Air-Cranes Improving Construction in Alaska

Sep 3, 2014 | Construction, Telecom & Tech

Tom Anderson

An Erickson Air-Crane on the ground at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Vision and diversification benefit development

Sometimes the origin of a business can be as fascinating as its services and work product. When it comes to the everyday communications Alaskans enjoy, like cell phone service and internet connections, one might not consider just how difficult it was to bring such technology to fruition.

An aerial crane operator working the controls in the aft seat of an Erickson Air-Crane.

Logging Origins

It was forty-three years ago in Oregon when second-generation logger Jack Erickson leased an S-64E Skycrane helicopter for his business Erickson Lumber Company. In the logging industry, mobility and lift capacity are essential to timber harvesting and sales. Erickson employed a system of reconfiguring the Sikorsky skycranes to be adaptable to log extraction and delivery. Erickson purchased more helicopters thereafter and eventually purchased the S-64 Type Certificate from Sikorsky in 1992. The company now manufactures and maintains the aircraft (renamed “Air-Crane”) from its facility in Central Point, Oregon.

“Our air-cranes are in high demand and travel the world for contracts,” notes David Sell, sales manager for Erickson Aviation in Alaska. Sell delineated that the company has air-cranes on contract year-round with oil companies in South America, but they come north to Alaska for spot construction. Typically the Erickson S-64F Air-Crane is used in-between projects in the Lower 48 like controlling California wildfires or installing high power lines.

The air-crane flies up to Alaska at one hundred knots per hour. The pilot can only fly by Visual Flight Rules, so day travel and weather infringe on the ease of transporting the rig to the state. When it comes to landing, the rotor wash (the stirring up of air in the immediate vicinity of the rotor blades) is significant, and the air-cranes must land at airports and specific landing zones so as not to disrupt vegetation and Alaska fauna in remote locations.

Sell says Erickson tries to secure multiple contracts in Alaska over a season so it saves on mobilization/demobilization costs and time. “The S-64F burns five hundred gallons of Jet A fuel per hour,” he says. He explains that without a combination of clients and projects in the state at one time, the use of the equipment would be cost-prohibitive for Erickson, and that’s why the company values and appreciates its clients and network of Alaska businesses who utilize its helicopter services.

The company’s website overviews the performance specs for the Air-Crane S-64F, which includes a capacity of three people, maximum load capacity of twenty-five thousand pounds, maximum speed 104 kilowatts, and maximum range on one fuel tank of 240 miles (386 kilometers). The helicopter has twin Pratt & Whitney engines.

Niche Market

Worldwide, Erickson focuses on oil and gas sectors, moving drill rigs, platform components, personnel, and actual ground and vegetation. The company works throughout South America year round, as well as in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Canada on major projects. Erickson’s niche marketing includes working with international, US, and state governments on fire fighting, transport, and scientific studies. Utility and mining sectors also employ Erickson’s Air-Crane for big projects that standard helicopters cannot withstand, typical in Alaska.

Erickson is one of the few air-crane service companies operating in Alaska. If one calls the majority of crane companies in the state and references a need for precision heavy-lift work, Erickson seems to be the point of contact and referral.

Erickson has operation hubs in Anchorage, Dead Horse, Nome, and Valdez. The company’s Alaskan fleet includes on-ground or access to helicopters like the AStar, which was the first helicopter type to land on the summit of Mount Everest in 2005. The Bell 206, 212, and 412 are used in the north, as is the Bo105. The S-64 Air-Crane is the company’s signature aerial heavy-lift machine.

Projects in play this year include working with STG, a subsidiary of Calista Corporation and contractor for GCI, to build telecom lines up the west coast of Alaska and towards the east. Every summer is a different phase. When the STG 2014 phase is complete, Erickson’s team heads to Deadhorse for ConocoPhilips to move 2 million pounds of tundra. This particular reclamation work will take over a month. When ConocoPhilips uses equipment on the Arctic tundra, the company is responsible for preserving the vegetation and soil pursuant stringent state and federal environmental standards. Since the tundra can’t be driven on by equipment, Erickson’s air-crane retrieves the super sacks of sod and tundra and moves them to specific locations where workers shuttled by Erickson’s Bell 212s will sow sod by hand for redistribution. The environment can be rejuvenated and the ecosystem preserved, in large part because of the mighty, yet gentle, air-crane.

After the ConocoPhillips tundra removal project, Erickson goes to work for the State of Alaska removing old telecom sites off the summit of mountains near Glennallen.

Erickson Air-Crane setting module on Gill Mountain July 2013.

The STG, GCI, and Erickson Nexus

STG, Inc. is an Anchorage-based heavy industry contractor providing construction services and management of projects since 1991. In 2001 STG purchased an established crane company and renamed it Alaska Crane, Ltd. In 2013 STG acquired the eleven-year-old Terra Foundations, the specialty pile foundation installation company that focuses on building foundations for rural Alaskan bridges, schools, utilidors, and remote structures in the Alaskan wilderness. In that same year, Alaska Native Corporation Calista purchased STG, including Alaska Crane.

STG Director of Marketing and Business Development Colleen Kelly explains that STG’s expertise is overseeing logistics for tower installations, such as the huge multi-year project installing new communications towers underway by telecom company GCI.

An air-crane like the Erickson S-64F is essential for the GCI telecom projects in western and interior Alaska, notes Kelly, as she describes the building phases and process. “STG delivers equipment to rural locations in extreme remote conditions and then builds the foundations, from the digging and pouring of concrete to the rebar installation.”

She explains that “when a three hundred-foot communications tower has to be placed in these typically inaccessible locations, and a land crane can’t access the terrain or elevation, an air-crane is necessary to reach the project and not harm the environment.” In a sense, it’s the only means by which to raise and position the towers, and the lack of such a crane would eliminate communications for Alaskans in rural communities.

“You really have to make sure the equipment installed can operate on its own with limited maintenance and oversight considering the remote location and difficulty in access,” says Kelly.

This year heavy lifts were scheduled for TERRA Yukon with STG and Erickson in Galena, Grant, Tanana, Melovitna, and Gold in mid to late July, weather dependent.

In 2013 TERRA Northwest Phase 2 STG used Erickson’s air-cranes outside of Nome for communications tower placement after STG built the foundations. Last year weather delayed the project almost ten days.

GCI’s TERRA project involves building a “hybrid terrestrial fiber-optic and microwave network to serve Alaska’s remote and regional regions,” according to the TERRA GCI website. In 2011 TERRA Southwest Middle Mile Network involved four hundred miles of new fiber optic cable and thirteen new microwave towers that provide broadband networking between sixty-five communities. In 2012 TERRA Southwest Last Mile Internet was completed as well as TERRA Northwest Phase 1 involving the installation of two microwave towers and three remote repeaters which connected Grayling to Unalakleet to Shaktoolik. Then in 2013 Erickson and STG teamed up on TERRA Northwest Phase 2, installing three remote repeaters and one microwave tower that connected Shaktoolik to Nome.

Erickson Air-Crane transporting communication tower section at Kwiktalik July 2013.

From Noble Beginnings to Critical Applications

Sell recalls that the first flight of the turboshaft-powered S-64 Skycrane was in 1962 with the US Army, and the remarkable helicopter would later be used in Vietnam for transporting military heavy equipment and in downed-aircraft retrieval operations. Multiple aviation books and fact databases confirm that this style of helicopter was highly successful in missions, able to hold cargo tight while winching vehicles and equipment up and down so the helicopter doesn’t have to land at the project site.

Fast forward to modern day construction projects in remote Alaska villages and commercial development sites, and the utility of such air-crane operations is comprehensive. There are other air-crane companies that have operated in Alaska and across the nation. The service and unique helicopter are critical to both heavy lifting and environmental protection.

Today Erickson’s air-crane operates the largest fleet of S-64 helicopters in the world. Since its acquisition of certification and manufacturing rights, Erickson is the largest operator and manufacturer of this impressive machine.

In the field of construction and heavy lifting by air, the genesis of a company named Erickson is testament to how vision and diversification make for a successful combination that is now benefitting Alaska development.


This first appeared in the September 2014 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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