EcoStar finds its niche in Hawaii air-tour role

 - September 18, 2006, 6:22 AM

After spending five years flying Eurocopter’s EC 130B4 Ecureuil “EcoStar,” Dave Chevalier, president of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, still thinks it’s the best choice for pleasing his air tourists and mitigating noise complaints, but he has candid criticisms about elements of the model’s operating costs and performance.

“Overall it’s an excellent helicopter for the mission, but the waterfalls are supposed to be outside the helicopter, not inside,” says Chevalier, referring to the EcoStar’s leaky original Liebherr air conditioners, one of a handful of issues he has had with the helicopters.

Chevalier has spent two decades flying helicopter tours in Hawaii. Today from bases in Maui, Kauai, and on the Big Island of Hawaii, his Blue Hawaiian Helicopters operates 10 EcoStars and eight AS 350B2 AStars an average of 1,200 hours each annually. Blue Hawaiian employs 32 pilots and flies 130,000 passengers a year. It uses a Cessna 206 to ferry parts and personnel between the bases.

Chevalier began to look around for quieter alternatives to his AStars after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed the National Park Overflight Act in 1987, mainly as a way to curb air-tour noise over the Grand Canyon, but the legislation covered other national parks as well. Chevalier is a member of the Helicopter Association International’s board of directors, was chairman of HAI’s Tour Operators Committee and served as HAI’s representative on the National Parks Overflight Working Group.

After a decade of discussions with OEMs, Chevalier convinced Eurocopter to pursue development of a quieter helicopter and he agreed to be the launch customer for the EcoStar, ordering 10 for deliveries that began in 2001 and ended in 2004.

Based on the AS 350B3 AStar, the 5,300-pound EcoStar shares many of the AStar’s key components, including airframe, mechanicals, main rotor, engine and controls. (The last-mentioned are different on the less powerful B2.) Notable other differences include the EcoStar’s fenestron anti-torque thruster in place of a conventional tail rotor, blades that turn opposite the AStar’s, and a two-speed rotor system that cuts the cruise rpms of the main and tail rotors.

The result is an impressive exterior noise signature that is 7 dB below the ICAO Chapter 8 level. Besides being quieter, the EcoStar’s asymmetrical fenestron blades produce a pitch that is “less irritating” to the human ear, said Chevalier.

More Power, More Space
He also likes the passenger ergonomics and engine performance on the EcoStar and even charges 20 percent more for flights in it over AStar fares. “You get great visibility with all that glass,” he said, claiming that passengers have no problems laying out more money to ride in the EcoStars because they offer a better view and more personal space. “It’s like upgrading to business class.” The EcoStar’s capacious six-foot-wide, 130-cu-ft cabin accommodates two or three passengers seated next to the pilot and another four sitting in individual seats in a row behind them. The cabin is 10 percent roomier than the AStar’s.

The superb view has the predictable downside of turning the EcoStar’s interior into a virtual greenhouse on hot days, making it unbearable without robust air conditioning. “When the air conditioning failed, we had to ground the aircraft,” said Chevalier. And fail it did, in a spectacular, wet fashion that sent water “pouring” out of vents, damaging passengers’ cameras and launching Chevalier on a long, frustrating journey in search of a solution, as he claimed Liebherr and Eurocopter took turns blaming each other, rather than fixing the problem. Blue Hawaiian worked with Aero Aire (now Enviro Systems) to develop replacement air conditioners.

Any new aircraft will have a certain amount of teething pain, and early issues on the EcoStar for Blue Hawaiian, other than the air conditioners, included higher-than-expected cabin vibration levels and metal shavings in the gearbox. Eurocopter-provided solutions included a hammer attenuation system for the rotors to address vibration levels and new gearboxes that were made available on a pro-rated basis.

Pilots who fly the EcoStar love it, said Chevalier. The dual-channel FADEC has a single analog backup. In the single-pilot cockpit there are dual flight computers, multiple engine sensors and a metering valve with a dual stepper motor. Typical panel layout in an EcoStar includes integrated displays for vehicle and engine management, a first limitation indication, Honeywell Mark 21 EGPWS with integrated Garmin 430 GPS and KMD-550 3-D flight display. The power, control and avionics systems significantly reduce pilot workload and enhance safety, said Chevalier.

However, the EcoStar’s cost structure is a continuing concern for Blue Hawaiian. While the helicopter’s 847-shp (takeoff) Turbomeca Arriel 2B-1 engine produces more power and is “significantly” more efficient than the Arriel 1D1 engines in the B2s, it is more costly to maintain and 20-percent more expensive to overhaul, even though the 2B-1 has dual-channel FADEC. “I don’t understand that,” said Chevalier. He added that the EcoStar’s dual hydraulic system and more sophisticated avionics also add to the aircraft’s overall higher operating costs.

The acquisition and operating costs have put Chevalier in no hurry to replace his remaining AStars with EcoStars, which sell new for close to $2.2 million apiece. But from Chevalier’s viewpoint, the EcoStar is still among the sleekest looking, most ergonomic and quietest helicopters in commercial operation. It offers the dual advantage of keeping his sightseeing passengers, and those on the ground beneath them, happy.