Siller Helicopters Inc. based in Yuba City, California, performs lift jobs and aerial construction support across the USA flying two Sikorsky S-64 Skycranes, two CH-54 Tarhes, and two S-61s. The company has been doing lift work since the 1970s and is extremely experienced in all aspects of this demanding and very specialized work. Siller Helicopters is also well known for providing high quality and very well maintained firefighting aircraft on both contract and call when needed.
Rotorcraft Pro observed a recent lift job in the northern California city of Roseville at a large mall. The job entailed lifting eight 6,500-pound air conditioners, more than a Sikorsky S-58T can lift but well below the maximum 11,000 pounds their S-61 can lift. For jobs up to 10,000 pounds nothing can do it better than a light S-61. In addition to removing the old air conditioners, a few loads of support scrap metal from the air conditioning base plates were taken away. Precision flying is typical of such jobs, so this one was not particularly challenging for the flight crews. The mall was near sea level and it was a cool morning, so the S-61 had plenty of excess performance. This gave the flight crew many options to complete the job safely and efficiently.
Preparing for a lift job requires obtaining city permits and FAA authorization. Roads and areas around the lift site need to be closed and security people need to be stationed to keep onlookers out. Jim Anderson, who heads up construction sales and operations for Siller Helicopters, said, “It’s amazing how people try to approach the work area if we don’t have people watching and keeping them out.” Also landing areas need to be designated for aircraft refueling and emergency landing if needed. “For refueling, we have a single-point refueling system for our VH-3A that lets us do fast but safe refueling in the shortest amount of time,” added Anderson. The refueling is planned to take place so the helicopter is lightest during the heaviest lifts, giving the flight crew as much excess performance as possible. Another planning point is to try to do a lift job during the coolest part of the day that normally correlates to the morning hours. During the summer months this is quite important, especially as the altitude increases. Anderson said, “Every helicopter, even strong helicopters, have performance limits and we have to be very aware of these hard limits during every lift job. There might be days where the S-61 could do a job safely in the early morning but might meet its limit by late morning, so altitude, outside air temperature, and engine performance are critical for all helicopters. We learned long ago we cannot fool these calculations so in some cases where it might look like the S-61 could do the job it would actually require our Skycrane to complete the job safely.”
Anderson continued, “On this particular job, a landing zone was established at the job site and a fuel truck was on hand to refuel the aircraft mid-cycle. “Because of timing we ended up not refueling and finished the job and flew back to our hangar on a single tank of gas,”said Anderson. “It’s amazing our S-61 can take two hours of fuel and still lift 6,500 pounds with a good power margin.” Siller also brought in a support trailer to supply spare parts to the job site. They had a 2-hour window to complete the job and if the helicopter had an issue they wanted to fix it immediately. The parts weren’t needed but Siller Helicopter wanted to be prepared for any contingency that might arise and cause a delay.
As per FAA request, Siller Helicopter located an emergency landing zone in a large field right next to the mall. There were also empty parking lots that could be utilized for a landing.
Before any job, Siller ground crews and project managers inspect the area and talk to building and jobsite management about roof access, structural obstacles, debris on the roof, panels or equipment that might dislodge, glass windows that could be damaged. Things being blown around (tarps, cardboard, wood, etc.) can be dangerous to the helicopter itself and the ground crew could get hit by flying objects from the aircraft’s downwash. The inspection extended to parking lots and roadways around the lift area, Many times the city will close local roads, walkways, and anywhere a person might be in danger. This creates a safety barrier. “We like to do these jobs early on Saturday or Sunday mornings, when people are not on the roads yet. As far as noise, Siller doesn't get many complaints as they stay over the job site and most jobs are away from housing. They also try to be efficient to save the client money and not overstay their welcome.
Siller Helicopter’s VH-3A is a unique helicopter in the civil world. The aircraft was manufactured in 1965 for VIP transport. Their specific helicopter was operated by the Indonesian air force for use by its president. The helicopter was then returned to the U.S. and sold to another operator. Around 1978, Siller Helicopter bought the aircraft and put it into service in heli-logging. It logged for many years until that part of the businesses started to decline and construction and firefighting started to become more popular for the S-61. Today, the S-61 does construction jobs, like placing items ranging from 5,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds on buildings. It’s also used by power companies to set power poles in sensitive areas and place other bulky, energy-related materials in mountainous and other remote sites. The S-61V has done many miscellaneous jobs, such as helping build bridges where it was easier to bring materials in by air then haul them in by truck.
Siller Helicopter has a U.S. Forest Service exclusive-use firefighting contract for its VH-3A during the summer months and it’s on call when needed during the spring and fall. The aircraft has a fixed 1,000 gallon belly mounted tank or can employ a Bambi Bucket upon request. Over the years as more powerful engines became available Siller upgraded the VH-3A to CT58-140 1,400hp engines, up from its original 1,250hp. Another performance upgrade came when Carson composite main rotor blades were bought by Siller Helicopter. These blades give 1,500 pounds more vertical lift, increased speed, and give the S-61 considerably better altitude performance. Anderson said, “These blades are not inexpensive but have a much longer life than the Sikorsky metal blades. The composite blades performance increase is real and quite remarkable.” With the engines and Carson blades the Siller Helicopter VH-3A might be one of the highest performance H-3s in the world. Over the years, the VH-3A has been overhauled a few times and every time excess weight was removed. This extra weight might have been wiring or unneeded avionics, or anything else not needed.
The VH-3A provides value to Siller Helicopter and the company has full confidence in it for the future. Anderson “Even after over 50 years of service, the S-61 is a strong and reliable helicopter. Since Siller Helicopter specializes in the airframe, the company knows it intimately. Even with many surplus Blackhawks coming on line, at lower altitudes the S-61 will outlift them by a good 15 percent margin,” says Anderson. “For precision placement within its lift range, the S-61 simply cannot be beat. What’s great is that we can still put four hours of fuel in it, fly it to a job in Southern California and be ready for a lift job the following day, or even the same day although that is not typical. Also as a firefighter, the S-61 is still a very capable machine with either the fixed 1,000-gallon tank or the external Bambi Bucket. We have no plans of replacing it, it’s just too good at what it does and is still cost effective. The S-61 is here for the long haul.”