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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

AStar Evolution

OEM and aftermarket upgrades sustain the popularity and utility of this light single.

By Frank Lombardi

One of the newest AStars (above) is headed for India and Heritage Aviation, which will get a second early this month. The New Delhi-based operator’s H125s will fly charter and utility missions and pilgrimage heli-tours. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters/Eric Raz
From the loosely translated ideas of Darwin, it is not the strongest or the most intelligent that will survive, but those who can best manage change.

It would seem that back in the 1970s, Aerospatiale took heed of this idea when it designed its AS350 Ecureuil. Also known as the Squirrel, or the AStar in North America, this model line continues to evolve and grow, and with it so does its popularity.

Just as the name of this helicopter has evolved, so has the name of its parent. Through a series of mergers, the French company Aerospatiale became the well-known Eurocopter. In July 2000, Eurocopter became part of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). After another realignment in 2014, EADS now operates as Airbus Group, with three business divisions: Airbus, Airbus Defence and Space and Airbus Helicopters.

The company rebranding brings yet another evolution of its models’ designations. But longtime operators, fear not. The “legacy” models will not change their names.

A quick look at the division’s website will reveal the newly adopted “H” designations. The idea has merit, as one can now quickly put the Airbus fleet in size/weight order just by virtue of the new model numbers. This logic aptly puts the AS350 B3e model (the only AStar variant to be renamed) in the lineup as the H125, right after the H120 (formerly the EC120) but before the H130 (formerly the EC130). See how that works?

Regardless of what your particular variant is called, one thing is perhaps more true now than it ever has been: the AS350 remains one of the most popular, capable, light, single-engine helicopters. Its popularity is shared by many disciplines, as it sees service with tour, electronic news-gathering, emergency medical service, search and rescue, utility, law enforcement and VIP transport operators, to name several.

Although its basic design, size and shape has remained the same, the aircraft has gone through powerplant, rotor system and avionics upgrades that have boosted performance and guaranteed its place as a solid platform and workhorse for years to come. The model’s growth can be attributed to both manufacturer and aftermarket upgrades that continue to evolve and help propel this aircraft to one of the best in its class.

Though more than a dozen variants have entered service around the world at one time or another, in recent years the AS350B2 and B3 have topped the sales charts. The B3e/H125 “is the most common AStar variant sold in the U.S. market and has been outselling the B2 in all markets for the past several years,” said Airbus Helicopters Law Enforcement Sales Manager Ed Van Winkle.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department fleet illustrates the flexibility of AS350 options. It mounts wide-area radiation detection equipment via a Tyler Special Operations Platform, which allows for the gear’s rapid deployment on any AStar in its fleet. The department conducts radiation sweep operations several times a month to guard against radiological threats. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department/Sgt. Mick Kelleher

Although much of the H125’s success is due to its hot and high performance, Van Winkle said, B2s are usually equipped with a six pack of ‘steam gauge’ instruments, while the H125 comes standard with the Garmin G500H avionics suite, including GTN650 and GNC255A backup navigation/communications avionics. New dual-channel, full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) with the engine damage counter is standard equipment as well with the Turbomeca Arriel 2D engine.

The Vehicle and Engine Multifunction Display (VEMD), with the First Limit Indicator (FLI) is stock equipment on both the B2 and B3e. Van Winkle called the VEMD/FLI “the best piece of safety equipment” on the AS350.

The best way to get a feel for this aircraft’s versatility is to talk to the ones who operate it and find out just how they are outfitting their model to best do their jobs. So that’s what we did.

Travel to spots popular with tourists and you’ll see AStars buzzing around the sky giving tourists once-in-a-lifetime views, whether they are in India or in New York City. Tour operators like the AStar’s configuration and performance, as Rohit Mathur, CEO of Heritage Aviation in New Delhi attests.

For seven years, Heritage has leased various types of single-engine helicopters to fly tourists to pilgrimage sites in India, such as Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Vaishno Devi. Feedback from customers and pilots led Heritage to acquire its own aircraft.

“The H125 has been one of the most popular aircraft, especially for visits to temples on high grounds,” Mathur said. Passengers find the flights stable and comfortable and “pilots like the ease of flying it at high altitudes and in hilly areas.”

(Top, left and right) The AStar’s characteristics make it popular with many types of aircraft operators. Tour operator Liberty Helicopters likes the aircraft’s option for a left-hand drive that keeps the throttle and collective controls away from inadvertent interference by a tourist’s camera strap. Photo courtesy of Liberty Helicopters/John Romano.  (Bottom) The AStar’s configuration also is well-suited to ENG work. Photo courtesy of Roy Taylor
 
New York’s Liberty Helicopters likes the AStar’s wide cabin and tour door options, as well as its four-to-six-passenger configurations.

“Having the left-hand drive option is great, especially in the B2, since it keeps the throttle and collective controls completely away from being inadvertently interfered with by a tourist’s camera strap or other passenger movement,” said John Romano, a pilot with that sightseeing tour operator, which flies nine B2s and three AS355 Twin Stars. “We operate with high visibility blades and tungsten skid shoes, which are also very important to a tour operator.”

Electronic news-gathering (ENG) operators usually outfit their aircraft with a plethora of electronic equipment to downlink breaking news. They tend to operate in high-traffic environments in close proximity to other helicopters.

Matt Murphey of the Garland, Texas Police Department is a seasoned pilot and consultant on many aircraft completions who also flies ENG in the Dallas area. He touted the VEMD and FLI as some of his favorite equipment.

“In the 100-degree heat of the summer here in Dallas, it sure is nice to be able to only have to watch one gauge to stay out of trouble,” Murphey said. He added that he would love to see the G500 in his B2. “With all the radios in the ENG aircraft, I’d also like to have the newer digital audio panels like the ones from Becker and Geneva, because they can actually save you 30-35 pounds in weight.”

Murphey is also a big fan of the (standard) left and (nonstandard) right sliding doors. “They can really come in handy.”

The Garmin 530 in News 12 Long Island’s B2 pleases Ed Cilmi, a 14-year senior pilot for that New York operator. “I’m from the old school of getting around with sectionals” and the unit “is a godsend and really nice to have in and around the New York City Class B,” he said. “It’s plenty for me.”

Of all the missions that might define the AS350, it is probably the law enforcement/public service sector that gets the most attention where upgrades are concerned.

An AStar delivers water to a fire scene. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters

Kevin Means recently retired after more than 30 years with the San Diego Police Department. He worked for more than two decades as an instructor pilot and tactical flight officer trainer in their aviation unit.

“Everything we do to support patrol is based around the FLIR,” Means said, adding that his unit was a launch customer for the FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc. When he saw its capabilities, Means said, “my jaw was dropped for the whole flight. It’s truly a game-changer.”

Means added, “We also use our Power Sonix PA system all the time. At 1,000 feet AGL, people can hear us clear as a bell from two miles away.”

The four AS350B2s operated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department in Florida are similarly outfitted. They perform primarily patrol, but also fly tactical and firefighting missions.

Corporal Kevin Langiotti said most of their big upgrades have been in the form of mission equipment. The department has graduated from Avalex to the latest version of an Aerocomputers moving map system and integrated it with a FLIR 230-HD (an upgrade from a FLIR 8500), which has “worked out great.”

The AStar is a favorite among operators whose missions take them to high altitudes, especially when delivery
of cargo to such areas is required.

Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
Langiotti, a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office with 16 years in the aviation unit, said the department is in the process of moving from analog to digital, real-time downlinking and from retractable antennas to a downpost-fixed style. “It will take some workload off the crew to not have to worry about the extension or retraction of the antenna,” he said. “Little things like that go a long way.”

Hillsborough County can assist the fire department with their Bambi Bucket and one of their B2s even has a hoist if needed, Langiotti said. “For light search and rescue in the Tampa Bay area, it works good.”

The AStar earns equal, if not more, respect in the mountainous terrain of the West.

Utah Highway Patrol’s B2 and B3e aircraft handle missions that include law enforcement, search and rescue and utility. Capt. Luke Bowman, commander and chief pilot for the Highway Patrol, touted the H125’s ability to perform in terrain with peaks reaching 14,500 feet. “To be able to land at 12,000 feet and perform the rescue of not one but sometimes even two people is just amazing,” he said. Oftentimes they will use tiedowns in the floor to secure a rescue litter with an injured person along the width of the rear cabin floor.

The Highway Patrol’s new B3e was upgraded with Lifeport seats in the rear, which are individually mountable along the back wall. “This really opens up what you can do mission-wise in the back,” Bowman said. Selectively pulling the rear seats out allows K-9 or SWAT teams to better accomplish tactical missions.

The B3e’s panel sports XM weather and synthetic-vision terrain mapping. It also has the Airbus “Multibloc” center console. This allows radios to be mounted on the pedestal, saving the cost of an aftermarket retrofit.

Bowman said he would love to see a hoist added to their aircraft. “We do a lot of rescues in the slot canyons and that would make it easier to get rescue personnel to a victim.”

In California’s Los Angeles County, the Sheriff’s Department has found yet another use for its 15 AStars, which may embody the most poignant example of an evolving world. The department operates wide-area radiation detection equipment from an airborne platform to guard against radiological threats.

Sgt. Mick Kelleher, a 29-year veteran and a hazardous-materials officer for the department, said the equipment is mounted to the aircraft via a Tyler Special Operations Platform, allowing for rapid deployment and compatibility with any ship in the fleet. The department conducts radiation sweep operations several times a month.

Suffice it to say, the list of upgrade options for the AStar is long and varied.

Swiss operator Air Glaciers uses its three AS350s for a variety of missions, including tours, VIP transport and air ambulance work. Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters
For those who seek a more stable platform but lack the resources to purchase a larger machine to get the benefit of stability augmentation, there are alternatives. Deputy Bryan Smith of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida said he loves the Cobham HeliSAS stability augmentation system (now marketed by Genesys Aerosystems) that is installed in the unit’s H125.

“This system is really amazing and would make a huge difference in the ability for a crew to survive an inadvertent IMC scenario,” said Smith, an instructor pilot and the safety officer for the Sheriff’s Office. Air medical and VIP transport operators could share the benefit of a stability augmentation system such as this as well. Heritage Aviation’s Mathur said he acquired his two aircraft in part because “passengers find the flights stable, assuring and comfortable.”

The options list goes on: traffic alert systems, avionics upgrades, litter kits, wire strike, cargo swings, etc. For virtually every niche, there is an option to explore. Operators in the U.S. generally would agree the AS350 AStar lives up to its full given name (embraced when the manufacturer first marketed the aircraft in the States). It truly is an “American Star.”

Related: Airframes News

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