
In 1941, the Erickson family moved to Portland, where Jack Erickson attended Jefferson High School, graduating in 1952. Within the year, he earned his pilot's license at the Hillsboro airport, in a single-engine Luscombe, with side-by-side seating.
"Everybody flew in those days," he recalled. "It was not like it is today; everyone wanted to fly."
The fall of 1953 was a busy one for Erickson, who joined the Oregon Air National Guard, in which he served for six years, and married Beverly Delauney.
Although he had helped out in the logging camps during his teens — running loaders and cats and driving trucks — Erickson officially went to work for his father in 1954. In 1959, the young family moved to Colville, Washington, and the expanding logging business was renamed Erickson Lumber Co.
"I worked with him in the woods and in the sawmills," said Erickson. "We owned different sawmills in Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia over a period of years. In the logging business or the sawmill, we were always changing things to make things better."
Pioneers helicopter logging
In 1960, while living in Washington, Erickson took lessons in piloting a helicopter from Wes Lematta, the owner of Columbia Helicopters. The following year, he purchased a Bell helicopter to use for personal and business purposes — the first of several that he owned in the '60s.
"I'd land downtown and go to a restaurant; it was much different than it is now," he said.
A decade later, his helicopter experience led Erickson to pioneer a revolutionary change in logging — helicopter logging.
Erickson moved his family to Marysville, California, in 1965.
In January 1971, while still living in California, Erickson acquired a helicopter from Columbia Helicopters, of Portland, to try out his idea. "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."
"It was my idea, but I had to use their helicopter to get started," Erickson recalled. "He had an S-61 Sikorsky. 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 the 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 revolutionary Erickson Air-Crane company in December 1971.
Before he sold the company in 1997 — for a reported $100 million — it had become the world's largest manufacturer and operator of the S-64, which he renamed the S-64 Skycrane in 1992, after buying the manufacturing rights to the helicopter.
During the 26 years that he owned Erickson Air-Crane Inc., the company branched out from just using the heavy-duty helicopters for logging to transporting cargo and assisting in the construction industry. Some of the helicopters even became famous, such as Olga, a Sikorsky S-64E, which was used to install a 335-foot broadcasting antenna on top of the CN Tower, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
With the addition of the antenna, in 1975, the 1,815-foot tower became the world's tallest structure. Erickson flew up for the start of the process, which involved numerous sections and about 30,000 bolts, installed over the course of 26 days, and again before the project was finished. The tower remained the world's tallest structure for 32 years.
Perhaps the most famous project using one of Erickson's helicopters was the 1993 removal and reinstallation of the Statue of Freedom from the top of the dome of the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C.
The project received national attention, with U.S. Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, and U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, all of Oregon, speaking about the project during a live broadcast on C-Span on May 8, 1993.
Hatfield lauded Erickson Air-Crane for winning the open bid.
"It's small enterprise at its finest," said Hatfield. "This is a company that's had 20 years of experience in New York, Michigan, all across this country. I'm very proud of this company's record."
Packwood agreed, noting, "I'm delighted that an Oregon company has been chosen to have these unique responsibilities that belong to nobody else in this world to protect one of the unique, cherished gifts that we have in the United States — our dome."
The bronze, 19-foot, 6.5-inch statue, which weighed about 15,000 pounds, had graced the Capitol dome for 130 years, and was due for cleaning and repairs. The statue, designed by Thomas Crawford, who died before it was installed in 1863, depicted a female, wearing a military helmet adorned with feathers, holding a sword with her right hand and a laurel wreath in her left hand.
Termed "Operation Lift-off," the actual removal of the statue took only about 12 minutes, after which the helicopter landed on the Capitol's East Plaza.
During the preparation for and the operation itself, Erickson, who prefers to keep a low-profile, said that he was watching, "like the rest of them; I blended in with the crowd."
"They restored it and put it back," said Erickson, who flew back for the removal of the statue on May 9, 1993, but not the replacement of the statue on Oct. 23, 1993. After the reinstallation, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, came down to see the helicopter.
"Bill Clinton came down and kicked the tire," said Erickson.
The live broadcasts of both the removal and replacement of the Statue of Freedom can be viewed in C-Span archives, at www.c-span.org.
Logging companies expand
From the 1970s through most of the 1990s, Erickson operated logging companies based around the world. From 1976-86, he owned the helicopter logging company, Silver Grizzly Timber Co., in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and from 1978-96, owned the export company, Points West Trading, which sold logs and lumber to Japan, Korea and China.
During the three-year period from 1979 to 1982, Erickson estimates that he spent about two months of each year in Indonesia, and in 1992, a similar amount of time in Malaysia.
"I think when you travel a lot, half the year you're on the road someplace — Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia," said Erickson, adding that he had a job in Iran until the Shah was toppled in 1979. "So, vacation to me is when you don't have to travel someplace."
For Erickson, the most challenging years were the late 1970s through the late 1990s. "They were challenging, but fun at the same time, and very rewarding — in self-satisfaction and monetary," he said.
His father died in 1976, but he continued running Erickson Lumber Co. for at least another decade, selling in in 1988 or 1989.
Sells Erickson Air-Crane
In 1997, three years after the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan, which provided for protection of habitat, and reduced the allowable cut throughout the Northwest, Erickson also decided to sell Erickson Air-Crane. "You have to read the market and know the company," said Erickson, who decided it was a good time to sell.
"When I sold out, it was a highly operational company," he said, noting that most of the company's logging was outside of the U.S. at that point. "It comes down to ownership."
After selling the company to a New York firm, Erickson still owned the Erickson Group, which handled real estate. The next year, he purchased Aero Air, and offered part ownership to Kevin McCullough, the grandson of the former owner, Norman "Swede" Ralston.
Over the years, the company has expanded its operation from aircraft sales and service to include chartering aircraft, converting the company's MD-87s from airliners to firefighting tankers for Erickson Aero Tanker in Madras, manufacturing cargo doors for Precision Engineering, selling fuel, and conducting medevac operations around the world with additional bases in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska, Seattle and Yakima, Washington and Great Falls, Montana.
Noting that the company provides international medical evacuations, Erickson said that the company has made recent trips to Hawaii, and to Bangladesh, in Southeast Asia.
In 2001, the Erickson Group established Precision Conversions, which modifies aircraft, and Precision Engineering, to provide aeronautical engineering for airlines. The organization became Precision Aircraft Solutions in 2014, with five subsidiaries: Precision Conversions, Precision Engineering, Precision Materials and Logistics, Precision Program Development, and Precision Aviation Resources.
Regarding his many successful businesses, Erickson said, "There's a lot of opportunity out there; you just have to look for it."
He stressed the importance of finding the right people for those businesses. "You've got to have good people, and I was very, very fortunate," he said. "Some came up through the ranks, and some from other places."
Out of nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, only Mike Oliver, who manages the Erickson Aircraft Collection in Madras, a granddaughter, Jill Thomas, and a great-grandson, Trevor Garner, currently work for Erickson's companies. Thomas and Garner work for Precision Aircraft.
For all of his businesses, Erickson has embraced new technologies. "It's good to be on top of new technology," he added. "You've got to be smart enough to figure out how that fits into what you're doing."
Personally, however, he doesn't spend much time on phones and computers. "I'm a believer in computers, to a point; they're a big, integral part of business," said Erickson. "You have to have them today. I have an iPhone, but I don't hide behind emails; I like to talk face to face."
Collection moves to Central Oregon
The Ericksons, who have been married for nearly 65 years, have three daughters, Betty, Sherri and Jackie — none of whom has been involved with the family business. However, Mike Oliver, who has overseen Jack Erickson's aircraft collection for the past 11 years, is the son of his oldest daughter, Betty.
Oliver, who started working for his grandfather in 1991, "setting chokers on the Skycrane and hooking logs," in Placerville, California, considers the years working for Erickson as the best experience of his life.
"He was my mentor; he raised me," said Oliver, who lived with his grandparents during his teen years, beginning in 1987, in the Jacksonville area. "He's the greatest boss ever: he's stern, he's practical, he listens to you."
Oliver earned his pilot's license in 1988, in Medford, learning to fly in a Luscombe T8F, just as his grandfather had 35 years earlier. After working for Erickson at Aero Air, Precision Solutions, Erickson Air-Crane and the Erickson Group, Oliver became the manager of his grandfather's aircraft collection at the Tillamook Air Museum in 2007.
In 2014, Oliver helped move the collection to its new location in Madras. Recently, Oliver began working at the corporate office for Erickson Group, in Beaverton, but still manages the museum remotely, with regular visits.
"At first, when he and I flew over to talk to (airport manager) Rob Berg about moving our museum over, I asked where Madras was, but it kind of grew on me," said Oliver. "When we first started, our main purpose was not to create a museum; our main purpose was to house World War II airplanes in a facility where it keeps the value, doesn't deteriorate the metal. It's kind of like keeping an old car in a garage; it's our investment."
"The biggest reason why we chose Central Oregon was the climate, not just to fly, but to preserve the airplanes — not much corrosion builds up (here) — and being able to fly 250-300 days a year," he said. "Over there, there are four months maybe of flying weather."
The process was initiated in 2012, when Berg's late father, Ron Berg, read an article in a Portland paper that indicated that Erickson was looking for a new location to house his aircraft collection. Rob Berg gathered information to pique the company's interest, and sent an email to Oliver on May 14, 2012.
Unbeknownst to the Bergs, Erickson and Oliver flew to Madras and liked what they saw. Erickson's first impression? "No fences and no gates; I like airports that have no fences or gates," he said.
Erickson invited Rob Berg, Madras City Administrator Gus Burril, and Melanie Widmer, who was the city's mayor at that time, to meet them at the head office in Hillsboro, and the three drove over May 24, 2012.
"They took us over to the Tillamook museum," recalled Berg. "When we went over there, we had a Powerpoint presentation on why they should be here, and they had a Powerpoint presentation on what they envisioned happening in Madras."
From that point on, the project picked up speed.
"We came over and talked to them a week or two later," said Erickson, who saw Butler Aircraft, which sparked his interest, since Aero Air was already in the process of getting aircraft certified for firefighting. "We bought it about two or three months later."
Aero Air acquired Butler Aircraft's three DC-7s and its firefighting equipment, and took over the lease of the city's 44,000-square-foot hangar at 2322 NW Airport Way. The new business — Erickson Aero Tanker — which is a subsidiary of Aero Air, but wholly owned by Erickson, now has about 30 employees in Madras, and another 16 support staff at Aero Air in Hillsboro.
Erickson officially broke ground on the new, 64,000-square-foot hangar for the aircraft collection on Aug. 23, 2013. The hangar was completed in May 2014, when Oliver began the process of flying the warbirds from Tillamook to Madras and setting up the exhibits. The collection, which now has a staff of six, opened its doors in August 2014.
"We didn't build this thing to be a museum," said Erickson, pointing out that the 76-year-old U.S. Navy blimp hangar that housed his aircraft collection in Tillamook was much larger, and much busier.
"The blimp hangar was ready to fall down," he said. "The reason we came over here was due to the firefighting business and preservation of an asset. Plus, Madras — Jefferson County — is a pretty good place to do business; we couldn't ask for a better place to be than Madras. We like the environment and the people."
For his part, Berg is proud to have had a role in bringing the aircraft collection to Madras, and pleased to have had the opportunity to meet the Erickson family and employees. "I am happy they have found a place they can call home. Central Oregon and Madras, in particular, is lucky to have them here," said Berg.
Currently, the aircraft collection includes 27 warbirds, 25 of which are in flying condition, and two that are on static display. One of the most well-known aircraft, a B-17 Flying Fortress, is among only nine of the four-engine bombers that remain airworthy. Erickson purchased the B-17 in 2013, to add to his collection.
Formerly named "Chuckie," the nose art of the bomber was repainted and unveiled as the "Madras Maiden" in 2014. The aircraft is currently on tour with the Liberty Foundation, "to honor our veterans, educate current and future generations as to the high price of freedom and to preserve our aviation heritage."
Erickson's favorite aircraft is the P-38 Lightning, the twin-engine aircraft flown by the late Col. Rex T. Barber, of Culver, who was credited with shooting down Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, in April 1943, during World War II.
He's also fond of the P-51 Mustang, which he acquired in 1981, when he started his collection.
"It comes back to value," he said. "The way I look at it, you've got to buy right. Timing is the secret to everything; I think you're born with it. My philosophy is, when you buy things — airplanes, timberlands, any asset — don't fall in love with it."
Erickson, who was inducted into the Living Legends of Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014, is proud of the aircraft collection, which he intends to keep in flying condition at the museum.
"It will be here long after I'm dead," said Erickson, who continues to keep an eye out for aircraft to add to the collection.
Located at 2408 NW Berg Drive, Erickson Aircraft Collection is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Mondays.
The addition of the Erickson Aero Tanker and Erickson Aircraft Collection to the businesses at the Madras Municipal Airport has been a game changer, according to Berg.
"We have something special within the aviation community by having the Erickson Aero Tanker business located here," said Berg, who has been the airport manager since 2006. "Our ties in Central Oregon to our local forest and grassland protection are great, and having a local company from Madras spanning the United States fighting forest and grassland fires is a wonderful thing."
With the addition of the aircraft collection, he continued, "Madras is becoming known as a destination airport to come and see the warbird collection, and tour a terrific facility, with lots of quality memorabilia and displays. But what the Erickson Aircraft Collection has here is special; most of their aircraft are flying to this day."
Instead of collecting the aircraft and keeping them in a private collection, away from the public, "People get to see , hear, smell and feel the presence of history with this collection," said Berg, praising Erickson's determination to keep the aircraft in flying condition. "It is a special thing when we get the chance to watch and listen to a veteran of our military service walk up and touch these aircraft, tell their stories and remember the days when they were the young gentlemen flying these majestic machines."
No plans to retire
After 64 years in business, Erickson has no plans to retire. Instead, Erickson, whose mother lived to be 102, spends three or four days a week managing his managers. "I want to be involved," he said. "I like to know what's going on. When you own everything, you want to know what's going on."
Although his businesses have changed over the years, he still considers all of them interesting. "Otherwise I wouldn't be in them," he said. "They have to be interesting, challenging and fun; if work is not fun, it's time to get out. That's my philosophy."