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Veteran takes over Erickson Air-Crane

CENTRAL POINT ' He's seen the logging industry's ups and downs and the evolution of the helicopter from a harvesting tool to a fire-fighting machine.

During his 40 years in the timber and air-crane industries, Ralph Torney has observed growth and decline in communities tied to the Pacific Northwest's forests. He's also learned a lot about the global community during the quarter-century he's been associated with Erickson Air-Crane.

Now Torney will put that experience to work as Erickson's new president, succeeding Lee Ramage, who retired this past week.

We're all pretty excited about the future, Torney says. We've had recent industrial success in some markets, particularly what we've done in Europe has been a boon to the company. But it didn't happen overnight.

— Erickson's airborne, mosquito-shaped Sikorsky S-64s are constant reminders of its expanding presence along Willow Springs Road and, more recently, at Whetstone Industrial Park.

I think a lot of people are fascinated with some of the jobs the Sky Crane can do, Torney says. We do power-line erection, logging, fire-fighting. We moved the (7-ton) Freedom Statue from on top of the U.S. Capitol building and put her back up.

Logging in recent decades has become a business that takes both a physical and emotional toll on its practitioners. Nonetheless, the youthful gleam in his eyes belies the milestone 60th birthday Torney passes on Sept. 13.

As have many Erickson employees, he's traversed the continent and globe and seen remote regions few others have laid eyes on.

When you work for Erickson, you work all over the world, Torney says. We have a lot of people moving around the world.

The company now employs more than 90 pilots to fly its fleet of 18 Sikorsky S-64s. That's more than quadruple the four the company flew in 1993 when it bought manufacturing rights to the unique helicopter.

Today, the company employs 500 people out of its Rogue Valley headquarters with another 300 on its worldwide payroll. It's local payroll is more than &

36;20 million, although Torney says some of those employees live outside the Rogue Valley.

We would like to think we are the glass half-full story for an area, Torney says. In all the coastal states and in Canada, the timber industry has taken some great big hits and we used to be very dependent on the timber industry. But now because of our diversification in our mission, such as fire-fighting and (expanding) globally, we have something positive to say.

Erickson bought a 40-acre Whetstone Industrial Park parcel in 1996 for &

36;359,910. Last year, Batzer Construction built a 50,000-square-foot parts warehouse on the Kirtland Road property. Plans are in the works to build another 200,000 square feet of warehouse and hangar space.

Whetstone will play prominently in our future development, Torney says. As far as room, it more than doubles our space.

The company's growth isn't on a timeline, but will grow as its marketing efforts open new doors.

Our plans are to grow at a manageable rate, Torney says. To really grow the company at all in this era is terribly exciting.

Torney, a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was born to an American mother and Canadian father. He got his start as a choker in 1962 on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

In 1978, founder Jack Erickson recruited Torney as a forestry engineer, laying out roads and cutting boundaries. For 16 months he oversaw a 30-man Sky Crane operation in Singapore.

He and his wife, Camillia, moved to Medford and built a house near Cedar Links golf course in 1980. But even during his tenure in Southern Oregon, he was always on the go, constructing power lines on the East Coast much of the time.

Then in 1983, an offer too good to refuse came to start his own log marketing business in Ladysmith, British Columbia.

I was very happy with Erickson, he recalls. But I thought it was something that I might regret if I didn't try to do it.

It was a woeful time for Northwest logging and prices were depressed. But it was also an opportune moment for an upstart operator with Pacific Rim experience.

Japan was still doing OK, Torney says.

RFT Industries Ltd. has thrived, but Torney decided to sell off its log yards, log sorting operation and pole plant to concentrate on his new duties.

In 1985, Jack Erickson re-connected with Torney and developed what became Canadian Air-Crane, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Erickson. Torney served as its president while concurrently running his own operation.

As logging became more expensive and environmental restrictions tightened, helicopter logging became more appealing.

It's safe to say that on the British Columbia coast, 15 to 20 percent of the timber is harvested by helicopter, Torney says.

Torney says he hopes that Ramage, a former Sikorsky test pilot who led the company for the past four years, will be available for consulting and special projects.

That is, says Torney, if I can get him off the golf course.

Ralph Torney is the new leader at Erickson Air-Crane. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli