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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Operators’ Report: Fast, Beautiful Flier

Ernie Stephens and James T. McKenna

Operators generally love AgustaWestland’s A109 for its speed and performance and praise its handling qualities, and reliability.

It’s rare to hear the words "fast" and "beautiful" used to describe a helicopter. But that’s what we heard as we talked to operators, pilots, and mechanics about their AgustaWestland AW109s for this report, the latest in Rotor & Wing’s new series of Operators’ Report.

The operators, pilots, and mechanics generally said they liked the speed, power, and performance of the various A109 models. They praised the aircraft’s handling qualities and controls, as well as its reliability and that of its different engines and the support of those from their manufacturers.

"It’s definitely a pilot’s aircraft," said one EMS operator in the United States. "It’s fast, and relatively easy to fly. It’s especially good as a single-pilot IFR aircraft."

In many cases, they said they are less than thrilled with the comfort and layout of the A109 cabin (with the exception of the latest variant, the Grand, which was designed in part to address those complaints). The aircraft also has some irritating maintenance issues, they said, though AgustaWestland appears to be addressing them.

The sleek, light, twin-engine helicopter has been in service as an airborne executive limousine, emergency medical transport, rescue helicopter, public safety aircraft, and military platform for decades.

Members of the Italian-designed and largely Italian-built A109 family still turn heads when they drop their wheels at airports, corporate headquarters, hospital helipads, and military bases. (The manufacturer’s Agusta USA builds the A119 Ke, the latest version of the Koala derivative of the A109, at its facility in Philadelphia. It also completes and customizes A109s there.)

The aircraft was born in the late 1960s as a single-engine helicopter. That early version was designated the A109A, and a subsequent twin-engine version was called the A109C Hirundo, or Swallow — at least for a short time.

By 1971, AgustaWestland’s A109 was the name of the twin-engine helicopter (a different C model would follow it). The new light twin made its first flight on Aug. 4, 1971 and won FAA certification for visual flight rules (VFR) operations on June 1, 1975. It arrived on the sales floor in 1976. The A109A was certificated in 1976.

While considerably more expensive than the corporate helicopter leader at the time, Bell Helicopter’s Model 206, the A109 had the speed, twin-engine redundancy, and seating capacity the single-engine JetRanger lacked. (It exceeded the 206’s five seats by three.) Many argued that it was a more elegant aircraft than the JetRanger, making it the preferred carriage for VIPs who wanted to arrive in style.

The success of the model known today as the A109A led to its variants. Here are some of the major ones. The Agusta A109A Mk2 entered the marketplace in mid-1981. It came to have a widened cabin, and was dubbed the Widebody.

It was followed by the C model in 1989. The year 1993 brought the K2, which replaced the Rolls-Royce Model 250 engines with Turbomeca Arriel 1K1s and their individual 737-shp ratings. The C’s Rolls-Royce Model 250 C20R/1s had a single-engine rating of 450 shp. In 1996, the A109E Power mated the K2 airframe with a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW206s, at 640 shp. In 2000, AgustaWestland fielded the single-engine A119. Two years ago, it brought to market the larger A109S, known as the Grand.

Adding the Latest

Each iteration brought the latest in avionics and engine technology to the Italian manufacturer’s sleek and nimble helicopter design.

The 1998 50-50 partnership of Agusta parent Finmeccanica and the United Kingdom’s GKN brought together the Italian helicopter maker with the Westland Helicopters under the AgustaWestland banner.

In 2004, Finmeccanica bought out GKN’s half share and took complete control of AgustaWestland. Over the last year, the combined helicopter maker has focused on integrating its operations. That included AgustaWestland re-branding all of its products as AW helicopters. For instance, the EH101 became the AW101 and the A109s became AW109s.

The only members of the A109 family in production today are the Power, the Grand, and the A119 (in the form of the Koala enhanced, or Ke).

The Power is currently flying in 46 different countries, according to the manufacturer, "and has been designed as a multi-purpose, light, twin helicopter offering excellent performance, capacity, operational flexibility, and serviceability."

It has experienced an extraordinary success in the world marketplace for a number of roles, AgustaWestland said. These include VIP/corporate transport, EMS, law enforcement, homeland security purposes such as border and coast guard missions, harbor pilot shuttle, training, as well as government maritime and shipboard roles.

Almost 50 percent of AW109 Powers sold are configured for VIP/corporate missions, AgustaWestland said.

Almost 20 percent of A109 Powers are dedicated to EMS and search and rescue roles, the company said, and more than 25 percent are destined for military, government, and homeland security missions. (That does not include the AW109 LUH light utility helicopter.) "It is also seeing success in the offshore/harbor pilot shuttle market," which can be considered the most peculiar role, the company said.

Generally speaking, pilots who responded to our survey were pleased with the A109’s performance, using words like "fast" and "powerful" to describe all models built to date. Air ambulance operators in particular appreciated those qualities.

"It just sails through the air!" said an EMS pilot about the 160-plus-kt speeds his Power achieves.

"It runs like a scalded ape," said another medical transport pilot.

Operators consistently praised the A109’s high, hot, and heavy performance, increasing their accolades with each new variant to the market, each of which was successively more powerful than the last.

"We take it up to 13,000 ft all year long," said one happy operator about his Mk2.

One pilot, however, reported displeasure over the occasional loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) at high altitudes in his Power. "I’ve been in solid LTE twice," he said, adding that he routinely has to perform run-on landings at airfields above 10,000 ft msl to keep the helicopter’s nose where he wants it.

Responses to questions about the A109’s flight handling usually began with the words "fast" and ended with "I love it!" Pilots spoke highly of the helicopter’s forced trim system, which most described as something just short of an autopilot.

Triggers on the cyclic and collective are located where they can be activated with little or no effort when the pilot grips the controls in the usual manner. Releasing either trigger applies friction to that control, reducing the workload by holding the last position set by the pilot.

"It flies like a dream," said one operator about control inputs and stability.

Favorable Cabin Views

Opinions about crew and passenger comfort aboard the A109 were predominantly favorable. Respondents found head, shoulder, and hip room — both on the flight deck and in the aft cabin — pretty comfortable, but a little smaller than they would like. One recurring complaint among some crewmembers was legroom. As with many other helicopter makes and models, pilots who stand 5 ft 10 in or taller wish they could sit a little bit farther back from the pedals.

Operators also said the aft cabin was a little small for EMS, as well as search and rescue missions. One SAR pilot said the cabin was not large enough to bring a victim in a litter aboard, meaning both had to hang outside the cabin door on the hoist until a landing zone could be reached.

An EMS operator in the northeastern United States said an AgustaWestland representative responded to his complaint of a cramped cabin by arguing that the cabin had been designed to accommodate a 95-percentile male. "I don’t know where that male comes from," this operator said, "but it’s not the lumber operations in the forests of northern Maine."

In 2004, AgustaWestland responded to these same kinds of interior room complaints by introducing the Grand, which is essentially a larger, more powerful version of the A109.

Operators had one other complaint about the interior of the A109: field of view. "It’s not as good" as the Eurocopter AS350B3," said one pilot, referring to the amount of windscreen blocked by the top and sides of the A109’s IFR-capable instrument panel. Several respondents said they would like larger door windows fore and aft, saying it would make confined-area landings easier for the pilots to negotiate and sightseeing more pleasurable for passengers.

As with many other aircraft, high-end, after-market cabin upgrades are available for old and new A109s. Pininfarina, builders of custom interiors for Ferrari, Maserati, and Rolls-Royce motor cars, has designed VIP cabins for AgustaWestland products, as has the Italian fashion house Versace. And while none of the respondents in this survey have designer interiors installed, other operators have taken delivery of such luxuriously appointed AgustaWestland products.

Maintenance Intensive?

When asked about reliability, most operators were delighted with the aircraft’s overall mission readiness. "We’ve been running trouble-free for a long time," declared one pilot. Another respondent simply said reliability was "very, very good."

A small number of A109 users, however, were not so pleased. "These are maintenance intensive," said one pilot of his employer’s Power, arguing that the ship has been out of service more than he would have liked. One of those times was for a hard-to-locate wiring problem, he said.

Since its introduction, the A109 has come with a variety of powerplants: the 250-C20B and 20R/1, the PW206 and 207C, and the Turbomeca Arriel 1K1. All but one of the participants in this survey praised the performance of the engines installed in their aircraft, but pilots flying the older 250-C20Bs wanted -C20R/1s, and C20R/1 operators wanted the PW206s. The only person to give a low mark for engine performance said he wished his Mk2 was equipped with the PW206 instead of the older Allison, adding he wanted the lifting capabilities it gave the Power. But even then, he said he was happy with the aircraft’s speed.

As their aircraft aged, some operators took advantage of scheduled overhaul times to replace original engines with latter-generation powerplants. Many swapped the older 420-shp Model 250-C20Bs for the heftier 450-shp -C20R/1, calling the switch "a good move." Survey respondents who were flying the PW206s didn’t switch brands, citing tremendous performance advantages from the two, 640-shp engines, even if they were a bit thirstier than the other choices.

None of the operators we spoke with chose to swap out or swap in Turbomeca engines.

Three operators of the Power felt some of the factory-imposed limitations short-change pilots because the PW206s could lift a lot more than the 6,283 lb interior gross weight the flight manual permits.

AgustaWestland should "increase the max gross for such a powerful engine," one pilot said.

"These Pratt & Whitney’s are amazing," proclaimed another.

Opinions about the level of support operators received from engine manufacturers varied by builder. Generally, Rolls-Royce customers were satisfied, but found parts hard to get from time to time, presumably because of the increase in support needed for U.S. military aircraft in combat.

Engine Support

Pratt & Whitney and Turbomeca drivers reported no significant complaints when it came to customer engine support.

AgustaWestland support for all aircraft issues other than powerplants drew generally good responses. Common replacement parts, such as belts, seals, and special fasteners were shipped quickly, they said.

Respondents did, however, report minor delays in getting parts that aren’t normally needed, especially when they had to be shipped from abroad. All the respondents agreed that overseas shipping was a necessary evil, and did not see it as a negative reflection on AgustaWestland.

"They’ll get me anything I want," stated one operator.

Asked about support, AgustaWestland replied that the company "is well aware that customer support is a focus area and it is steadily and rapidly further enhancing the supply-chain process for both production and procurement of spare parts.

Significant steps, it said, include the new AgustaWestland Logistic Center in Lonate Pozzolo, Italy, "which will bring increased efficiencies to all supply chain-related functions, from purchasing right through to the shipping of parts to customers worldwide, on a 24-hr-a-day basis seven days a week."

Moreover, the company said, it "is also progressively expanding its global presence in this field, thanks to a growing list of service centers."

Keeping any aircraft flying can be a challenge, but how a manufacturer responds to emergency parts, or "aircraft-on-ground" (AOG) requests, can be critical to an operator. In this area, respondents awarded grades ranging from fair to great.

When asked about general maintenance on the A109, one operator said everything was "laid out pretty well," but most others complained that getting to various parts of the engines was difficult.

"It’s not as easy to work on as a JetRanger," reported one respondent, referring to cramped compartments and sharp-edged frame surfaces that slice into him from time to time.

Several mechanics said the engine compartment was too tight, requiring a lot of time and effort to remove obstructions that blocked access to other components. But they said they understood the space constraints inherent in any light twin.

(Aircraft owners reportedly didn’t like the additional labor costs associated with access problems.)

Some operators said the aircraft "can be a little bit fragile," in the words of one. Some models early on had problems with roller wheels on the cabin doors jumping their tracks.

This prompted at least one operator to adopt a procedure that required a crewmember from the flight deck to close the cabin door from the outside before entering the aircraft. That is an example of a problem AgustaWestland has fixed.

"On the aircraft currently in production," the company said, "the issue has been addressed by introducing modified cabin door track rollers."

One specific maintenance issue regarding the A109 seemed almost mysterious, in that operators either said it definitely existed or it definitely didn’t. The issue is a vibration that some E model operators described as severe enough to shake fasteners loose, damage instruments, and chafe wires. Others said they never noticed any unusual vibrations.

Unusual Vibrations?

Those who said the vibration exists describe it as medium-frequency, which usually points to the tail rotor and its gearbox.

One pilot said it feels like a stronger-than-normal shudder when going through effective translational lift, while another said it was fairly constant.

AgustaWestland said it is continuously introducing technology updates into the AW109 Power "to make sure operating costs can be effectively and significantly reduced."

Its latest updates include new, advanced main and tail rotor blades, it said. These blades are maintained on an "on condition" basis, not on a hard-time bases of service hours.

This has increased the scheduled inspections and checks up to 200 hr, it said, "while eliminating steps which have proven useless without badly affecting the safety standard."

AgustaWestland also said it is continually enhancing the training solutions it offers to customers and operators worldwide.

In particular, its A. Marchetti Training Academy in Sesto Calende Italy provides both flight training (using two advanced, Level D flight and mission simulators) and technican training using ground maintenance simulators. This is the headquarters of AgustaWestland’s Rotorsim training joint venture with the Canadian training vendor CAE.

These are being used to ensure tailored training services, it said. Recently, it added dedicated training helicopters at its Vergiate plant, close to the Training Academy.

"This has further increased our commitment to the provision of the best solutions in the training field," the company said.

"To stay closer and closer to our growing customer base, AgustaWestland is developing a second training center in the United States."

When questioned about cost, the vast majority of operators felt they got a lot of "bang for the buck" out of their A109, regardless of the variant.

With a sticker price of about $4.3 million dollars, a new, modestly equipped AW109E is competitively priced with competitor aircraft. This added to operators’ feelings that they had made a wise choice.

"It’s a good value," said one respondent about his aircraft.

Another owner said that one of his 18-year old C models is up for sale, and it looks like it will bring much more than his outfit paid for it new.

In the end, each of the respondents to our survey had plenty of good things to say about their experiences owning, flying and working on the AW109, regardless of the model, but placed the AW109E Power at the top of the list.

As for the few things they didn’t like, such as elbow room and power, the up-class Grand took care of them with its larger fuselage, 735-shp PW207C engines, and 7,000-lb. max takeoff weight.

"There’s nothing else that can do what it does for us," explained a long-time operator several variants of the AW109. "The Power is the only [aircraft] that works for us!"

AgustaWestland A109 Report Card

Performance A
Reliability B
Engine Performance A
Response to AOG Issues B
Flight Handling A
Cabin Comfort/Visibility C-
Engine Support B+
Aircraft Support B+
Maintenance B
Costs A

Vendors Help Operators Fine-Tune the A109

Vendors offer a variety of upgrades for AgustaWestland’s AW109s that range from the practical to the exotic.

The Swiss air rescue foundation REGA, for instance, has tapped Aerolite Max Bucher to develop an emergency medical service interior for 11 A109 Grands.

Aerolite said the lightweight design would be tailored for extreme hot and high performance in the Alps, a critical factor for REGA in its evaluation of bids. Ennetbürgen Switzerland-based Aerolite added the new interiors would allow different configurations for rescue, hoist, intensive care, and incubator missions as well as for flight crew training.

The interior will include a 6 ft 7 in (2 m) stretcher, stretcher platform, stowage cabinet, multi-mission medical floor, up to three medical attendant seats, a gaseous oxygen system, and stowage for medical gear and other provisions. Deliveries are to start next year.

REGA is a key A109 customer, having placed the launch orders for the A109 K2.

Among the other vendors, Dart Helicopter has won U.S. FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency approval to install an emergency float and life-raft system developed by its Apical Industries on the A109E and the Grand. The Apical system consists of four cylindrical floats and reservoir installation assemblies, with an option for two, integrated six-man life rafts. The system is designed to interface with AgustaWestland’s structural and electrical float provisions. Both the floats and life rafts are electrically deployed from the cockpit, Dart said.

Dart CEO Jeff Shapiro said the system is designed for the increased gross weight version of the A109E. The two forward and two aft cylindrical floats are inflated electrically when the float deployment switch is activated. Separate electrical switches deploy the optional life rafts. The integrated life-raft system is designed to conserve valuable cabin space and improve safety. The aft float is designed to reduce the chance of a tail rotor strike during autorotation water landing.

On the luxurious end of the scale, AgustaWestland in March reported the delivery of the first two A109 variants fitted with interiors by the Italian design house Versace.

The two aircraft are a Grand featuring a black-and-white interior and paint scheme and an AW109 Power with a grey-colored Versace-styled interior. The Grand was ordered by Ioan Tiriac Air of Romania; Elimarca of Italy took delivery of the Power.

AgustaWestland and Versace began collaborating on helicopter interior design in 2007. Following the launch of the Grand with a Versace interior and paint scheme that year, the manufacturer and design house extended their work to the medium twin AW139.

The Versace interior is one of several designs offered for AgustaWestland’s VIP/corporate products.

AgustaWestland A109 Family Performance

  A109A A109A Mk 2 Widebody/Widebody+ A109C A109 K2 A109E Power A119 Koala Grand
Source: HeliValue$
Max speed (Vne) – kt (kph) 168 (311) 168 (311) 168 (311) 152 (281) 168 (311) 152 (281) 168 (311)
Economy cruise speed – kt (kph) 126 (233) 147 (272) 147 (272) 144 (267) 156 (289) 139 (257) 155 (288)
At sea level
Avg. fuel consumption – lb/hr (kg/hr) 410 (186) 414 (188) 414 (188) 520 (236) 451 (205) N/A N/A
Rate of climb, oblique – fpm (mpm) 1,650 (503) 1,640 (500) 1,710 (521) 2,020 (616) 2,170 (661) N/A 1,830 (558)
Hover-in-ground-effect (HIGE) ceiling
ISA – ft (m) 7,900 (2,408) 12,500 (3,810) 11,400 (3,474) 18,600 (5,669) 19,000 (5,791) 14,600 (4,450) 15,000 (4,570)
ISA +20C N/A 8,200 (2,499) 4,000 (1,220) 16,400 (4,999) N/A N/A N/A
Hover-out-of-ground-effect (HOGE) ceiling
ISA – ft (m) 7,900 (2,408) 8,600 (2,621) 8,000 (2,438) 15,200 (4,633) 13,300 (4,054) 10,700 (3,261) 10,000 (3,050)
ISA +20C N/A 4,700 (1,433) 1,800 (549) 12,900 (3,932) N/A N/A N/A
Service ceiling – ft (m) 15,000 (4,572) 15,000 (4,572) 15,000 (4,572) 20,000 (6,096) 20,000 (6,096) 20,000 (6,096) 16,200 (4,940)
Range – nm (km)
Max fuel 332 (615) 350 (649) 300 (556) 435 (806) 353 (654) N/A 480 (890)
Max payload 332 (615) 350 (649) 300 (556) 293 (543) N/A N/A N/A
Endurance
Std. fuel, no reserves – hr 2.9 4.4 3.14 3.9 3.75 N/A 4.5

Engine Makers Boost Support

The manufacturers that power AgustaWestland’s family of A109 aircraft are revamping their support and customer service operations.

The AgustaWestland light twins and the single-engine variant, the A119 Ke, use a range of engines, from the Rolls-Royce Model 250 C20B to the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207C and Turbomeca’s Arriel 1K1. Each of those engine makers is in the midst of overhauling its efforts to support operators, including those of the A109 family.

Rolls-Royce, for instance, has just cut the ribbon at its Indianapolis site on a new, streamlined facility for production of its Model 250 as well as its new, 300-shp-class RR300 turboshaft (destined to power a new generation of light turbine helicopters, starting with Robinson Helicopter’s R66).

The re-engineered production lines draw on "lean manufacturing" principles and is set up to produce hundreds of both of those engine types simultaneously, said Ken Roberts, the newly named president of Rolls’ helicopter business. The streamlined production should smooth the provision of parts.

Pratt & Whitney Canada, whose PW206, 207C, and PT6B-37A power various versions of the A109, is building on what it sees as "a key competitive advantage" over other helicopter engine manufacturers by enhancing its customer support services.

"We take the whole aftermarket very seriously because we feel it is a key competitive advantage for us," John Saabas, executive vice president of the Longueuil, Quebec-based firm, told Rotor & Wing.

P&WC has reorganized its customer service to streamline resolution of operators’ problems. In addition, the manufacturer has expanded its worldwide parts-distribution network and is developing a new program tailored to help helicopter operators’ management of engine fleets.

The company also has reorganized its global support network around what it is calling the Customer First Center. Based in Quebec, this center operates around the clock to provide a rapid-response capability to address customer concerns. The heart of the center is what P&WC calls the "event manager."

This manager serves as a single point of contact for an operator with an engine issue. To enable that, the event manager is given access to a team of specialists from key aftermarket support services — technical support, logistics, service engineering, engine maintenance programs, warranty services, and replacement engine rentals.

P&WC said that new center is complemented by the expansion of its parts-distribution network in Europe and Asia, with new distribution centers in Amsterdam and Singapore.

Both will support customers previously supplied from other P&WC locations, the company said, and offer and offer an inventory of new parts, exchange accessories and line-replaceable units for all P&WC engine models.

Turbomeca has been pursuing similar improvements in parallel.

The company’s executives are confident that this will be the year when their investments in improving customer support begin to pay off.

"I think you will see us turn the corner in 2008," said Emeric d’Arcimoles, who on March 31 turned over the reins as chairman and CEO of that engine maker to Pierre Fabre. (D’Arcimoles was promoted to head international affairs for Turbomeca parent Safran Group.)

Toward the end of this year, Turbomeca plans to conduct the next in its series of biennial customer-satisfaction surveys, which executives described as a very detailed assessment of how well Turbomeca has met customer expectations. The survey is translated into six languages to better plumb satisfaction levels. D’Arcimoles and his management expect it to provide evidence of their success in improving customer support.

"The survey this year is very important," said Serge Maillé, commercial and technical support vice president for Turbomeca (Booth 1031).

The engine maker has labored under a reputation for unsatisfactory customer service and has struggled to reverse that. The problem was aggravated in 2005 and 2006, when Turbomeca didn’t keep up with demand for spare parts.

Turbomeca has invested heavily in increasing its capacity for producing parts and for repairing and overhauling engines. This year, it will bring on line a new parts-production facility in Monroe, N.C.

That and other steps have helped Turbomeca "achieved a balance of load and capacity," Couteaux said. The company also steadily has ramped up engine production. Turbomeca officials said they built 1,274 new engines, compared to 1,070 in 2006 and 750 in 2005. This year, their target is 1,500 new engines.

In addition to that, the company said, it last year produced a quantity of spare parts equivalent to 400 engines and repaired 2,560 engines. Its target is 3,000 repaired engines.

The company reports it now has parts equivalent to 1,000 engines in its worldwide spare-parts pool.

AgustaWestland A109 Family Weights & Measures

  A109A A109A Mk2 Widebody A109C A109 K2 A109E Power A119 Koala Grand
Source: HeliValue$
Weights – lb (kg)
Empty, Sd. Aircraft 3,258 (1,478) 3,157 (1,432) 3,505 (1,590) 3,637 (1,650) 3,637 (1,650) 3,152 (1,430) 3,660 (1,660)
Max Gross
Internal Load 5,730 (2,599) 5,732 (2,600) 5,997 (2,720) 5,997 (2,720) 6,283 (2,850) 5,997 (2,720) 7,000 (3,175)
External Load 5,730 (2,599) 5,732 (2,600) 5,997 (2,720) 6,614 (3,000) 6,614 (3,000) 6,944 (3,150) 7,055 (3,200)
Useful Load
No Fuel 2,472 (1,121) 2,575 (1,168) 2,491 (1,130) 2,360 (1,070) 2,822 (1,280) 2,845 (1,290) 3,373 (1,533)
Full Fuel 1,494 (678) 1,587 (720) 1,521 (690) 1,059 (480) 1,742 (790) 1,781 (810) 2,361 (1,073)
External Load 2,000 (907) N/A 2,000 (907) 2,000 (907) 2,204 (1,000) 2,204 (1,000) N/A
Power
Mfr/Model (Qty) Rolls-Royce 250-C20B (2) C20R/1 (2) C20R/1 (2) Turbomeca Arriel 1K1 (2) P&WC PW206 (2) P&WC PT6B-37A (1) P&WC PW207C (2)
Takeoff power, each – shp (kW) 420 (313) 450 (335) 450 (335) 737 (549) 640 (477) 1,002 (747) 735 (548)
Max continuous, each – shp (kW) 400 (298) 450 (335) 400 (298) 632 (471) 567 (422) 872 (650) 625 (466)
Transmission – shp (kW) 740 (551) 740 (551) 790 (589) 900 (671) 900 (671) 900 (671) 960 (716)
Max continuous – shp (kW) 740 (551) 740 (551) 790 (589) 900 (671) 900 (671) 900 (671) 900 (671)
Seating
Standard 2+3+3 2+2+3 2+3+3 2+3+3 1+7 2+6 1+6
High Density 2+3+3 2+3+3 2+3+3 2+3+3 1+7 1+7 2+7

A Variety of Uses in the Air

More than 540 A109s and nearly 450 of the current-production AW109 Powers are operating worldwide, according to AgustaWestland, which claims the twin-engine aircraft is one of the industry’s best-selling helicopters. It added that hundreds are flying daily "in the most varying weather and environmental conditions."

AW109 Powers today are flying in 46 countries around the world in a number of roles, according to their manufacturer. The aircraft is used for VIP and corporate transport, emergency medical services, law enforcement and homeland security missions (like border patrol and coast guard missions), training, and even shipboard roles. About half of the type sold are designed for the VIP and corporate market, according to AgustaWestland, while about 20 percent find their homes in EMS and search and rescue operations. A quarter are acquired for military missions (not including the dedicated A109 LUH developed for South Africa, Sweden, and Malaysia).

Perhaps the most unusual use is to shuttle harbor pilots to ships entering and leaving ports. In 2006, the South African National Port Authority picked the Power for its pilot shuttle service in Richards Bay. It has been operating A109 K2s since 1998. Chinese and American operators also use the Power to shuttle harbor pilots.

As for the most typical uses, consider Florida’s O’Brien Helicopters.

Florida is known as a home of fast stuff — cars, boats, horses, even spacecraft. But when it comes to fast helicopters streaking across the Sunshine State’s skies, Jarlath O’Brien’s A109A is one you’re liable to see — if you look quickly enough.

He owns O’Brien Helicopters, a Part 135 operation in Lehigh Acres in southwest Florida. It performs a variety of services with three different helicopter types. When speed and style are needed, O’Brien saddles up its "Italian Stallion" for a ride off into the sunset.

O’Brien most frequently uses the A109A to transport personnel, including specialized medical teams, NASCAR racing crews, and real estate developers out to close multi-million-dollar land deals.

"My passengers like the space and the way it looks," he said. "It is an impressive aircraft."

Another part of O’Brien’s business centers on high-speed power boat racing off the Florida coast. His Agusta is frequently contracted to carry rescue swimmers aloft during races, so they can reach the scene of an accident the moment it happens. "You can put in four divers in the Agusta versus two in the [Bell] 206B," reported O’Brien. "And it’s so fast, I’m able to catch up to any boat."

When asked if he was ready to trade his 22-year-old A109A in for something else, he didn’t hesitate. "I’d love to get a newer one," he proclaimed. "It’s the ideal charter aircraft."

A109 Proves a Military Mission Specialist

AgustaWestland’s A109 has found a variety of military uses since the aircraft type entered service in 1976, but perhaps none in a more eye-catching way than with the U.S. Coast Guard’s HITRON.

The Hirundo, as the aircraft was first known, was put to use early on in military roles. The Italian helicopter maker developed dedicated military versions for relatively small-lot orders. In the late 1990s, South Africa and a number of other countries identified a need for a new light utility rotorcraft, which gave rise to the A109 Light Utility Helicopter Program.

South Africa ordered 30 in September 1999, followed by orders in 2001 from Sweden for 20 and in 2003 from Malaysia for 11. But it was the A109 Powers of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Sdqn, or HITRON, that had a "Miami Vice" cachet. That was in part because of their mission (chasing drug runners in Caribbean waters) and in part because that service never shied away from putting the aircraft in the public eye.

In the late 1990s, Coast Guard officials were wrestling with ways to better combat the growing and evolving problem of smugglers running drugs from South America to the Southeast U.S. coast via open-water routes.

U.S. officials could track the shipments. U.S. Customs Service surveillance P-3s and other fixed-wing assets picked up targets shortly after they started their journeys. But the smugglers’ "go fast" boats could easily outrun Coast Guard cutters, and helicopters launched from them were manned by crews trained to rescue people, not run them down in a high-speed chase.

Interdiction from above was clearly a good option, however. The right aircraft could match the go-fasts’ speed, and properly trained crews could maneuver with them. A number of advocates, including some formerly of the special-forces community, persuaded Coast Guard brass that a well-trained and armed crew could also bring the go-fasts to a halt.

That took some doing. Laws up to the international level prescribe when and how shots can be fired from the air upon civilians. Developing this capability required specific permission from the U.S. Justice Dept. and detailed command and control procedures, including exacting ones on the warnings that must be issued before shots can be fired.

After a fly-off, the Coast Guard settled on the A109 as the aircraft for the job and chose the relatively unique option of leasing the eight aircraft from AgustaWestland. Coast Guard crews staffed the aircraft, but AgustaWestland provided maintenance support, including when the A109s deployed on Coast Guard cutters.

Dubbed MH-68A Sting Rays, the A109s were fitted with M240.50-caliber machine guns (for warning shots across a go-fast’s bow) and Robar precision rifles — but don’t call them sniper rifles. That weapon is meant to put a round through a go-fast’s engine block; Sting Ray crews weren’t authorized to fire on the smugglers.

The A109s proved very effective, perhaps too much for AgustaWestland’s own good. HITRON led Coast Guard officials decided to arm all its helicopters, but not to renew the Sting Ray leases.

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