Saturday, April 1, 2006
Flying The EC145
Blending the benefits of modern cockpit technologies with well-proven airframe and engine reliability and a history of performing similar missions, the EC145 is a good fit for the U.S. Army's Light Utility Helicopter requirements.
In the rapidly changing world of military helicopter operations, the U.S. Army is altering a long-standing practice of military aircraft being the forerunners of civil aircraft development. Historically, government funding and design of aircraft to meet military missions paved the way for many follow-on civil versions.
Classic airplane examples include the Douglas C-47 becoming the DC-3, and the Boeing KC-135 becoming the Boeing 707. In our younger world of rotorcraft, Vietnam-era helicopters like the Hughes OH-6 became the MD500 family and the UH-1 Huey's became Bell's 204 and 205, then 212s, 412s, and 214s. Sikorsky's H-3s became the S-61.
Undoubtedly, this practice allows design and initial production efforts to be funded, tested and proven by the military before civil derivatives are cranked up. Typically, the development cycle for military helicopters is a long and drawn out process, running for years or even decades and costing millions upon millions of dollars.
Sometimes, this cycle is so long that original design specifications are overtaken by advances in technology, or changes in battlefield tactics. The Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche project scrapped in 2004 is the most notable recent example. When its development began 1983, it was seen as a weapon to fight the massed armor of the Soviet Union, a foe that no longer existed when it was cancelled.
For some military missions, if civil aircraft already are doing similar tasks a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) approach can drastically shorten the acquisition cycle. It also spares the military from footing much of the design and development costs. The U.S. Army is in the midst of a COTS acquisition to meet its requirement for 322 new aircraft under its Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) competition.
It is easy to understand why manufacturers are keen to pursue large-scale military contracts rather than "onesy-twosy" sales in the commercial market. The LUH competition could lead to a contract worth more than $2 billion.
The competition is unique, since the stated purpose of these helicopters is only for the Army's missions in the continental U.S. They are not intended for combat deployment and thus will not have fixed armament.
The LUH is intended to replace U.S.-based active-duty and National Guard fleets of aging UH-1s and smaller Bell OH-58As and Cs. Part of the financial justification for the acquisition is that the LUHs will also free up many U.S.-based UH-60s that are overkill in light utility missions and are better suited for deployment in broadening global operations. The Army lists the LUH's missions as logistics and supply support, personnel transport, medevac, drug interdiction and training. These are similar to missions performed by civilian law enforcement, EMS/rescue and homeland security aircraft, including disaster-response work as seen in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
There are many civil operators performing such missions in a wide variety of helicopter models, so using a proven civil helicopter makes good sense for the Army.
It is requiring that any aircraft bid for the LUH must be FAA certified. The Army says it intends to keep the aircraft maintained and certified to FAA standards, so that in the future the aircraft would retain some usable residual value for resale in the civil market.
This approach contrasts with the traditional Army one of flying helicopters until they are ready for the "boneyard" or transfer to other government agencies on an "as-is where-is, and good luck fella" basis, as was done with hundreds of Vietnam-era Hueys, OH-6s and OH-58s in the 1990s. As a result of the Army's new approach, maintenance and parts support are critical bidder's responsibilities and presumably will receive considerable emphasis during the selection evaluation.
The multi-mission LUH will have to support a variety of configuration options--rescue hoists, cargo hooks, litters--and provide ample cargo and passenger space. It must have IFR certification and the capability to mount a variety of hardware--forward-looking infrared and camera options, searchlights, fire buckets and integrated military radios. Because LUH mission profiles are day and night, night-vision goggle compatibility will be essential.
As a result of the optional equipment and support requirements, the helicopter's base cost will only be a portion of the overall bid evaluation. LUH officials are doing on-site inspections of bidder's facilities and manufacturing capabilities and evaluating support team experience, history and strategies. An obvious concern will be whether the bidders can ramp up production to meet the Army's schedule.
The European manufacturers vying for the LUH contract are teaming with experienced U.S. military integration and support contractors to accomplish the specialized configuration and support work. AgustaWestland is partnered with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems in its bid based on the AW139 (formerly the Bell/Agusta Aerospace AB139). The French-German consortium EADS has teamed up with Sikorsky and WestWind Technologies. (EADS is the parent of Eurocopter and its EADS North America unit is the prime contractor on the EC145-based LUH bid.) The other LUH bidders are Bell with its 412EP and MD Helicopters with its MD902.
While it may seem to some to be a "strange bedfellows" relationship, teaming was a shrewd arrangement for EADS and Sikorsky. Even though it opted not to bid its S-76C++, a popular, 11,700-lb. MGTOW EMS helicopter, Sikorsky with a win could get a big piece of LUH work--the aftermarket. EADS gets a partner with a well-proven support system that serves all U.S. armed forces. Sikorsky supports fixed- and rotary-wing military aircraft, including maintenance, tech support, spare and repair parts for its and many other manufacturers' aircraft, even fighters.
AgustaWestland, Bell, EADS North America and MD Helicopters each say their twin-engine candidate meets or exceeds the general bid specifications, though the aircraft vary considerably in size, performance, and price.
While the "L" in LUH stands for "light", there is no clear definition of the range that a "light" helicopter might weigh or cost. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better when cost is considered. I estimate that base prices of the bid aircraft correlate generally to their MGTOW ratios. Thus, Bell's 412EP would likely be almost twice the cost of the MD902. The AW139 would likely be roughly twice the cost of the EC145.
The bid aircraft have good reputations and characteristics. But since there is little head-to-head competition among them based on MGTOW and price, Army officials will have to determine the best fit and value to accomplish their listed missions within budget.
Some observers might think the Army has no budget restrictions. If that were so, they would likely have already ordered up all new Black Hawks to replace the tired iron. Reality is that budget is a big factor, so if the selected aircraft is too big or expensive, it could mean incurring higher direct operating costs and increased fuel consumption per flight hour, with less dispatch flexibility and fewer aircraft. If the winning aircraft is too small, it might not be able to accomplish the varied missions efficiently. Therefore, the objective is to pick a helicopter that is a well-balanced mission fit while staying within budget limitations.
Rather than design or performance issues, I believe the many "non-aircraft" issues regarding manufacturer's production capability and ongoing maintenance support will weigh heavily in the Army's decision, and likely narrow the field of contenders.
In this age of multi-national businesses and outsourcing, it would be rare to find a pure "Made in USA" label in an aircraft. The Bell 412EP is made in Canada, the AW139 in Italy and the EC145 in Germany. Kawasaki Heavy Industries builds the MD902 transmission in Japan. However, the manufacturer each say LUH final assembly and systems integration will be done in the United States if its team wins--AgustaWestland at L-3's Waco, Texas facility, Bell at its Edwards and Associates affiliate in Bristol, Tenn., EADS North America at American Eurocopter's new Columbus, Miss. facility and MD in Mesa, Ariz. EADS says it would transition to full manufacturing of the LUH in Columbus if it wins. American Eurocopter already is doing final assembly of its popular AS350 series in Columbus.
I have previously flown and written flight reports on the MD902 and the AB139 ("The Helicopter That Refused to Die," January 2001, page 46; "Filling the Market Gap," May 2005, page 30). While I have only briefly flown the Bell 412, I have several hundred hours of military experience in its UH-1 predecessors. This flight report is focused only on the EC145 (or as it is often referred to in EADS North America's LUH bid, the UH-145). According to that company, the only difference between the EC145 and the UH-145 is the exterior paint color, which for latter initially would be olive drab.
I entered this flight report experience with a clean slate. I had neither flown, studied or even sat in an EC145 or its predecessor aircraft, the BK117.
My guide and flight instructor was Frank Kanauka, an experienced and knowledgeable senior instructor pilot with American Eurocopter in Grand Prairie, Texas and a former U.S. Army aviator with combat experience.
To The Flight Line
The first order of business was a complete walk-around of the bright-blue demonstrator. During the preflight, Frank professionally answered many questions and discussed various EC145 features. I was very surprised by the interior size of its aft cabin, especially considering the aircraft's relatively small footprint.
The 412 is my point of reference for an aircraft with a large aft cabin in its tadpole-shaped wide body. But the EC145's aft-cabin floor space is almost identical to the 412EP's (50.77 vs. 51 sq. ft.). Likewise, the EC145's aft-cabin volume is comparable (213 vs. 220 cu. ft.) The EC145's main rotor blade diameter is smaller than the 412EP (36 vs. 46 ft.). With blades turning, the EC145 is shorter (43 vs. 56 ft.) and its fuselage is narrower (5.68 vs. 8 ft.). These compact combinations allow for landing in tight areas, which helps explain the appeal of the EC145 (and the BK117) for a major portion of their markets--EMS/rescue operators. In my hometown of Austin, Texas, Austin/Travis County STAR (Shock Trauma Aerial Rescue) Flight just took delivery of a new EC145, with a second machine on order to replace their two EC135s. The spacious cabin and the strong performance of the EC145 were keys to their decision.
Passenger ingress and egress is through large sliding doors on each side that can remain open in flight or be easily removed. Opening from the rear are two giant, clamshell doors. They make loading and unloading very safe and easy, even while rotors are turning. The tailboom is very high on the aft fuselage, allowing attendants and crew to move freely and safely while staying forward of the horizontal stabilizer. The tail rotor is high on the vertical fin, with a blade tip clearance of well over 6 ft. above the ground, comparable to that on the 412EP.
There is no external baggage compartment on the EC145--the 9 sq. ft. directly in front of the clamshell doors can be used for baggage or cargo space with eight passenger seats installed.
From front to rear, the cabin has a completely flat floor and is clear to the 4-ft.-plus ceiling height, with no vertical supports or control tunnels to block loading, movement, visibility or reconfiguration. There aren't even door posts between the pilot's and cabin doors, further enhancing loading from the sides. In single-pilot operations, if the co-pilot's seat is removed an additional 8 sq. ft. is available on the left side of the forward cabin.
Quick-attach points are every few inches in the four parallel, imbedded rails that run the length of the cabin floor, allowing flexibility in quickly arranging seating, litters or special equipment and securing cargo. The cabin floor height above the ground makes loading of litters or cargo easy.
Typical configurations allow for one or two pilots and 8-9 passengers. Typical EMS or casualty-evacuation configurations allow for one or two pilots, two patients on stretchers and up to three attendants.
Three aft-cabin windows on each side allow good sideward visibility for crew or passengers with the doors closed. Other than the pilots and their seats, forward visibility is unobstructed through very large windshields. The pilots can easily see anywhere within the cabin in a single glance.
Passenger seating can quickly be rearranged in a wide variety of configurations or removed. The EC145 airframe and all seats are designed to be energy-absorbing, which along with crash-resistant fuel cells enhances survivability and safety.
The EC145 has several independent redundant systems, including the main transmission lubrication and sensors, the hydraulic boost system, and the autopilot system.
On starting the aircraft, I was surprised to see the main rotor rotate counterclockwise (from right to left when looking forward), just like all U.S. Army helicopters. I'd assumed it would rotate clockwise, like most Eurocopter products. Frank pointed out the EC145 was designed and built by the German portion of Eurocopter, the former Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB). I found I easily transitioned my flight experience to the EC145, and I believe that Army pilots will, too--especially since most have only flown Army helicopters with counterclockwise rotating rotors. From liftoff, I was immediately comfortable in flying the EC145.
From the right seat, I flew nearly the entire 1.3-hr. flight. I was very comfortable flying the EC145 in close formation on the chase EC120 photo ship that joined us for part of it, although we had to reduce power to match its speed. The vibration level was very low and the flight was smooth in all regimes. There was no increased vibration in landing, takeoff or going through translation lift.
The EC145 was very predictable and easy to control in hovering both in and out of ground effect and in a wide range of in-flight maneuvers. The hingeless rotor system is very responsive to control inputs. Most pilots have seen movies of the BO105 and BK117 performing extreme aerobatic flight maneuvers like an airplane at an air show. I suggested to Frank that we need not do those. I easily landed the aircraft several times in tight confined areas surrounded by trees and brush. Much more than adequate available power made coming out of confined areas easy. Frank only took the controls for a few minutes to demonstrate some emergency procedures, which seemed logical and intuitive.
I found that the speed and power promised were delivered; we easily cruised in excess of 130 kt. The dual-redundant autopilot worked very well in various hold modes and in navigation. I would feel comfortable flying the EC145 as the single pilot in hard IFR weather. (It is certified for single- or two-pilot IFR flight and Cat A operations,)
The Vehicle and Engine Multi-function Display, which provides all engine parameters, truly does allow pilots to concentrate less on instrument scan, and its First Limitation Indicator eliminates unnecessary data from consideration. As a result, I could spend more time "heads-up" observing outside or flying the aircraft.
The automatic rotor-rpm reduction made by the Variable Rotor Speed and Torque Matching System to reduce outside noise was a non-event, and worked flawlessly. A carry-over from the BK117 C-1, the system has been enhanced in the EC145. It reduces external noise to 6.7 dBA below ICAO limits in flight, according to Eurocopter.
I found no areas of concern on the flight. Reluctantly returning at Grand Prairie, I landed on a small, mobile dolly with no difficulty.
Subsequent to the flight, I was briefed by EADS North America's UH-145 project team on the LUH bid. Dealing with the federal government, particularly the military, demands a clear understanding of how acquisition processes work and what it takes to satisfy bids requirements. EADS's program manager is Tom Harrison, a West Point graduate and retired U.S. Army colonel with a broad background in Army aviation and procurement that helps him meet those demands.
If the team wins, American Eurocopter would provide the COTS aircraft. Sikorsky would provide on-site maintenance personnel in some locations and direct maintenance support and handle maintenance training, technical publications and component tracking. It would be the Army's primary service point of contact.
WestWind Technologies in Huntsville, Ala. is well known to the Army for proving quick-reaction helicopter systems integration, engineering support, and program management support for deployed aviation assets. It also operates the U.S. Army's Logistics Support Facility at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. CAE USA of Tampa, Fla. would supply the UH-145 cockpit procedures trainers, an integral element of pilot training and familiarization. An experienced designer of sophisticated training systems, it has produced A/MH-6, MH-60, and MH-47 combat mission simulators for the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
My conclusion is that the EC145 is an exceptionally good fit for the Army's LUH multi-mission requirements. It blends the benefits of modern cockpit technologies with well-proven airframe and engine reliability at a reasonable cost. The EC145 has a sustained history of performing well in carrying out similar missions to those required in the LUH bid.
Ron Bower is a dual-rated ATP pilot with six flight instructor ratings, including helicopter and helicopter instruments. He has been flying for more than 43 years and has accumulated over 8,500 accident/incident free flight hours. As an Army aviator, he flew UH-1B helicopter gunships in Vietnam in 1965-1966. He holds the around-the-world helicopter speed record of 17 days, 6 hr. set in 1996.