Posted 5 years 327 days ago ago by jhadmin
Just days prior to its rendezvous with destiny, on a “clear-blue-22” day, the Erickson Aircrane made its 350-mile journey from Central Point, Oregon, and lumbered into the San Francisco Bay area, flying past such national icons as Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Its destination: San Carlos Airport in the heart of Silicon Valley. Its mission: to preserve — and make — history.
It all began last year when Erickson was asked to perform a high-profile lift job for technology titan Oracle. For more than 35 years, the Silicon Valley-based company has been a leader in database software. Over the decades that leadership has expanded to the entire stack, from servers and storage, to database and middleware, then on through applications and into the cloud.
Hardware and software advancements aside, Oracle has also used its technology and innovative spirit in areas that would seem counter-intuitive — such as sailing. Did you know that racing sailboat USA-17, designed and crewed by ORACLE TEAM USA, would make history by winning the 33rd America’s Cup in 2010 off the coast of Spain? The 90-foot by 90-foot trimaran platform was powered by a wingsail 223 feet long. For perspective, that’s bigger than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Such a huge sail helped the multihull boat travel over two-and-a-half times prevailing wind speed.
Can we fly it?
Having secured the world’s oldest international sport trophy, USA-17 was lifted into retirement on May 10 this year by Erickson Aircrane to its final home at Oracle headquarters in Redwood City, California. The flight time from the beginning of the lift to set down was only a few minutes, but the entire job was a year in planning. I asked Jason Weber, Erickson’s project manager, to walk me through the planning for a job like this? He said the first step begins with the basic question: can this object be flown? “We have been flying oddball things for over 40 years and this 90-foot by 90-foot racing yacht was a first for us,” said Weber. “There were many considerations to take into account. We don’t fly things just to fly them.”
The weight of the yacht was not a major consideration; the boat only weighed 16,500 pounds. With the jobsite being at sea level and moderate temperatures prevailing, the helicopter’s performance would only be pushed to 75 percent of its limits. The more difficult part of the equation revolved around aerodynamics and rigging.
How would the boat fly through the air: forwards … backwards … spinning? Remember, the wing and the hull of this racing yacht were designed to take off at the slightest hint of wind. How the boat would react to the Aircrane’s rotor wash while flying through the air was anyone’s guess. There are no computer models for such unique conditions.
Rigging was another big challenge. The yacht was not designed to be lifted into the air by its hull. Could they rig the boat to not only be lifted, but also to fly through the air without breaking? The approach Erickson uses to answer questions like these is surprisingly simple. First, Weber visits the jobsite and analyzes the layout and load. Then he draws on his decades of experience to develop a rough plan. He then documents the plan and shares it with his entire team, who also have decades of experience. The team is encouraged to shoot holes in the plan and share previous experiences. Weber says, “At the end of the day, when you are doing something for the very first time, all you can do is draw on the collective experience of the team to work things out.”
Is it legal?
Probably the least exciting task, but one of the most important, was to determine if the FAA would let Erickson do the job. Given that it was in a densely populated area, there were questions as to whether the job could be done in a safe manner. Since this operation falls under FAR Part 133 – External Load Operations, there are many guidelines and precautionary measures to meet.
For example, take the rule that requires defining and maintaining a sterile area for the course a load is flown. This means that for the entire route USA-17 was to be flown, there could be no persons in a predefined area as determined by the FAA. The route length, and what the yacht would fly over, would determine security requirements. If they could somehow get the boat close to the facility and keep the route short, the job would be more feasible.
The massive racing boat’s final destination was a large lake in front of Oracle’s complex. Their corporate campus backs up to a tidal slough that is fed by San Francisco Bay. The plan was to tow the boat up the slough as far as possible before hitting bottom. Then the yacht would be lifted by an Aircrane that would follow the river up to the Oracle complex. Once there, they would fly directly over Oracle Headquarters and place the boat on the lake.
As the sun crested the horizon on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, Erickson crews were already hard at work pre-flighting the helicopter, checking the rigging, and putting security and spotters in place. It was a gorgeous morning in Redwood City. Bright blue skies with barely a passing cloud, shirtsleeve temperatures, and light winds would make for ideal conditions.
According to Weber, it would take approximately 75 people from numerous agencies to plan and execute this job. In addition to the efforts of Oracle and Erickson, government entities like the FAA, local law enforcement, fire and EMS departments would be in the game as well. Erickson itself brought ten personnel to perform the lift, which included three project managers, two pilots, and four mechanics. The last, but hardly least, person rounding out the team was Erickson Aircrane CEO Udo Rieder, who wanted to witness the historical lift and congratulate everyone at the conclusion of a job that had been a year in the making.
It is standard operating procedure when performing non-routine lift jobs to have the load monitored externally for the entire flight. In addition to the crew on the helicopter, this lift would have three sets of eyes monitoring all aspects of the job. Weber would be on an airboat in the slough to see the position of the load relative to the boundaries of the set sterile area. Additional spotters were also on the rooftop of Oracle headquarters and on the lake where the boat would come to rest. Along the entire course, as one spotter lost sight of the load, another took over.
Challenges for the crew
The Aircrane was to be piloted by Captains Brad Warren and Mel Ceccanti, with Erik Weaver serving as crew chief. Warren, with decades of lift and utility experience, would be at the controls of the helicopter for his first yacht lift. The route that day would be less than five miles, taking them on a round-robin trip from San Carlos Airport to the lift spot in the slough to the drop zone at Oracle, then back to the airport.
According to Warren, the top three concerns from the cockpit that day were: (1) how the load would fly (2) keeping the load in the sterile area, and (3) proper rigging. In accordance with the Rotorcraft Load Accommodation Manual suggested practice for flying loads that have not been done before, the plan was to lift the yacht and transition very slowly into forward flight. Several drogue parachutes were attached to the hull to limit any spin of the load. Unfortunately, two of the drogue shoots did not properly inflate and there was an initial slow spin. However, the load soon settled out and flew stern-first for most of the route.
The biggest piloting challenges were not just the unique load itself, but also the location of the lift spot. Hovering high over water creates a much higher workload. The rotor downwash not only tries to push the load around on top of the water, but the water itself is moving. Warren explains, “This gives you no solid reference point immediately under the helicopter, which in turn requires you to speed up your scan and look further away toward the shoreline or adjacent buildings to aid in holding the aircraft position in one spot.”
One unique competitive advantage for Erickson, which made this job feasible, was its aircraft-mounted winch. The yacht being in the water created a unique challenge. Traditionally, a helicopter would fly with a long line from a specific launch spot to the load itself and perform the lift. However, the FAA views the long line itself as a load since it’s jettisonable. Being in a densely populated area, the nearest launch spot was the San Carlos Airport.
Such a scenario would have required a sterile area for the entire route from the airport to the lift site, making the job either more expensive or even not feasible at all. However, because Erickson has an integrated winch on the Aircrane, it was able to fly directly to the lift spot, lower cable down to the rigging, and winch it back up. This technology broadens the scope of work Erickson can consider and execute.
Land of giants
This entire operation was unique in that it required giant components coming together to perform something that had never been done. First there was the big thinking and vision of ORACLE TEAM USA and its founder Larry Ellison. Next, there was the yacht itself, larger than a baseball infield. Finally, the iconic S-64 Aircrane, and the pioneering spirit of Erickson and its crews, pulled off the feat. Together they preserved a piece of yachting history, while making flying history.
Weber sums up the historic project he managed, “It was very exciting to be able to work with such a great group of guys on both Oracle’s and Erickson’s teams to complete a job that had not been done before — and might never be done again. Oracle set themselves in the history books by winning the America’s Cup. It is a good feeling to know that we had a little piece in helping to preserve that history for all to see.”
When asked what this event meant to her, Oracle Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Judy Sim said, “Bringing USA-17 to its home at Oracle is a historic moment for our company, our local community, and the world of sailing. Having won the America’s Cup in 2010, USA-17 will be on display at our headquarters, giving our customers and the Redwood Shores community an opportunity to see the technology that brought the Cup home to the United States.”