Origin Story: Introducing Canadian Air-Crane, Ltd (CAC), Part 2

In July of 1991, Erickson Air-Crane (Canada) Ltd. was officially renamed, Canadian Air-Crane Ltd (CAC), bringing in new Canadian partners and expanding heli-logging in Canada.

By Gary Gentile, Canadian Air-Crane Manager  

Jack Erickson began heli-logging in Canada well before 1991, but it wasn’t until July of 1991 that Canadian Air-Crane Ltd. began its rise to prominence as the leading Canadian logging company.

A photo of the Erickson Air-Crane (Canada) Ltd. logging crew in Canada in early 1990s


In July of 1991, Erickson Air-Cane (Canada) Ltd was renamed Canadian Air-Crane Ltd (CAC) because of the need for Erickson to bring in new Canadian partners. In the fall of that year, CAC began a multi-year helicopter logging contract with McMillan Bloedel (MB), which was B.C.’s largest forest products company. CAC has maintained this contract for 30 years with forest license ownership having changed hands three times. The contract is now held by Western Forest Products (WFP).

As the 1990s progressed, BC Forest Products companies became very aware of the value of using the S-64 for their timber harvesting needs. With this demand, CAC’s business multiplied, whereby 1995 CAC was operating three S-64E helicopters and one S-64F helicopter under Canadian registry with Canadian-based crews supplemented by two U.S. registered S-64F’s operating under a foreign aircraft permit with U.S. based crews. Noteworthy mention must go to Ralph Torney, who had a long-term relationship with Erickson and accepted the role of president of CAC and was primarily responsible for promoting CAC’s growth.

Early photo of Lucille and Olga logging together at Uboat, Vancouver Island

In 1997/98, MacMillan Bloedel Forest Products (MB) started to move away from clear-cut logging to a more environmentally accepted variable, called retention logging. This move increased the risk of overhead hazards for CAC’s woods crew due to the much smaller size of harvest blocks. This required CAC to begin the move away from the use of chokers and hill crew to 100% grapple logging. Once again, noteworthy mention must go to Ralph Torney, who saw the need to make this move and championed the development of a hydraulic grapple system. In the end, this switch would not have been successful without Erickson developing an auxiliary hydraulic system. This system provided the hydraulic speed and power necessary to operate a grapple capable of bunching logs. Noteworthy mention for their support and/or involvement in developing the auxiliary hydraulic system goes to Dick Foy, Lee Ramage, J.D. Jordan, Ron Smith, and Chris Erickson. Additionally, special mention must go to Ron Smith for his efforts in sourcing the well-designed ESCO bunching grapple and Erickson’s fabrication shop for the ability to reproduce it.

In 1998 standing stem harvesting was introduced into the B.C. forest industry. This concept for harvesting high-value trees involved preparing the trees. A crew would climb the trees to remove the limbs and then top the tree at a predetermined height that would keep the stem within the weight capacity of the helicopter. Then a faller would make two opposing cuts at the tree’s base, leaving about an inch of wood. The helicopter would then fly over to the designated stem and take hold of the top of it with a horizontal grapple and apply sideways pressure causing the holding wood to break and allowing the stem to lift the stump and fly away.  This method was well suited to the S-64 and its deadlifting capabilities. It was an excellent supplement to CAC’s conventional heli-logging business. 

In the early stages of developing this harvesting method, Weyerhaeuser Forest Products, who was funding the project, provided CAC with a single stem grapple designed and manufactured by a local fabricator. Early in the flight trials, it became evident to the CAC pilots that this single stem grapple had some design flaws which most importantly affected productivity. In the discussions to resolve the problem, the onsite pilots and maintenance crew felt the solution lay with making the EAC grapple work with its 100″ arm opening. All that was needed was to come up with a way to rig the grapple, so it hung horizontally on the end of the longline. Erickson solved this challenge and came up with a three-point cable bridle arrangement and had it delivered to the job site within three days.

In 1999, CAC introduced the first of an annualized logging contract known as Plan 64 where the concept was a commitment to maximizing the daily utilization of the S-64 for the customer. This was accomplished by utilizing two command pilots, two co-pilots, and a five-man maintenance crew working in shifts to achieve 14 hours of flight time in a 16-hour operational day from June through September.

CAC secured Plan 64 contracts with the three major forest license holders in British Columbia from its inception in 1999 through 2006. In 2000, CAC achieved a record for the most flight hours flown in a year where five S-64E’s flew a combined 9785 hrs. and a sixth S-64E added an additional 322 hrs. to cap the year at 10,108 hrs. total.

Most experimentation took place in these years, with another noteworthy mention going to Ralph Torney working with Jim Jackson from Weyerhaeuser Forest Products to support these efforts. This started with two pass logging using a Bell 214B to grapple log the smaller timber within its weight capabilities and then using the Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama to build bundles of smaller logs for the S-64 to deliver to the log landing. This led to depending on the steepness of the harvest block flying in a small excavator with log handling attachments such as Menzi Muck to build bundles of logs for the S-64.

The grapple hot saw was developed for bucking and salvaging high-value timber that had been blown down in windstorms but was much too dangerous for fallers to access. The grapple hot saw was then adapted for single stem harvesting of large high-value timber on steep rocky slopes where the wood would be shattered if felled conventionally. This experiment involved cutting sections of the tree one log at a time from the top down to a point where the stem was within the S-64 weight capacity to be flown as a stump after being prepared by the ground stemming crew.

All this experimentation was to demonstrate to the customer the value of using the S-64. Unfortunately, it all came to an end with the start of the global recession in 2007.

The global recession of 2007 through 2009 had a significant effect on CAC’s business whereby the end of 2010 reduced the annual number of logging flight hours to 2138.  Over this period, the reduction in revenue forced CAC like many other businesses to reduce costs, which unfortunately started with employee headcount reductions.  Additionally, after much P&L analysis, Erickson’s leadership directed CAC to change its business model. This change meant CAC would no longer offer cubic meter pricing to its logging customers. Cubic meter pricing was the standard in the B.C. coastal forest industry, and many industry pundits felt CAC’s customers would not accept this move. They thought it would be the beginning of the end for CAC and the S-64 logging in B.C. Moving forward into 2011 was a transitional year for CAC to honor the cubic meter pricing attached to all existing contracts and all new work would be bid using hourly pricing.

In February 2011, Erickson Inc. and CAC signed an annual contract with Columbia Helicopters Inc. (CHI) and its affiliate company Helifor Canada Corporation. (HCC) which happened to be EAC/CAC’s number one competitor. The contract involved CHI & HCC utilizing two S-64E’s to replace the BV234 in their logging operations in Canada and the U.S. In 2012, the contract was reduced to one S-64E that would be used primarily by Helifor in Canada. This contract came to an end in July of 2017, with Helifor closing its business.

In early 2012, changes took place to the existing Replaceable Helicopter Yarding Contract between WFP and CAC where CAC would provide an S-64E to WFP on a 12-month basis and WFP would pay CAC a fixed monthly rate and variable flight hour rate. This contract amendment with its structure and payment terms that underwent 5 subsequent amendments would last until early 2017. At this point, WFP recognized that the contract with its structure and payment terms which had been in place for the past 5 years was not sustainable due to a declining supply of large timber best suited for the S64 and asked that contract be amended to reflect a straight hourly rate based on a minimum commitment from WFP of 600 hours per year.

While CAC would miss the security provided by the WFP and Helifor annual contracts, the demand for western red cedar remained high. This allowed CAC to keep two aircraft and occasionally a third working for several customers through to mid-2019 when a union strike shut down all of WFP’s operations for up to nine months. Additionally, declining log prices coupled with increased government stumpage rates and high softwood tariffs imposed by the U.S. brought most of B.C.’s forest industry to a standstill. With so much uncertainty as to when things might improve, CAC immediately returned one aircraft to the U.S. and began the inevitable reduction of employee headcount.

Some of the original Erickson Air-Crane Co. staff with Jack Erickson (center) and Udo Rieder (far left) CEO of Erickson at the time, exact date unknown

To finish the three-part series and learn more about the future of Canadian Air-Crane (CAC) and logging in Canada, check out the Origin Story: Looking to the Future with Canadian Air-Crane, Part 3.