Big, orange and outfitted with a 'snorkel,' Helitanker 743 is ready for action

'Jerry' the helitanker, the newest addition to Cal Fire's firefighting arsenal, is making a big splash on the tarmac and across Northern California.|

Sonoma County’s airport has never had a visitor quite like “Jerry.”

One might think of the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane as a helicopter on steroids, with a massive 72-foot rotor span and payload capacity of 20,000 pounds dwarfing most other choppers.

Configured as a helitanker, the Skycrane employs a long tube, or snorkel, to suck up to 1,600 gallons of water in less than 45 seconds. The payload can then be deposited over flames to fight fire with pinpoint accuracy.

With California’s wildfire season heating up, Cal Fire contracted with Oregon-based Erickson Inc. to station a helitanker at the Sonoma Air Attack Base for ready availability responding to blazes. The Skycrane is named after Jerry Winn, longtime logging manager for Sikorsky.

It’s the first time such an impressive machine as been stationed at the air base, according to Cal Fire Cpt. Nate Glaeser.

The helitanker and its crew of three, including pilots John Walker and John Fryer, are dispatched to wildland blazes across Northern California.

The Sonoma base’s response area includes 4,000 square miles, encompassing all or part of eight counties.

Last week, that included two blazes northeast of Garberville in Humboldt County.

The crew put the snorkel in the Eel River to draw water for dousing flames. The same task can be accomplished in as little as two feet of water, Glaeser said.

The helitankers can hold a maximum 2,650 gallons of water and drop more than 25,000 gallons every hour.

Cal Fire’s main weapons for aerial assaults on fires are fixed-wing planes loaded with retardant. The substance is made of salt, water, a thickening agent, red coloring and phosphates. The fertilizer-like mixture releases water vapor when it hits flames.

Helitankers, however, have the advantage of getting into areas where other aircraft can’t fly.

Jerry’s official designation is “Helitanker 743,” and on any given day, it can be called into action.

The Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane is an American-made twin-engine helicopter that can pull heavy duty while performing a variety of tasks.

Besides firefighting, the Skycrane’s other uses include heavy lift construction and timber harvesting.

The contract calls for the helitanker to be stationed at the Sonoma County base for 90 days.

Glaeser said the terms were structured that way so that the helitanker would be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“This is Cal Fire’s way of grabbing a very scarce resource and holding onto to it as our own, as opposed to waiting until a big fire happens and calling a bunch of companies hoping they can free up from a logging operation to come fight fires,” Glaeser said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or

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