The heavy-lift helicopter that we are going to comment on today is the legendary S-64 Skycrane. Designed originally for U.S. military purposes, it was meant to be an upgrade for the so-called “flying crane” Sikorsky S-60. It is considered the civil variant of the CH-54 Tarhe from the 1960s, which was used as a crane during the Vietnam War operations because it was capable of lifting artillery pieces and weighty loads rather easily.

A left-side ground view of CH-54 Tarhe helicopter with the universal military pod, an all-purpose van complete with communications, ventilation, lighting systems and ground wheels.

The S-64 Skycrane prototype’s maiden flight occurred in May 1962 and led to producing two more aircraft for German Aviation to assess. Although Germany was not impressed by it enough to place an order, the U.S. Army initially ordered six examples from Sikorsky, designated as YCH-54A Tarhe, while seven versions of S-64E were produced by the company for civil use.

Diving into technicalities, we must mention that this aircraft’s capabilities of cargo and troop transport are due to pods fitted underneath that can be interchanged. With its six rotor blades and a twin-engine, moving big loads presents no problem. In addition, the aircraft can be utilized for timber harvesting and civil protection.

A CH-54 Tahre helicopter airlifts an A-7 Corsair II aircraft.

Erickson Air-Crane purchased the manufacturing rights for the S-64 from Sikorsky Aircraft in 1992. Not only did this company become the producer, but it also happened to become its largest operator and introduced over a thousand configuration changes to the aircrane in order to enhance its overall performance and capabilities. It was then that the helicopter was added a fixed retardant tank with a capacity of 10,000 l and started being successfully used in fire containment missions. Its refilling system proved itself as rather efficient – having in mind that the helicopter can be refilled in a matter of seconds… In 45 seconds only, to be precise.

Obviously, the practical success of the S-64 Skycrane made it internationally relevant. Both Korean and Italian Forest Services purchased some helicopters so as to be able to suppress raging fires on their national territories.

A fun fact is that each of the manufactured aircraft receives its own proper name, the most popular and efficient ones being “Isabelle”, “The Incredible Hulk” and “Elvis”, all of them used in firefighting operations in Australia.

Erickson has continually invested in upgrading and optimizing the aircraft’s services, as well as in making it cost-effective and sustainable. The production of a next-gen S-64F+ aircrane was announced in 2020, with the integration of an innovative cockpit, an enhanced engine, a better water cannon, and new lower-cost rotor blades with higher lift capacity. Not to mention the incorporation of the latest digital technology that allows safe nighttime participation in firefighting missions. Nevertheless, according to the company representatives, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue a certificate to Erickson for the new aircrane, so it still remains uncertain when the S-64F+ will be available to operate. At least one thing is for sure: the Avgeek community definitely cannot wait for this gorgeous helicopter’s boosted version to see the light of day!

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