Erickson Rebuilding Air Crane as potentially pilotless combat logistics helicopter

By Dan Parsons | March 1, 2021

Equipped with a new robotic flight control brain, Erickson envisions a souped-up version of the S-64 Air Crane helicopter ferrying vehicles and bulk cargo to U.S. military troops in the field without pilots in the cockpit.

The company has spent the past year disassembling tail number N179AC, better known as “Elvis”, to its metal airframe in preparation for rebuilding it as the first S-64F+. Elvis, named for the shake, rattle and roll of its first job hauling timber, gained fame fighting fire in Australia where in 2001 it helped save the lives of 14 firefighters. 

“We’re excited that Elvis lives, but Elvis is getting a bit of a cyborg eyeball,” Jeff Baxter, senior director of research and product development, told Vertical in an interview. 

The impetus for upgrading the S-64 was to expand the aircraft’s firefighting capability to nighttime operation and into mountainous terrain with heavier loads, all of which both increase its effectiveness but introduce significant risk for pilots and crew. 

“In the possible ways you can do bad things to your life expectancy, we want to be able to do that,” Baxter said. “The whole point of doing that, from our perspective, is to open new markets that have never been done before. In traditional helicopter development, it’s just to do the same sorts of missions either cheaper or with less personnel, but our intention is to do new missions.” 

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