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Friday, June 1, 2007

Operations: A Greater Voice

Ian Parker

With the support of manufacturers, helicopter operators are gaining influence in regulatory debates in Europe.

IN EUROPE, CIVIL AND MILITARY SALES OF HELICOPTERS are jumping. New technology and procedures are coming. There’s a pilot shortage (always a good sign). Perhaps most startling though, the authorities are listening to the rotorcraft point of view.

The civil market in Europe has great potential coming from market demand and a combination of technology and rule changes that will allow rotorcraft to challenge the scourge of light aviation in Europe — bad weather. The Galileo/European Geostationary Overlay Service (EGNOS) satellite navigation system is designed to offer the potential of precision instrument approaches to anywhere. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is probably more helicopter-aware than any previous civil aviation authority in Europe.

"The helicopter world is just frantic at the moment," said Peter Norton, long-time military and civil helicopter pilot and CEO of the British Helicopter Advisory Board. "There’s so much going on."

He cites as an example SESAR, the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research program. It aims to improve efficiency by a factor of three and safety by a factor of 10, reduce air traffic management costs by 50 percent a flight, and trim environmental effects by 10 percent.

The initiative had been focused on airlines, Norton said. "Getting a word in for general aviation — including helicopters — has been difficult."

Now, the British board has joined the SESAR consortium as the representative of the European Helicopter Assn. (EHA). "We are injecting rotorcraft needs, including tilt-rotor," Norton said. "We’re getting our needs into their documents."

Run by Eurocontrol, the SESAR consortium includes roughly 50 members representing airports, airspace users, suppliers, air traffic systems, military services, research centers, and professional associations.

EADS, the parent of Eurocopter, has been lending its support to rotorcraft efforts, giving the helicopter association a complete view of the necessary papers. "It’s producing a much more positive view of the needs of rotorcraft," said Norton.

The EGNOS is slated to be functioning next year. When it is up and running, rotorcraft should have the ability to navigate point-to-point in 4D. "We’ll get the ability to perform IFR approaches to any location. This goes hand in glove with full icing clearances for rotorcraft," said Norton.

Eurocopter’s senior vice president of research and development, Bernard Rontani, said "Icing clearance will become the standard for large rotorcraft." It is already available on the Eurocopter EC225, the NHIndustries NH90 and Sikorsky Aircraft’s S-92.

The improved navigation capabilities should allow rotorcraft to work in parallel with airliners without interfering at all, Norton said. "We’re looking for simultaneous, non-interfering approaches at existing airports. We’re pushing hard to get this into the SESAR project. It’s very important to our future."

Wanted: Heliports

The United Kingdom has been a leader in European rotorcraft developments for several reasons — offshore oil and gas exploration and support, the freedom that rotorcraft enjoy to land anywhere that’s safe with nothing more than the landowner’s permission, a vibrant business and private flying community, and a homegrown manufacturer, to name just four. Opportunities are seen in the 2012 Olympics being held in London.

Norton said London needs more heliports. The capital of the country and the financial capital of the world has just one and its yearly movements are capped at 12,000. "The Olympics in 2012 will generate a huge amount of traffic into the airports around London," Norton said. "We need one, or preferably two, more heliports to support the growing needs of the business community and the Olympics."

He said London needs a full-scale heliport allowing IFR operations with about 2,600 ft (800 m) of runway. London City Airport is considering adding helicopter operations. Its position on the east side of The City, London’s financial district, would make a heliport there ideal.

Industry in the United Kingdom and Europe is working with manufacturers, with EASA, and the national aviation authorities to advance rotorcraft. Norton said, "I see a huge co-operation and its very positive."

An initiative to reduce the accident rate for private pilots has been started by the United Kingdom They are prone to flying into the ground when navigating in poor weather, often just following the GPS. The British advisory board has worked with the Civil Aviation Authority to introduce more restrictive limits for VFR flight.

Minimum visibility for VFR is now 0.9 mi (1,500 m) and the rule wording has been changed to "with the surface in sight." Previously pilots could fly over clouds so long as they could see ground in the distance. Last year, there was only one fatal civil helicopter accident in the United Kingdom and that was a commercial flight.

Security

Aviation security might cause problems for rotorcraft. The European Commission introduced a rule, EC23/20, that member states had to adopt for aviation. It’s aimed at commercial operations of aircraft over 22,046 lb (10 tonnes).

Two years ago, the U.K. Transport Dept. put out a proposal to reduce this to 6,020 lb (2.73 tonnes) and apply it to all aircraft. This could cause major problems for helicopters. A pickup in someone’s garden might require a passenger metal detector and team of security screeners.

The operator would need the same security at every intermediate landing. The British advisory board worked very closely with the department to protect the flexibility of helicopters. As a result, EC23/20 is being revised. The board is pressing for a separate regime for helicopters.

The helicopter community has been successful at providing input to regulators throughout the European aviation community.

The executive director of EHA, Jan Willem Stuurman, said, "EASA knows we are here and we get invited to top meetings. I’m on the EASA advisory board, which is mostly fixed-wing, but EHA is there. EASA is open to input about rotorcraft. And we’re still dealing with the Joint Airworthiness Authorities in the transition to EASA."

Input to EASA regulations will be ongoing. "These are living documents," said Stuurman. The Helicopter Sub-Sectorial Team "is the most prestigious helicopter committee and is still under JAA responsibility. Hopefully, it will continue under EASA. We have a good relationship with Eurocontrol. We are fully recognized as a participant."

And what of the more distant future? Right now, Stuurman said, "the helicopter/tilt-rotor study group is making progress. After five years, the group gave its findings to the International Civil Aviation Organization air navigation committee."

Some years ago, HAI and EHA formed the International Federation of Helicopter Associations. "That’s how we were able to put our best people into the helicopter/tilt-rotor study group to rewrite ICAO Annex 6/Part 3, covering the operational part of helicopter flying." All national and regional rules are based on ICAO rules. "If you can influence ICAO rulemaking, that’s very good," he said.

Military Opportunities

Norway needs to choose a search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopter to replace its AgustaWestland Sea Kings. The NH90 was to have taken this role until late deliveries of the aircraft ordered for its navy and coast guard provoked cancellation of the optional SAR aircraft. The NH90 is still a candidate, but it will have to compete once again with Sikorsky’s S-92 and AgustaWestland’s EH101.

France has a long-standing need for a heavy lifter, although it has never made it to the stage of an official requirement. Eurocopter wants to build a heavy lifter if it can get a group together to meet this military requirement. The VR-26 main gearbox of Rostvertol’s Mi-26 could form the basis of such an aircraft.

In addition to the conversion of eight HC Mark 3 Chinooks to battlefield-lift aircraft and the acquisition of six EH101 Merlins from Denmark, the U.K. Defense Ministry is continuing to work on the Future Rotorcraft Capability program to meet long-term needs for battlefield-support helicopters. This includes plans to launch a competition for a new medium-lifter helicopter early in 2008.

Sweden and Finland have talked on and off about acquiring attack helicopters and this possibility is strengthening, although there is no indication of numbers or which types would be considered. Sweden did start a tendering process, but chose not to proceed.

Belgium must choose whether to exercise an option for two more NH90s in addition to the eight that it placed on firm order in late April. It has ordered four NFH maritime NH90s and four TTH tactical battlefield transport ones.

Italy is expected to buy 16-20 Boeing CH-47F Chinooks to be built in a production agreement reached this year between Boeing and AgustaWestland. These are to replace the aging Chinooks Italy already operates.

Italy’s CH-47Cs are reaching the end of their service lives. Because they are not D models, Italy does not have the option of having them remanufactured to the CH-47F configuration, as the U.S. Army is doing. So to maintain its medium-lift capability, Italy must by new aircraft. Orders are expected in next year or in 2009.

AgustaWestland was selected earlier this year to negotiate a contract to sell 51 A129 Mangusta International tactical reconnaissance and attack helicopters to Turkey in an order worth more than Euro 1.2 billion ($1.6 billion). This places the Mangusta in a strong position for further orders in Europe and possibly Asia. Turkey most likely will become the first Islamic member of the European Union and could play a pivotal role in East/West relations.

The NH90 program is a triumph of European co-operation and perhaps a precursor of joint European rotorcraft projects which must have strong sales potential in the Americas.

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