fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Hands-on helicopters

Erickson's workhorse S-64 Aircrane is old school.

So old that Pratt & Whitney lost interest in building its engines years ago. So old that many components are no longer made to keep the helicopters in the air.

To meet present and future needs for its one-of-a-kind helicopter, Erickson adapted, securing the certificate to build engines, fashioning components, and even developing enhanced parts to improve operations.

"The crane is a very niche aircraft developed primarily to perform utilitarian roles, to move equipment from one place to another," Dale Roberts, Erickson's senior director of plant operations, said Wednesday. "Because most helicopters being developed today are people movers, there is a very limited role for certain areas of operation for the foreseeable future."

The reconstituted, privately held helicopter company led by Interim President Andy Mills emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April. For a brief period, Erickson was a darling in the publicly traded world before spinning out of control and landing in court protection last November.

The heavy-lift helicopter firm, founded to assist logging operations, long ago carved out a global firefighting role. Its far-flung duties range from setting statues and antennas on top of buildings to planting powerline towers. Recruiting Manager JoAnna Rafiner-Jarboe said Erickson has added 250 employees, including 164 full-time positions, most working in Oregon.

But during a tour for workforce development and economic development leaders of Erickson's Willow Springs Road and Medford airport facilities, the need to attract new blood was repeatedly stated.

Engineering Director Billy Johnson said aspiring engineers overlook Erickson and the Rogue Valley. Coupled with talent lost in recent years to retirement or layoffs, the company faces an uphill battle.

"It is hard for us to compete as a company trying to hire good engineers," Johnson said. "We're competing with Boeing and other big companies that engineers fresh out of school want to work for. When they come here and see the aircraft we're working on and realize the type of hands-on experience you can get here that you won't get at a place like Boeing, they love it. But getting them here is the hard thing."

Although there is a highly skilled core, the next generation will take time to build.

"Eight or 10 years ago, we were building one aircraft a year," Johnson said. "So you maintained a lot of those skills from year to year. You had the same people or you were bringing on new people, but there was always a huge group of people that had the skills. We have a lot of new people we're trying to teach those skills."

Rafiner-Jarboe said Erickson needs to re-establish its presence in the community and create opportunities for people without a background in the aerospace industry.

"We don't have Boeing in our backyard," she said. "We build our own talent here."

The company created 10 seasonal mechanic roles to develop skills, Rafiner-Jarboe said.

While Erickson is growing on many fronts, including defense contracts to refurbish Navy and Marine MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters, adversity produced a will to persevere.

"As we went through the financial stress over the last couple of years, we continuously pulled parts off the shelf until at some point the shelves were bare," Roberts said. "As you go through a bankruptcy, suppliers know they are at risk of not getting paid, so they stop working with you."

Suppliers sometimes simply mothballed component work, so orders placed in 2015 or 2016 may still be in the pipeline.

"I don't think anybody fully appreciated how difficult it was going to be to get our normal production and our normal support back up to levels that are expected," Roberts said. "There is no other supplier to contact, you just have to wait six months and develop contingency plans and work with whatever spares are available around the world. We're not going to be able to put out a component for three months, and we've got to figure out a way to get through the next three months."

Working on helicopters designed long before many of its employees were born, Erickson has adapted time and again.

"For an aircraft in production, you have a whole team that's all they do, making sure the parts come in to keep up with production," Roberts said. "If you are looking at a legacy aircraft, each part has its own story."

Complex moving parts made to microscopic tolerances don't roll off the assembly line in Cleveland or Denver.

"Supply-chain machine-shop manufacturers want to do easy parts and a lot of parts at one time, that's how they make their money," Roberts said. "When we first started supporting the crane many years back, there was no machine shop, so everything had to come from some other manufacturer."

Recently, the supplier for fuel-control unit components told Erickson it would no longer produce the parts because it wasn't profitable.

"It's not something we've done before, but we're going to be forced to bring that in-house," Roberts said. "That's indicative of what we go through over and over again."

The test cell lab and control room, built around a two-story tower, was imported from Texas, where it was used on Apache helicopter engines.

"Before that we would test stuff on the aircraft," Johnson said. "We had to adapt it and make a bunch of changes. There's no manual or instructions on how to do it. We figure out things here, very difficult things, every day."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Erickson Interim President Andy Mills (far right) shows off 'Marty,' an aircrane equipped with new composite blades, Wednesday morning at the Medford airport. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]