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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Horses for Courses: From SAR to Power Lines and EMS 

Taking a look at how three European organizations are using their recently acquired helicopters in various roles.

By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief

The Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) uses AgustaWestland AW139s for search and rescue operations. Photo courtesy of SMA, by Patrik Nilsson
Back in November 2011, the Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) decided that it would replace its Sikorsky S-76 search and rescue (SAR) helicopters with new AgustaWestland AW139 twin-engine helicopters. Furthermore, at a time when it seems that SAR provision is being privatized among some of the major national operators such as the United Kingdom, the Swedish government made the decision to revert to a nationally run service from a privatized organization.

Following a Swedish parliamentary resolution, on Jan. 22, 2014, Norrlandsflyg AB, the contracted provider of helicopter-borne sea-air rescue since 2002, become part of the Maritime and Aeronautical Rescue Department. The name was duly changed from Norr-landsflyg to SMA Helicopter Rescue AB and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swedish Maritime Administration.

According to Noomi Eriksson, SMA’s deputy director-general, it was also essential to purchase a new helicopter system “to reach the strategic goal within SAR operations concerning long-term operative and financial stability. The acquisition of the new SAR helicopters aims to, in the long-term guarantee accessibility, capacity and safety in heliborne SAR for maritime and aeronautical rescue operations.”

SMA Helicopter Rescue operates from five forward operating bases at Umea, Norrtalje, Visby, Ronneby and Save on 24/7 high alert at 15 minutes readiness. Administration is located at Save Airport outside Gothenburg.

The acquisition required seven new helicopters together with spare parts, tooling, maintenance support and training. Helicopter deliveries were planned to begin in August 2013 and finish in April 2015 (the first delivery actually took place at AgustaWestland’s Vergiate plant in Italy on Sept. 10, 2013). Initial training was to run from February 2013 through to October 2015 with a high readiness state to be declared at the first operating base during April 2014.

The decision to make the upgrade from the S-76 to the newer AW139 was based on a number of factors. Michael Akerlund, who was responsible for the test and evaluate team, said of the AW139: “It is faster, goes further, taking more cargo and has broadly improved performance on all counts.”

During a presentation of SMA’s acquisition strategy at IQPC’s SAR conference, held in Copenhagen (April 7-9), Dan Brostrom, senior advisor to the SMA, illustrated some of the differences in the two aircraft. One of the main reasons for change was to operate a more modern aircraft with better mission capacity. At a heavier maximum takeoff weight of around 6.8 tons, the AW139 could lift more passengers than the S-76 to a maximum of 15 people, although he said that globally around 94 percent of SAR missions handle four people or less. However, the SAR community around the Baltic still remembers the tragedy of the MS Estonia, which sank claiming 852 lives, with more than 500 being Swedish. The helicopters speed and range made it suitable for the Swedish area of responsibility.

The unit has around 100 employees in addition to the pilots, rescue swimmers, technicians and winch operators. The new aircraft will require a slight change in personnel management states Brostrom.

“Within the new AW139 aircraft, the hoist operator is not a technician. From now on the technical work is being run by a Part 145 organization inside SMA but separated from the SMA SAR Helicopter Unit.” The Part 145 is called SMA Maintenance AB.

Airbus Helicopters EC135 in livery of THK Gokcen. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
During the test and evaluation (T&E) phase, Brostrom said that the Swedish team fully evaluated the new aircraft and were impressed with the instrument layout, which improved aircrew situational awareness during critical flight phases. They also pointed to an in-crease in hover performance and that only minor modifications were required to ready the aircraft for SAR missions.

AgustaWestland has delivered four of the seven AW139s to the SMA with the remaining three on schedule to be with the operator by the end of 2014. All of the helicopters will be fitted with a Full Ice Protection System (FIPS) for that will allow missions to proceed into known icing conditions.

Brostrom pointed to the range of equipment that the AW139s will have onboard that will both actively and passively improve safety. They will have TCAS (an anti-collision warning system), a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS), night vision goggle lighting, a 30-minute dry run gearbox and better engine performance.

The emergency floats inflate twice as quickly as the older ones and are approved to Sea State 6 unlike the S-70’s floats, which went to Sea State 4. There are twice as many emergency exits (eight instead of four), externally mounted, and two large 17-person life rafts can be carried. There is also real time position via satellite.

Physically too the AW139 has 30 percent more cockpit space and 20 percent more in the cabin. The seats are adjustable and are crash worthy; the cabin is higher; there is better lighting (including NVIS), lower noise levels – and it’s overall nicer to fly, says Brostrom.

As part of the overall package, crew training will begin at AgustaWestland Sesto Calente in Italy. The first eight pilots have already undertaken the 130 flight hours planned for each crew and are already operating. Winter and mountain training has been conducted by the T&E team in Gallivare up north in Sweden. The preparation for the NVG training is ongoing and the first pilots will start their training in September this year.

National Grid: First UK Bell 429 Operator

British infrastructure company National Grid, a subsidiary of National Grid that supplies power to the northwestern U.S., owns the electricity transmission system in England and Wales. It also owns and operators four of the eight regional gas distribution networks in Great Britain.

National Grid has been an owner and operator of helicopters since the mid 1980s. It acquired an Airbus Helicopters AS355F1 Twin Squirrel in 1985 and has continued to operate and upgrade the type until the recent decision to buy a Bell 429.

For Bell Helicopter this was a landmark purchase, in that it is the first entry of the 429 into the United Kingdom and also the first utility operator to use the type. “Delivering the first Bell 429 into Great Britain is a big milestone for Bell Helicopter and the Bell 429 program,” emphasized Patrick Moulay, managing director of the company’s Commercial Business in Europe.

The helicopter’s main task is the inspection of the power line network from the air and particularly the pylon towers. According to the company, an airborne observer inside the helicopter can inspect six pylons in one hour whereas on the ground it would take a team of three linesmen a day to inspect three pylons.

The new Bell 429 will now work alongside an existing AS355NP while a second AS355N has been taken out of the fleet. Now with a mixed fleet, the National Grid helicopters have been flying from a new base at Turweston airfield since 2013.

Before delivery the helicopter was customized at Bell Helicopter’s main European facility in Prague, in the Czech Republic. This included the installation of an operator workstation which incorporated a SkyQuest 20-inch HD display, L-3 Wescam MX-10 control unit, HD Nano Flash recorder, USB hub ports and keyboard.

Mike Hannon, operations and overhead lines field support manager, said that the Bell 429 had been chosen for its ability to perform multi-tasking operations. He said that Bell’s customization “met all the stringent criteria” that was required. “Bell delivered a fantastic product which has exceeded our expectations,” he said. The aircraft is fully EASA certified.

Michael Kane, National Grid’s chief pilot, said of the decision to purchase the Bell 429: “It is lightweight and provides good conditions for our observers who are working at a high level of concentration. It has lower maintenance costs and greater capabilities for the type of work we require.”

During the helicopter’s missions, one of its key tasks is to check the condition of overhead power lines and conduct live repairs if deemed necessary. To do this engineers work from a basket suspended underneath the helicopter adjacent to power lines carrying 400,000 volts. This obviously requires a helicopter that is both stable and maneuverable. With a network of more than 7,200 km of overhead lines and 21,000 pylons in England and Wales, the rotary arm of National Grid is guaranteed a year-round workload.

During severe weather disruptions, helicopter support is also employed to gather information on any disruption to the network when some ground routes may be difficult to access or blocked completely. During cold spells, the MX-10’s ability to provide thermal images helps to identify “hot joints” as well as checking on electricity sub-stations.

THK Gokcen Aviation Takes Airbus EC135

Turkey’s THK Gokcen Aviation takes its name from Sabiha Gokcen, a woman who is claimed to be Turkey’s first female fighter pilot (if not the world’s), as well as one of Kemal Ataturk’s adopted daughters. Ataturk is considered to be the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

UK National Grid Bell 429. Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter
Sabiha Gokcen is said to have flown for the Turkish airforce against Kurdish rebels during the Darsim Rebellions of 1937-38, racking up around 32 combat hours. However, over her career she accumulated more than 8,000 hours in 22 aircraft types.

Today, THK Gokcen Aviation, the commercial arm of the Turkish Aviation Association, pursues a range of activities across fixed-wing and rotary aircraft operations. It has a large fleet of firefighting aircraft and operates fixed-wing air ambulance missions. One of the most important is the emergency medical services (EMS) work which, following an agreement in 2013 with Airbus Helicopters, THK will provide using a fleet of 17 EC135s. THK Gokcen Aviation bought the EC135s as a foundation of its five-year EMS contract with the Turkish Ministry of Health.

Following the handover of the final EC135 on April 4, 2014 at Airbus Helicopters’ Donauworth, Germany production facility, Olivier Lambert, Airbus Helicopters senior vice president for sales and customer relations, said: “This rapid fleet build-up – with all helicopters phased in during 12 months – confirms the operational excellence of THK Gokcen Aviation.”

More than 2,000 flight hours have been logged since the first EC135 entered into service in 2013.

Said Osman Yildirim, President of THK: “Our EC135s are performing very well, with high reliability levels in the full range of operating conditions across Turkey.”

THK’s MRO facility is located with subsidiary ASAL Aeronautics at Isparta airport, in southern Turkey. Here, ASAL’s certified engineers, technicians and tools, all of whom were trained at Airbus Helicopters facilities, perform base and line maintenance.

Related: Operators News

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