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Friday, September 1, 2006

AMTC'06: More Safety and Power, Less Fuel and Noise

With fuel prices and safety concerns greater than ever, EMS operators are demanding more from their aircraft—in terms of safety features, capability, efficiency and friendliness.

By R&W Staff

HelicopterThere’s much to banter about as emergency medical service operators, crews and vendors gather for this month’s Air Medical Transport Conference in Phoenix.

New aircraft are entering the market or staking out market positions. Bell Helicopter’s 429 GlobalRanger, for instance, is being readied for its first flight. AgustaWestland is booking more orders for its latest iteration of the A109 Power, the Grand, from EMS operators and delivering air-medical versions of that and its AW139 medium twin. The U.S. Army’s selection of the EC145 as its new utility helicopter for the domestic missions of it and the National Guard can only raise the visibility of that aircraft in EMS markets.

Completion centers specializing in EMS equipment and interiors are swamped with work in the United States as operators expand and upgrade their fleets, to the point that some are preparing to convert their products to kits and farm completion work out to other centers.

The EMS sector of the U.S. helicopter industry continues to face intense pressure from safety advocates, regulators, the public and even some in the medical community who question the value of most patient air transports. Most recently, the FAA has launched numerous investigations into whether the outfits it has certificated to operate aircraft are actually maintaining operational control over their various EMS fleets and flights.

ParamedicsPerhaps the most intriguing topic for coffee break and cocktail discussions in Phoenix is the drive by MD Helicopters to claim the market position in the sector that it built the MD902 Explorer to secure. The company’s new owners, led by Wall Street investor Lynn Tilton, have grand designs on the EMS market, as they do for most of the Mesa, Ariz.-based manufacturer’s initiatives (see “The Whole Ball of Wax,” page 47). But MD could stir up the EMS market simply by making more aircraft available and refilling the parts pipeline for those already in the fleet. (Tilton, head of the distressed-debt investment firm Patriarch Partners and interim chairman of MD, is committed to doing both.)

If MD loses its protest of the Army’s June 30 award of the 322-352-aircraft Light Utility Helicopter program to EADS North America, “its going to be able to concentrate on selling into the commercial market,” said Mike Slattery, director of marketing for Air Methods’ Product Div. “The company has come around in their ability to support their products. They’re starting to manufacture their products again and getting aircraft licensed.

“Right now, the biggest challenge in the industry is people finding aircraft,” he said, with most manufacturers reporting order backlogs of 18-24 months. “Having more aircraft available is, right now in this industry, a good thing.”

MD’s contribution toward that effort will start at AMTC, where the first MD902 will be delivered into EMS service in a number of years. SkyFlightCare of West Chester, Pa. will take delivery of the aircraft, which will be on display at the show. The organization today operates one MD902.

EMS interior concept
Aerolite is working on EMS interior concepts for Bell’s new 429 for an early customer of the light twin.
Eurocoptor EC135 Interior
Heli-Dyne Systems has received an STC for its Emergency Patient In-flight Care (EPIC) advanced air medical interior for the Eurocopter EC135 as well as the EC145 (shown here).
Air Methods
Air Methods has earned STCs for a modular EMS interior for the EC145, which can also use its Patient Loading System (above), and a Sagem Avionics integrated cockpit display system and AP85 Autopilot System for the Bell 407 (below).
Air Methods
Eurocopter
Eurocopter and other manufacturers are facing demands from operators for EMS aircraft with lower noise signatures, fuel burn and direct maintenance costs and better provisions for the safety of pilots, medical crews and patients.
“We’ve got a great platform” in the MD902, said David Oglesbee, MD’s vice president of sales. “This was designed as an EMS ship. There was a tremendous amount of time early on in the development of this aircraft where they brought in crew after crew after crew to make sure it met all the needs of the EMS industry. It just wasn’t marketed well.”

In trying to rectify that now, he said, MD salesmen are finding EMS flight crews and program officials aren’t familiar with the aircraft.

“A lot of the EMS providers simply haven’t seen the 902,” he said. “They saw the MD900 back 10 years ago or so. The 902’s never been by.”

He shared the story of a visit coordinated with an EMS operation’s management. Unaware of that, the flight crews said they weren’t interested in seeing the airplane.

“They talked about how they were not excited about the aircraft,” Oglesbee said. “We flew in, spent the day there and, by the time, we left they were very excited about the aircraft. So we have to get out there. We’ve got to let them fly it, touch, feel it, and that’s what we’re doing.” He said MD has MD902 production line positions available for sale this year.

MD isn’t just pitching the Explorer. Oglesbee said the company is developing plans to modify the light, single-engine MD600 to make it a better competitor for Eurocopter’s AS350 and Bell’s 407. The company convened a customer advisory board in late July to discuss that. It also plans to bring EMS industry leaders to Mesa while they are in the area for AMTC “to sit down with the 600 and our engineering group and go through that.”

Meanwhile, Bell Helicopter reports steady progress on its 429 Global Ranger. Introduced at the 2005 Heli-Expo as a more customer-responsive alternative to the 427i, this light twin has accumulated 213 orders to date (including nearly all the 427i customers, who converted their orders).

Bell’s senior vice president of marketing and sales, Bob Fitzpatrick, said the order rate verifies Bell’s designed approach for the 429—enlisting the customer in critical design decisions. Key features of the aircraft are a 200-cu-ft cabin with a flat floor, sliding side doors, optional rear clamshell doors for ease of loading and unloading patients and seating for seven passengers and a pilot. Bell bills the aircraft has having “the room and performance of a medium twin for the price of a light twin.”

The first 429, destined for launch customer Air Methods, is moving down the production line at Bell Helicopter Canada’s facility in Mirabel, near Montreal. The company says the aircraft is on track for first flight later this year. Bell plans to obtain certification of the 429 from Transport Canada and the FAA next year. Initial production is scheduled for late 2007, with European Aviation Safety Agency certification to follow in mid-2008.

The 429 is the first production helicopter made with components from Bell’s Modular Affordable Product Line (MAPL) technology program. The MAPL technologies on the 429 include an advanced-technology main rotor, which has been undergoing flight tests on a 427 test bed, as has the 429’s autopilot and air data/attitude heading reference system/interface unit.

Another EMS option Bell is developing is the 417.

“The 407 and the 417 are essentially the same cabin,” said John Ricciardelli, Bell’s 417 executive director. “What the 417 offers any operator is exceptional hot-high capability, so if you’re operating in a remote area where you’re going into the mountains quite often or if your helipad at the hospital is at a high altitude or hot-day conditions, the 417 is an improvement over not only the competition, but the 407. You get that sea-level useful load as well.”

The baseline for the U.S. Army’s Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, the 417 is to be powered by Honeywell’s 970-shp, dual-centrifugal compressor HTS900-2.

“If you look at the EMS market, and really helicopters in general, a lot of the safety issues are around flying into terrain,” Ricciardelli said. “EMS specifically has the issue where, when they get the call, they’ve got to go, and once they’re there, they find themselves in an area that has changed or the conditions have changed, and they still have to go.”

The added performance allows customers to get “a basic ship with the Chelton integrated avionics package with inherent safety advantages”—traffic-alert/collision-avoidance, terrain-avoidance and synthetic-vision systems, Ricciardelli said. “Today, if you looked at the 407 and then you want to add all that, it would eat up some of that useful load. Our useful load, which is 200 lb. better than a configured 407, essentially has all that in it already. From a safety standpoint, that’s a huge improvement.”

Eurocopter continues to build on its success in the U.S. EMS market. Three years ago, it claimed a 33-percent market share, based on aircraft delivered. Now it claims more than 90 percent of the market.

“We’ve been successful in placing aircraft in the traditional programs, which encompass the major hospitals,” said Larry Roberts, American Eurocopter vice president of commercial affairs. “We also have been successful in continuing to provide light twins and singles” to independent programs.

The company did that on the strength of the EC135, which Roberts asserted “has been pretty much accepted as the standard light, twin-engine air medical helicopter, probably in the world at this stage of the game,” and the EC145, which is “being accepted by more and more people as the new BK.”

Roberts sees the U.S. EMS market on “the back end of the growth cycle. You’re probably going to see programs continue to grow as the operators get better at working their marketing to open programs and trying to take business away from each other.”

That will soon develop into the “beginning of a replacement phase. That is a fairly large market, and we will probably see it getting into full swing next year and extending 2-3 years after that.”

Like other manufacturers, Eurocopter is seeing a definite shift among operators toward more safety devices in their helicopters. “We’re starting to see a definite swing toward night-vision goggle-compatible cockpits,” he said. “We’re starting to see the more general request to include terrain and collision avoidance systems in air medical,” as well as energy-attenuating seats and the general safety features of the aircraft, “not only for pilots, but for the clinical crews and patients.”

Eurocopter is continuing to focus on reducing the noise signature of its aircraft to make them more friendly to neighborhoods around hospitals.

“I think it’s pretty well accepted that Eurocopter is the leader in this area,” he said. “We do that by focusing on blade design and trying to improve the fenestron, and more importantly, air intakes for the motors. That’s a big producer of noise in helicopters.”

Another area that all manufacturers are pursuing, he said, “is continued investment in making the helicopter less expensive to operate, a continual reduction in direct maintenance costs.”

A new trend among EMS—and, in fact, all operators—is the drive for more efficient engine power. “I think that you’ll see not only us, but all the other major manufacturers going to that because that really is the future of helicopter aviation, if we’re going to respond to what the market is asking from us now.”

Operators for years focused on engine reliability and performance almost to the exclusion of fuel consumption. “That was before gas was $5 a gallon,” Roberts said. “Now if you look at the impact that the price of a gallon of Jet A has on direct operating costs, it’s pretty significant. Back when Jet A was $1.75 a gallon, it was not a big factor. But now it is starting to impact, and our customers are interested in fuel economy.”

Busting at the Seams

Completion centers are hustling to keep up with customers’ demands and the aircraft they are adding to their fleets.

The Swiss EMS equipment and completions firm Aerolite, for instance, has opened a sales and customer support office in the Seattle area to better service its U.S. clients.

Since it was established in 1999, Aerolite has installed more than 100 EMS interiors for Eurocopter aircraft, according to Hans P. Bretscher, the company’s vice president and representative in North America. Of those, 17 are EC145s in Europe and the United States. The rest are EC135s. The company has worked on interiors for the AgustaWestland Grand, two of which are flying in Italy under EASA supplemental type certificates, and the AW139, two of which also are flying in Italy under EASA STCs.

Aerolite is currently doing the final completion of an EC145 for MedLink Air of La Crosse, Wis.

Bretscher said that more and more operators are looking for roll-in cots for easy loading and unloading of patients. They don’t want ramps or uneven levels between the helicopter floor and the cot. Operators also want modular interior components that can easily be removed for cleaning and maintenance. Such interiors also can simplify configuration changes and set-up of aircraft for different mission profiles, such as one- or two-patient missions, search-and-rescue, “scoop and run” and inter-facility transfers. Bretscher said Aerolite has a record order backlog for EMS Interiors for both AgustaWestland and Eurocopter aircraft. The company is working on interior concepts for “a customer getting early serial-number Bell 429s.”

Air Methods is another completions center busting at the seams, according to the company’s Slattery. The company reported major advancements this year, securing STCs for a modular EMS interior for the EC145 and a Sagem Avionics integrated cockpit display system and AP85 Autopilot System for the Bell 407.

The EC145 interior is based on Air Methods family of patient loading systems that uses the Model 1080 patient litter in use in EMS applications for more than a decade. The patient loading system can translate the patient out of the aircraft to ease loading and unloading of the litter. Air Methods expects to soon offer roll-on wheeled litters for the EC145.

The interior is designed to accommodate one patient with three medical attendants or two with two attendants, and includes a 10-l. liquid oxygen system, modular medical equipment mounts, integrated medical services panels, NVG-compatible, high-intensity interior lighting and tactical communications systems.

The first aircraft equipped with the new Interior was delivered to the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center’s LifeFlight Program in Worcester, Mass. The LifeFlight aircraft included a single-pilot IFR avionics suite, satellite communications and data links, auxiliary exterior lighting and an Air Comm air conditioning system.

The integrated cockpit display system and autopilot package is designed to replace legacy electro-mechanical instrumentation and spinning mass gyroscopes with new Sagem Avionics liquid-crystal displays and solid-state electronic attitude & heading sensors. The new avionics aim to enhance the situational awareness of the pilot and improve the mean time between failure (which would translate directly into reduced operating costs

and improved performance and dispatch rates).

The AP 85 autopilot is designed to provide long-term pitch and roll attitude hold, transparent handling and auto-trim capability. It is a full-time autopilot: the pilot turns it on before take-off and turns it off after landing. The first aircraft equipped with the package was delivered to the University of Utah AirMed program.

On the safety front, the pressure is unrelenting. In addition to special investigations by the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board and NTSB calls for mandatory improvements in procedures, oversight and safety equipment, the industry has undertaken a major initiative to cut helicopter accident rates by 80 percent in 10 years. In such an environment, any operator suffering an

accident quickly finds itself in a glaring spotlight.

CJ Systems Aviation Group has been unfortunate to have suffered several accidents this year. It recently acted to boost its safety performance, and gain some public-relations points and at the same time, by appointing four industry veterans to key safety, training, and standards posts.

“We’ve selected some of the most notable experts in the aviation industry to help us reinvent how CJ Systems operates,” said Larry Pietropaulo, CJ Systems Aviation Group’s president and chief operating officer.

The four are led by John Goglia, an international safety, maintenance and human factors expert and former NTSB member. He remains the first—and only—safety board member to hold an FAA aircraft mechanic’s certificate. As the company’s interim vice president of safety, the 40-year industry veteran will play a pivotal role in the redesign of the CJ Systems’ safety program, Pietropaulo said.

Working with Goglia is Tim Sukow, a veteran CJ Systems pilot and aviation site manager. As director of safety, he is responsible for bolstering safety guidelines and practices across the company’s nationwide network of air bases. His safety experience includes time as White House presidential command pilot for President Reagan and director of safety and standardization for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Fleet Marine Forces Pacific.

Doug Berkley, the company’s director of standards and compliance, will be responsible for reviewing, strengthening, and providing long-range supervision of all CJ Systems’ regulatory compliance standards. He is a retired airline pilot with 14 years as a captain at American Airlines.

Darrell Carter is the company’s new director of training, responsible for reviewing, evaluating, and updating CJ Systems’ flight training programs and implementing new training standards to help strengthen operational consistency. At CJ Systems since 1999, he is a 25-year-veteran U.S. Army aviator with more than 6,200 hr flight time.

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