News Archive

The need for speed

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

There was news from AgustaWestland last week that the company’s forthcoming AW609 Tiltrotor broke a speed record from Yeovil, England to Samarate, Italy. The entire 627 nautical miles took two hours and 18 minutes, resulting in an average speed of about 273 knots. That’s a pretty impressive clip.

With the Tiltrotor expected to be in the $30 million range, not to mention a few thousand an hour to operate, the time savings has to be seriously compelling to justify the expense.

Although this flight went between two AgustaWestland facilities, it could just have easily been two customer factories, or a CEO’s home and weekend estate. So it’s as good as any to use as a case study. Alternative modes of getting to the airport would have been required on both ends;  let’s look at how that would work.


Yeovil is served by either Bristol or Bournemouth. Let’s give our alternate method the best chance and say we base a Citation X out of Bournemouth. We bought it used, so we had a bit left over for an Agusta AW109 that we keep at our office. It’s a best-case scenario of helicopter to fastest business jet in the world. We’ll also assume both the jet and helicopter are primed and ready to go.

We can ballpark the flight between Yeovil and Bournemouth at about 130 nautical miles. That would take about 15 minutes. Add in some ground time with the jet and we’re off U.K. soil in about 30 minutes total.

The destination helps traditional airplane travel because the facility is only a few miles from an airport. And given that the Citation X can make this trip in a little over an hour (call it an 70 minutes with a direct routing), things are looking good for jet travel, indeed.

After landing in Milan we have another 15 minutes on the ground before getting in the car for the 15-minute drive to the AgustaWestland facility–our final destination.

A bit of scratch-pad math puts this form of trip at one hour and 55 minutes. Of course, that’s with the world’s fastest business jet, a helicopter, a direct routing, and a destination only 15 minutes from an airport large enough to handle our jet.

No doubt a more traditional trip would involve an hour drive to the airport on the front end (Yeovil to Bournemouth), a slightly slower jet, some diversions in flight, and a longer drive on the back end. In all, it probably takes AW executives more like three hours or more to make that trip.

Thirty million is a big price to pay for saving an hour, but we shouldn’t underestimate people’s needs for aircraft that fit unique mission profiles. The sweet spot for the Tiltrotor is pretty small. The mission has to be long enough that traditional rotorcraft can’t compete, and short enough that a jet won’t blow it away. AW says the Tiltrotor offers rotorcraft capabilities with turboprop speeds. That’s pretty cool. But they also say that executives are the aircraft’s primary target customer, and said executive can buy a jet and a traditional helicopter for a lot less money.

Despite all this there are approximately 60 orders for the aircraft thus far, and barring significant missteps, I think that will increase. Once people see these operating in and out of downtown heliports, factories, and airports, their appeal will grow. I was on an airline flight last week out of Washington National and a V-22 Osprey flew down the Potomac River. People who had moments before been buried in their morning paper took notice. They pointed and made comments. There’s no denying the technology is enticing, and for that reason alone people will buy them. I know I would love to fly it!

Bell opens new training academy

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Bell Helicopter last month celebrated the grand opening of its new training academy in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell has long been known for superb factory training, both for simulation and especially in the aircraft. The facility is equipped with a dedicated tower and flight line, a maintenance training hangar, and advanced multimedia classrooms. The company said its 86,000 square foot facility represents the final part of its consolidation efforts in North Texas.

The academy offers basic, recurrent, and advanced training programs for the entire line of Bell models, including some no longer in production. It also offers non-destructive inspection training for technicians, and first responder safety ground training. Bell also provides offshore and rooftop specific training by way of a 30-foot elevated platform used for pinnacle take-off and landing maneuvers. It is an FAA, EASA and Transport Canada approved training facility. With the training academy now complete, Bell has consolidated more than one million square feet within their main corporate campus which they said will save close to $20 million in annual operating expenses.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Like all helicopter manufacturers, Bell has been hit recently with declining commercial aircraft sales, due in part because of the continued decline of crude oil prices. Military sales of the V-22 Osprey, praised for its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, have steadily declined as well.  The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that hovers like a helicopter but can fly at high-altitude and speeds similar to a jet. It can carry two dozen troops and up to 20,000 pounds of additional cargo.

At the same time, the company is looking to the future with its 505 light single, a replacement for the ever-popular 206. Late last month the company officially opened its Lafayette, Louisana-based 505 production facility. Testing continues at Bell’s Mirabel, Quebec location.

–Scott Hotaling

Putting the auto in autorotate

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Three seconds. That’s all you the time you have to get the collective buried on an R22—give or take a tenth or two. Now a new company thinks it has an innovative solution that will help keep the air flowing through those rotor blades.

HeliTrak is developing a collective pull down, a simple system that automatically drops the collective in half a second once the low rotor light and horn go off. Much like a stick pusher in a fixed-wing stall, the collective pull down overrides the feeble human brain and uses a motor and a cable to quickly yank it down.

In the event it’s not a true emergency and the pilot elects to figure things out, he can manually override it by doing a bit of tug-of-war. The system is designed to give up and let the human win after about three seconds, the logic being by that point the pilot has figured out it’s not a true emergency and wants to keep flying.

Even if he goes the safe route, lets the system win, and then later realizes it’s ok to keep flying, the system is engineered to let go and allow the pilot to fly again.

I bench tested the collective pull down (meaning it was in a display box on a table at EAA Airventure) and was really impressed. The pull is dramatic, but clearly easy to override in a tense moment. In fact, the whole thing is so simple, so obvious, it’s a short conversation. Seems cool, should be certified, little downside.

HeliTrak hopes to get the STC in the next few months. Initially it will be available for the R22, but the R44, Enstroms, and JetRanger could come soon after. At fewer than two pounds, and a modest three or so hours to install, the initial numbers look good.

The dawn of the new Jet Ranger

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

First flights of an aircraft design program are always a big milestone, but when the aircraft is one based on a machine that defined a generation, it becomes a big deal, indeed. Bell’s first flight of the 505 Jet Ranger X last month marks a significant event in the helicopter’s life cycle. The flight lasted only 30 minutes and included basic hover work and a few trips around the pattern at Bell’s Mirabel facility in Quebec, Canada.

Yet despite reaching a big milestone, it was arguably not even the biggest news to come out of the development program last month. What’s been much more fascinating to watch is the speed with which Bell has racked up orders for the next gen Jet Ranger. Officially launched at this year’s Heli-Expo in February, Bell has already signed 300 orders for the aircraft. Some 50 of those are from Chinese company Reignwood Investments. For sake of comparison, Robinson said earlier this year that it has produced 500 R66s since the aircraft was certified a few years ago.


If we assume the 300 orders for the Jet Ranger stick, it serves to validate the business case for the program. Some might say it shows the market was always there, which may be true. But often it takes an outside pressure, such as the R66, to drive demand for a segment. The fact that it gave Bell the opportunity to refresh the design doesn’t hurt either.

It’s easy to call the new Jet Ranger a clean sheet design, and absent any official definition, I suppose it’s a fair description. But it’s also not wrong to call it a significant refresh of an existing product. By using proven components, such as the drive system, Bell has smartly stuck to what it knows, and has helped to ensure the success of the product.

Expect to see the Jet Ranger certified in 2016, and absent any hiccups with the new plant in Louisiana, see them rolling out the door soon after.

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.


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.”