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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Public Safety: Overloaded or Underpowered?

Ernie Stephens

OKAY. HERE’S THE SCENARIO: YOUR outfit has authorized the purchase of a new aircraft. Everyone either officially or unofficially starts looking at helicopter brochures, sketching interior designs, and talking about what the "other guys" are flying. Next, the various sales representatives drop by with a sample for you to fly, along with a dizzying list of options. Once you’ve chosen an aircraft, and a completion center to design and install your medical suite, it all gets sent up the chain of command, and before you know it, your brand-new EMS helicopter is in production.

Now, fast-forward 2-3 years down the road when that new, multi-million-dollar EMS aircraft arrives. The gang climbs aboard, checks out the new upholstery, pokes a few buttons, and loads the obligatory boxes of latex gloves in the dispenser. A fill-up of Jet-A, a quick preflight, and the crew is ready for their first real flight.

A week later, the pilots are complaining the helicopter won’t get out of its own way, the torque indicator stays in the yellow range more than the green, and the only way to break 100 kt is to have the patient get out and push.

That’s right: The wonderful, new aircraft your bosses just paid all that money for is a big pile of disappointment.

This scenario happens quite a bit, albeit to varying degrees. In minor cases, you can’t pull as much power as you had hoped with your bleed air devices on. In severe cases, a major component of the intended mission profile must be forever altered. The latter was the case with a major operation, whose identity I promised to protect.

"It’s a pig," one of the pilots said during a phone conversation about their new mount. "We can’t even fill up the tank during the summer, because we’ll be over-grossed if we have to pick someone up who weighs over 200 lb."

His complaint caught me by surprise, considering the stats I had read on the aircraft. But as luck would have it, I ran into an engineer from the company that built that aircraft. Seizing the opportunity, I asked why it couldn’t carry a reasonable size load.

"This is why!" he said as he passed me a pilot operating handbook for that model aircraft. "By the time they installed all of that junk on it, there wasn’t much left for useful load!" He then recited a partial list of the options the subject aircraft came with, which included an air medical suite, floats, special communications gear, and a host of other nice, but weighty items.

So, how does this happen to so many aircraft? How can they accidentally get so tricked out they can’t efficiently fly the missions they were purchased to fly?

Having been on-the-bus, off-the-bus with ordering new aircraft for my agency, I have come close to disaster more than once. It’s easy to circle all of the sweet gadgets you’d like to have, then have the factory or completion center engineers tell you if you’ll be within weight and c.g limits, but that doesn’t account for every nuance that those options will have on the aircraft’s manners and performance, compared to — wait a minute! What is the aircraft being compared to?!

What did the pilots fly around the block on their test flight? If it wasn’t something close to what they intended to order, they may have put one foot in the grave.

Having talked to sales reps from most of the leading aircraft manufacturers, I can tell you they will do everything they can to get you behind the wheel of one of their products, but the trick is to test fly one that is as close to the way you’d want yours equipped as possible.

I flew two similar models of one company’s single-engine aircraft last year. One was "nicely equipped," as they say on car commercials, and the other probably had an additional 500 lb of mission gear. The change was very noticeable, not just because of the additional weight, but because the gear on one was mounted on the centerline, and the options on the other were mounted on the side.

It may seem like overkill, but the aircraft buyers who get burned the least go out of their way to test fly an aircraft that is as close to what they want as possible, regardless of how negligible the difference is expected to be. They have the sales rep find that ship and go to see it if it can’t be brought to them. They then quiz current operators on every aspect of the aircraft and its mission gear to see how they like it, and how it affects aircraft performance.

One more thing I heard from my contact with the overloaded EMS helicopter: Someone farther up on his food chain added some options to the aircraft after the end users had calculated the weight and balance. That higher-up didn’t understand that adding a few little things could nickel-and-dime the load margin to death, while still keeping the aircraft technically legal.

The advice from people who have been burned and people who have survived buying aircraft is the same: Do your homework, and do the math!

Paris Airshow Edition

June 2007:

With the Paris/LeBourget Airshow just on the horizon we shine our editorial spotlight on the European helicopter market and an aircraft that has emerged from Europe to become a mainstay of helicopter operations all over the world - the Eurocopter AS-350 and it’s new variation, the EC-130.

  • LeBourget Preview: We survey the product and service providers in the marketplace and bring you a preview of the new and important announcements and products related to rotorcraft to be found at this year’s airshow.

  • European Ops Round-Up: A look at the latest regulatory, commercial, defense, and operational developments for rotorcraft in Europe.

  • AS350 / EC-130 Operators’ Report: In an all-new format for 2007, we will provide a detailed look at an aircraft strictly from the perspective of a selection of organizations who operate that aircraft, and share their insights, observations and opinions of how this aircraft performs as a tool for their operations. We will also be looking at the important vendors that support this aircraft with maintenance, training and valuable components and modifications to enhance mission capability and performance.

Plus, our usual roundup of columnists and important market information including People, Programs, Contracts, Industry Events, Latin America, Public Safety and Safety Update, our monthly look at the latest developments in rotorcraft safety.

Bonus Distribution: Paris Airshow, LeBourget, France. June 18-24

ALEA Show Edition

May 2007:

As we prepare to attend the annual Airborne Law Enforcement Conference in Orlando, we take a close look at the state of police helicopter operations and the tools and equipment being utilized in these missions.

  • Guarding the Final Frontier: We visit with those who guard Ameica’s gateways to space, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

  • Robinson’s Police Helicopter: We review Frank Robinson’s specialty aircraft and how it is penetrating law enforcement.

  • New Tools for Law Enforcement: A close-up look at the latest avionics and tools for the airborne law officer.

  • Comparing Law Enforcement Aircraft: Scorecards of the single-engine turbine aircraft available for the law-enforcement mission.

Helicopter Training

  • What Are You Looking At: We continue our series on common mistakes in the cockpit, looking at tips for developing a good scan inside and outside the aircraft.

  • Preventing Autorotation Accidents: Capt. Ed Van Winkle of the Gainesville, Fla. Police Dept. aviation unit discusses options for avoiding these accidents.

  • From The Field: News from flight schools and training vendors.

  • From The Factories: The latest training news from helicopter makers.

Plus, our usual roundup of columnists and important market information including People, Programs, Contracts, Industry Events, India, Pac Rim, Rumor Mill, Maintenance, Military Spin and of course, Law Enforcement

Bonus Distribution: ALEA Annual Conference, Orlando, FL. July 11-13

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