News Archive

The little helicopter that could

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

If you’ve ever flown a Mooney you know they are fast, responsive, and a great value in terms of speed for fuel. That the company has fallen and come back time and time again is as much a testament to the product as it is an indictment of the ownership.

Fly an Enstrom and look in to the company’s history and it’s clear it and Mooney are kindred spirits. The Chinese state-owned company that controls Enstrom is only the latest in a long and undulating path that includes everyone from the famous and quirky to the publicly anonymous venture capital firm. Yet, like Mooney, the products have been strong with an equally strong following. Fly one and it’s easy to see why.

The current line-up is much the same as its been for the past 10 years–the turbine 480B, and piston F-28F and 280FX. The F-28F and 280FX are essentially the same helicopter with the exception of the 280FX’s sleeker cockpit. With the infusion of money from the new owner the company has almost doubled the size of its factory and is on an ambitious plan to produce the TH180, a trainer aimed squarely at Sikorsky’s neglected S-300.

Enstrom's upcoming TH180 trainer

Enstrom’s upcoming TH180 trainer

CEO Tracy Biegler says the trainer’s certification program is a warm-up to an expanding line of products, one that probably goes up to bigger turbines. With the right strategy, and assuming the models stay true to Enstrom’s core values, they should see success.

We had the opportunity to fly both the 480B and the F-28F, both of which are quite impressive. The turbine is a bit underpowered, but it flies beautifully, and has enjoyed a great safety record. That focus on safety is part of why the company has won some important foreign military training contracts over the last five years, and what has allowed it to go from producing only five helicopters in 2012 to an anticipated 30 or so this year.

Meanwhile the turbocharged F-28F has power to spare, at least with two on board and a slightly above-standard day. We were shooting up at 1,500 feet a minute at best-climb speed. Both helicopters are rock solid to fly, have benign autorotation characteristics, and are clearly well built.

If Enstrom can stay true to its roots and the owners remain interested, the men and women of Menominee have a bright future.

Tiltrotor completes auto tests

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

AgustaWestland announced late last month that its AW609 Tiltrotor has completed dual-engine failure autorotation tests. This is a big milestone in the long development process that will result in the world’s only civilian tiltrotor, planned for certification in 2017.

The aircraft’s massive prop rotors make it impossible to land and take off with the engines in airplane mode. Because the aircraft exists in the space somewhere between an airplane and a helicopter, AW had to work with the FAA to determine exactly how it would be tested. The result was a requirement to be able to land safely in the same way a helicopter does after a failure in either mode. For the testing program that meant a demonstrated ability to go from a worst case scenario of full aircraft mode to a safe landing in full helicopter mode.

The few people outside company test pilots who have flown the aircraft praise its automated systems management capability. That is on display during the autorotation, where the aircraft automatically maintains an angle of incidence that results in 100 percent rpm after an engine or drive system failure. As the aircraft descends it must at some point convert fully to helicopter mode, which the company said it does rapidly. The nacelles go to a full aft position of 95 degrees for a run-on landing.

Most interesting about the aircraft is what might lead to a failure. It’s powered by Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines, each with its own gearbox. Both are connected by a common drive shaft, so if one engine fails the other working engine will provide power to both. AW thinks a complete and simultaneous dual failure is highly improbable, and the only time they envision a subsequent failure is with fuel contamination. Either way, more than 70 tests over 10 flight hours appears to prove the aircraft has the ability to handle such a problem.

AW609 demo flight during HAI's 2014 Heli-Expo

AW609 demo flight during HAI’s 2014 Heli-Expo

Eurocopter’s quest for speed

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

In the 1980s, Bell and Boeing Helicopters began developing a twin-turbo shaft military tilt rotor aircraft called the V22 Osprey. Bell then teamed with AgustaWestland to develop a commercial version known as the BA609 and it achieved its first flight in March 2003. During this time the helicopter industry was excited about VTOL aircraft reaching higher speeds. However, Eurocopter was quiet about its plans only saying it had no plans to develop a tilt-rotor aircraft.

On September 6, Eurocopter began test flights of its high-speed, long-range hybrid helicopter concept, which combines vertical takeoff and landing capabilities with fast cruise speeds of more than 220 knots. Called the X3, it is equipped with two turbo shaft engines that power a five-blade main rotor system and two propellers installed on short-span fixed wings. The engines are RTM322s, which power the company’s NH90 military transport. The main rotor gear box is a derivative of the yet-to-be certified EC175 medium size twin helicopter with a modification of two output drives for the propellers.

In cruise flight the rotor pitch is reduced to provide minimal drag and the small wings provide lift. Thrust comes from the propellers. There is no tail rotor so yaw and anti-torque are controlled by a standard pedal configuration that varies the thrust on each propeller separately. The aircraft can be flown like a traditional helicopter until 80 knots, then the main rotor pitch is reduced as the propeller thrust is increased.

According to Eurocopter, the hybrid aircraft will cost about 25 percent more per hour to operate than a conventional helicopter. However, with the increased speed the company points out that when measured in a per passenger/mile basis the operating costs will drop 20 percent. The X3 is currently a technology demonstrator, but Eurocopter says the concepts could be ready for production models in less than a decade.

Robinson R66—First flight

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I just spent the last two days flying Robinson Helicopter’s new light turbine helicopter, the R66. Although it is still in experimental category, FAA certification is expected in the next 30 days as Robinson and the FAA work out some final details.

Having a couple of thousand hours in the Bell 206 light turbine series helicopter made for an easy direct comparison. Last year Bell announced that it would cease production of the five-place Bell 206B JetRanger, citing the R66 as one reason. Company founder Frank Robinson’s design goals are not just well-engineered products, but cost effective as well. The R66, the company’s first turbine helicopter, exemplifies this objective extremely well, and after flying it, I think Bell made the right decision.

The R66 is powered by a Rolls-Royce RR300 (model number 250-C300/A1), a new engine based to the proven 250-series engine (same engine used in the 206B). It is mounted below the transmission deck at a 37-degree angle which gives easy access for maintenance. The engine produces 300 shaft horsepower and is derated to 270 shp for a five-minute take off rating and 224 shp for max continuous operation. Starting is simple; igniter switch to enable (a nice feature that allows you to motor the starter without firing the igniters–no more need to pull the igniter circuit breaker); press-and-release the start button (it’s latched so no need to hold it down), at 15 percent N1 push the fuel control in and monitor engine light off and acceleration. At 65- to 67-percent N1 the starter disengages and the generator is switched on.

Picking the R66 up to a hover is smooth and it feels a little bigger and a little heavier than the piston-powered R44, which it is. I flew with Doug Tompkins, Robinson’s chief pilot who did all the experimental test flying on the R66. We were hovering at 64-percent torque and as we approached 60 knots during the take off Doug suggested pulling 100-percent torque. I started raising the collective, before I got to 90 percent the VSI was pegged at 2,000 feet per minute and at 100 percent we were climbing like a banshee. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable with the helicopter and we moved on to autorotations. These were predictable and basically a lot of fun. I did 180-degree, 90-degree, and out-of-ground-effect hovering autorotations to a full touchdown. It is just like the R44, only easier.

Another noticeable feature is comfort; the cabin is eight inches wider than the R44. The cyclic flight control retains Robinson’s T-bar arrangement. Not only does this ease transitioning from the R44 to the R66, but the T-bar is exceedingly comfortable in flight.

There is not doubt this helicopter will do very well. Once again Frank Robinson has found a need and filled it. The agile and turbine-powered R66 will do the jobs that a piston engine simply can’t, such as high-altitude flying. It will also find great acceptance in parts of the world where avgas is hard to get or just not available. And for those operators and contracts that require a turbine engine, the R66 will fit perfectly.

There is a lot more to say about this helicopter so look for a full feature article in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot magazine.

Guy del Giudice

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Last week was a sad time for many of us in Dallas, Texas. I lost a friend and colleague in a helicopter accident. Guy del Giudice and I worked together at CareFlite; he was also its chief pilot. Also, killed in the crash was CareFlite mechanic Steve Durler and, although I didn’t know him personally, I understand he was very well liked.

Guy was flying a Bell 222 helicopter on a maintenance check flight. At the same time I happened to be flying a news helicopter when I heard Guy call Grand Prairie Tower for a south departure–I work for SKY Helicopter which is under contract with the Fort Worth/Dallas-based CBS affiliate KTVT Channel 11. The photographer and I were covering another news story when we were diverted to a fatal CareFlite helicopter crash south of the Grand Prairie airport. Hovering over the accident site I recognized the aircraft as the Bell 222 and knew immediately that my friend had perished.

The helicopter’s rotor system was located about 100 yards from the fuselage. What exactly caused it to separate from the helicopter in flight is not yet clear. I have no doubt that if anything could have been done to recover from this failure, Guy was the type of pilot who could have done it. He took his profession very seriously and was one of the most skilled pilots I have had the privilege of flying with. EMS crews are like family and all my friends at CareFlite are saddened beyond words. The helicopter industry has lost a talented pilot and a great person.

Aircranes

Monday, March 29th, 2010

While some helicopters are designed for speed, others are built simply to lift a lot of weight. Perhaps the best example is the Erickson S64 Aircrane. The S-64 was the first helicopter built as a flying crane with an aft-facing pilot station that allows the pilot to directly view the load being carried and fully control the aircraft during precision operations. This unique helicopter was certified in 1969 and originally manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft as the S-64A Skycrane. In 1992, Erickson purchased the type certificate to the Sikorsky S-64E and S-64F models, and the aircraft designation was changed to the S-64 Aircrane. Today, Erickson owns and operates a fleet of 18 Aircranes throughout the world.

The Aircrane’s rotor system consists of a six-blade fully articulated main rotor and a four-blade tail rotor. The S-64E is powered by two Pratt and Whitney turbine engines generating a combined maximum takeoff rating of 9,000 shp, giving the S-64E model an external load lift capacity of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kg) at sea level. The S-64F features a strengthened airframe, a rotor system with longer chord length, and two Pratt and Whitney engines rated at 9,600 shp which gives the S-64F model an external load capacity of 25,000 pounds (11,340 kg) at sea level.

Initially, the Aircrane’s civilian mission centered on timber harvesting and power line construction; however it has been used in many areas of heavy lift construction. For example, installing ski lifts, air-conditioning systems, and delicate steel artwork.

One of the most publicized jobs involved removing and replacing the Statue of Freedom, which sits atop the United States Capitol dome in Washington D.C. Using its precision maneuvering capability the Aircrane lifted the statue off of its pedestal on May 9, 1993, and placed it back after much needed renovation on October 23, 1993. Another high-profile project was the construction of the CN Tower in Ontario, Canada. In 1975, the Aircrane transported and placed the seven-ton steel sections that made up the antenna and weather metering systems, on at that time what was the world’s tallest freestanding structure, at an altitude of more than 1,850 feet.

In 1992 Erickson created the Helitanker firefighting system with a 2,650-gallon tank that can spray water, foam mix, or fire retardant. Two snorkel attachments take 45 seconds or less to fill up from any freshwater or saltwater source at least 18 inches deep. In 1997 the FAA certified a horizontal monitor water cannon attachment to fight high rise structure fires in congested urban areas. The cannon uses aircraft hydraulic power to propel a focused stream of water or foam mix up to 150 feet at a rate of up to 300 gallons per minute. The helicopter has now become a valuable firefighting tool in California and other parts of the world.

See the AOPA Pilot story on the Sikorsky Skycrane, “Dancing with Lucille.”

 

Above reproach?

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Commenting on my gross weight blog, Harold wrote:

“Leave the flying to he who is in the cockpit and the finger-pointing blogs to another publication please.”

That got me thinking, when is it (if at all) appropriate to comment, criticize, or even intervene on another pilots actions or behavior? I understand and agree with Harold to a point, but I don’t believe the complete answer is all that clear.

I have studied and written about helicopter accidents for many years. I think most of them have a lesson that can help us all be better pilots. I try to write about these in a way that states the facts without expressly passing judgment (gross weight included) and let the readers draw what they want from the situation. Believe me, I have made my share of mistakes but I have been lucky because they didn’t result in an accident. I have viewed them as learning experiences, because had something been just a little different I might not have been so lucky. I like to tell people that I can’t promise I won’t make a mistake, but I can promise I won’t make the same one twice. Having studied many accidents it is clear that there are no new accidents only the same ones repeated over and over, just in a different manner.

I also believe that simply being a licensed pilot does not make you above reproach. Listed below are three examples of pilot behavior that other people knew was dangerous. A link to the complete NTSB report is included because all the details can’t be listed here.

A pilot flying a news helicopter was well known as a hotdog and the photographer riding with him had expressed concern. His last radio transmission was “watch this” as he pulled the helicopter vertical and severed the tail boom killing himself and the photographer.

http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief.asp?ev_id=20001212X20685&key=1

A very experienced tour pilot flying in the Grand Canyon was well known for being a skilled pilot and for his aggressive flying. He had earned the nickname “Kamikaze.” At high density altitude he slammed into a canyon wall killing himself and six passengers.

http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2007/AAB0703.pdf

A pilot continued to fail phase checks, check rides, and pre-employment rides. He eventually got a job where his flight skills were not evaluated prior to being hired. He crashed an R22 killing himself and a passenger on an introductory flight.

http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief.asp?ev_id=20060228X00255&key=1

I really appreciate all the professional comments that people post. So if this subject interests you please take the time to read all the details and let us all know your thoughts. I believe that approaching this topic in the correct way can be a powerful learning tool for those so inclined to listen.

My intent is not to point fingers but to get pilots thinking about how easily an accident can happen. I know that reviewing accidents has helped me be a better pilot. However, I am very curious if other pilots find this helpful.

One final thought. I have been involved as an expert witness for helicopter accident cases in court and believe me the intense scrutiny pilots endure is not pleasant. Seeing that has given me another reason to believe that being ultra conservative to avoid an accident is well worth it.

Added pressure

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Inadvertent IMC accidents are a problem for helicopter EMS operations. Unfortunately, when the weather is bad sometimes the pressure to accept a flight can rise. The following illustrates what I mean.

According to the NTSB, on the night of Jan. 10, 2003, an air medical helicopter was dispatched from Salt Lake City to Wendover, UT (just more than 100 miles to the west).

After departure, the pilot contacted the Salt Lake City (SLC) air traffic control tower and requested an I-80 transition low-level westbound to Wendover. The tower instructed the pilot to hold east of SLC because of landing traffic. The pilot held at 700 ft agl for about 19 minutes while monitoring the tower and the ATIS frequencies. The pilot stated the weather drastically changed from two-mile visibility to 1/16-mile in fog. Because of the deteriorating weather, the pilot elected to abort the flight and return to the hospital. Returning to the dispatch center, he heard personnel discussing that another air medical service was attempting the flight. The pilot then contacted the other pilot on the radio and reported that he just aborted the same mission because the visibility had reduced to 1/16 miles. The other pilot stated he was going to try to get over the fog.

The other pilot contacted SLC tower for a departure clearance from the hospital. He was cleared to proceed toward SLC. The pilot requested a clearance to 7,000 or 8,000 feet. He was cleared for the ascent and instructed to remain east of SLC. The pilot reported that he attempted to climb; however, he would lose VFR and requested not to do that, but to transition through the SLC airspace to see if it cleared up any better. The tower advised the pilot that the visibility was 1/16-miles and to proceed inbound and remain east of SLC. The tower then asked the pilot if he could continue westbound and the pilot responded, “I’d like to give it a try if I could.”

The tower cleared the flight westbound with instructions to maintain VFR at or below 5,000 feet. A few minutes later the pilot stated he was on the west side of the airfield, and requested to return back to the east. The controller informed the pilot that she could not let him go east until he could see other aircraft on final approach to Runway 34R or she had a break in traffic large enough to get him back to the east side.

While holding, the pilot had the following conversation with his dispatch center:

“We are on the west side of the airport,” the pilot said. “Air Med got sent out for this same damn thing and then they called us to go out. Air Med turned around for low visibility, so they go shopping for another helicopter and we’re turning around at the west side airport. You know, it what’s their determination, you know.”

“I understand,” the dispatcher said. “Unfortunately, that happens all day long. A lot of the dispatch centers do it, but, so I understand that you are turning back 20.”

“I mean, they need help,” the pilot replied.

A few minutes later, the pilot told the tower, “I’m basically inadvertent IMC at this time and declaring an emergency.” Twelve seconds later, the tower asked the pilot whether he had Runway 34L in sight.

“That’s negative and I’m currently on a heading one-five-zero,” the pilot responded.

The tower instructed the pilot to turn right to a heading of 340 degrees for a vector toward SLC. The pilot did not acknowledge the instruction, and the tower controller again attempted to contact him. No further communications were received. The Salt Lake City police department received a 911 call from a witness reporting, “Very thick fog…the helicopter barely missed their trailers…fog is very thick can only see 40 feet ahead.”

The Agusta A109K2 twin-engine helicopter was destroyed when it impacted terrain while attempting to maneuver in dense fog. The instrument rated commercial pilot and the flight paramedic were fatally injured, and the flight nurse was seriously injured.

Thoughts on IFR HEMS

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Most helicopter EMS programs operate under VFR only. With the high number of weather-related accidents lately, the question of mandating IFR operations is talked about a lot. I do not know of a study that compares weather-related accidents for VFR-only versus IFR helicopter EMS programs. My guess would be that IFR programs would have a lower rate of these kinds of accidents.

I have flown for two IFR programs, Mayo One (BK117 C1) and CareFlite Dallas (Augusta 109E). In both programs the pilots in general were more comfortable flying in lower weather. This is for several reasons, but mainly the extra training and the fact that they were flying a fully IFR-certified helicopter. Also, I think being IFR trained and experienced helps pilots make better go/no-go weather decisions.

Filing an IFR flight plan does take a few extra minutes. However, using the IFR system to respond to a trauma call (flight on a highway for example) is rarely done. In these cases the ground crew would have to transport the patient to the closest instrument approach (normally an airport). If we couldn’t save any time, we would advise the dispatcher that transport by ground would be faster. Time is critical and a responsible pilot must make sure not to risk delaying patient care. I seldom launched on a flight under IFR.

However, there were several times when after departing VFR and on the return flight to the hospital weather deteriorated. I would call approach and receive an IFR clearance and vectors to the hospital’s GPS approach. In general, I’d say that getting a pop up clearance was not a problem and caused minimal if any delay. Keep in mind this was Rochester, Minnesota; ATC was not as busy as some larger airports and very accommodating to Mayo One. In Dallas/Fort Worth (CareFlite) ATC was much busier but also very helpful. Here pilots are sometimes asked to turn to a different heading and may be asked to maintain VFR for a short period. Normally they will get you in the IFR system and to an instrument approach with minimal delay.

The IFR system is definitely more fixed-wing friendly. Compared to airplanes, helicopters operating under IFR is still relatively new. The development of low-level GPS routing and WAAS approaches will help change that in the future.

In general, I do not think EMS programs are able to justify the added cost of an IFR program by the increased number of flights (therefore revenue) that IFR capability brings. I think the more important point is the increased pilot proficiency it provides and the extra options it gives the pilot. In an industry that is always trying to cut costs I think highly of the programs that understand the benefits and increased safety that an IFR program brings. If I were to return to EMS flying I would definitely want to fly for an IFR program.

Due diligence

Monday, September 28th, 2009

In response to my previous blog, Jon S. brought up some very good points. He questioned whether an EMS pilot would climb into the clouds, autopilot or not, if he or she would face an FAA violation for doing so. He is absolutely right as declaring an emergency does not guarantee a pilot won’t be cited with a violation. The FAA has taken the position that if the emergency is caused by the pilot’s action or inaction, then a violation is appropriate. In many cases the NTSB has upheld the FAA’s decision.

 

So how does this affect an EMS pilot’s decision making process? Well, in all the EMS Part 135 operations manuals I’ve read there is a defined procedure for inadvertent IMC. Basically, it is to climb, contact the nearest ATC, declare an emergency, and perform an instrument approach. In discussing this with other operators, I was told that the local FSDO has taken the position that if a pilot does the appropriate due diligence that they will not pursue a violation.

 

According to the NTSB, on June 8, 2008, an EMS pilot in Texas aborted a flight because of low clouds and fog encountered en route. The request was then made to a different operator. The second pilot was notified of the flight and performed a weather check for the route of flight. After his weather check, he contacted his company’s Enhanced Operational Control Center (EOCC) to discuss his weather observations and the previous turn down. Both the pilot and EOCC supervisor were observing 10 miles visibility and ceilings acceptable for the flight. At that time, the pilot or the supervisor did not understand the reason the other pilot turned down the flight. The pilot contacted EOCC a second time to discuss that the previous flight had been turned down because of fog. The pilot and the EOCC supervisor again discussed weather observations with the same conclusion, that the restriction to visibility reported by the previous flight was not observed by any official weather reporting station.

 

The Bell 407 crashed in densely forested terrain killing the pilot, flight nurse, and paramedic. Sheared treetops indicated initial impact occurred with the helicopter’s main rotor blade system in a straight nose-low attitude. It happened in the exact location where the other EMS pilot had encountered low clouds and lost reference to surface lights. The other pilot told the NTSB there were no traffic or weather concerns at the time of his departure. While en route, approximately five miles south of the hospital, at 1,400 feet he encountered wispy clouds. He descended to 1,200 feet and encountered more clouds, continued to descend to 1,000 feet and encountered even more clouds, and finally descended to 800 feet when the visibility decreased rapidly. He stated that he could see to the east but had lost his surface light reference. He turned immediately to the right, towards the freeway system, and was back in good weather. He stated that the low clouds and visibility were very sudden and dramatic.

 

Whether a potential FAA violation affected the accident pilot’s decisions that night will never be known. This kind of accident happens too often in EMS operations as some pilots obviously underestimate the potential for a CFIT accident. Better training would definitely help. I think climbing is normally the best option, however, Jon’s point is well taken and EMS pilots who could be put in an inadvertent IMC situation need to be sure they perform reasonable due diligence.

 

Another good question is whether all EMS operations should be flown under IFR. That’s coming up next.