European medical operators give the EC 145 high marks

 - October 30, 2006, 11:43 AM

Some two years after the Eurocopter EC 145 entered service, it seems customers have forgotten the problems that delayed the program and caused early operational difficulties. Instead, European helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) providers focus on the positive: they say they like the spacious cabin, significant payload, low noise and the extensive certified equipment.

Feedback is clearly positive from Swiss rescue organization Rega (which operates five EC 145s), German automobile club rescue service ADAC Luftrettung (two) and France’s Sécurité Civile (31), despite a few imperfections on the twin-turbine helicopter.

The first EC 145 was delivered to the Sécurité Civile (French civil defense and emergency preparedness organization) in April 2002 (two years behind schedule) and entered service the following month. The Sécurité Civile received its 32nd and final EC 145 in May this year. Eurocopter delivered ADAC Luftrettung’s and Rega’s helicopters between January and August 2003, all on time. Eurocopter is planning to deliver 19 and 25 EC 145s this year and next, respectively.

Since spring 2002, the worldwide fleet of EC 145s has logged 53,312 flight hours (as of June 30). Sécurité Civile’s fleet accounts for 29,726 of those hours. According to Eurocopter, the operational readiness rate of the Sécurité Civile’s EC 145s this year has been 93.2 percent.

A number of Sécurité Civile pilots opposed the EC 145 when it was time to choose a new helicopter in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, they were eyeing the Eurocopter Dolphin–both for its performance and because it was a known quantity. But the EC 145, a derivative to be developed from the BK 117C-1 with the EC 135’s advanced cockpit, was less expensive.

Some pilots have long been resistant to the French Ministry of the Interior’s selection of the EC 145, citing performance and comfort, explained Bertrand Gausserès, head of the Sécurité Civile’s helicopter group. He insisted, however, that all pilots now flying the EC 145 are convinced it was the right option. “I could not say this in January, when some bases were not equipped with the new helicopter yet, but the EC 145 is now accepted unanimously,” Gausserès told AIN.

Concerns about Main Rotor Unfounded

Comfort concerns stemmed from the EC 145’s rigid main rotor. “Such a rotor can have more brutal reactions in rough air conditions; in addition, stress limits on the rotor mast can make landing more tricky on a sloping surface,” Gausserès said. However, he said, the rigid rotor has proved to have almost no consequence in operations. “In fact, our pilots can go into the calanques [deep, narrow creeks in the Mediterranean Sea] on the Riviera when the mistral wind blows and the ride is only a little bit bumpier than it was before,” he added.

Regardless of the concerns about the rigid rotor, the structure has a number of advantages. It is lighter and requires less maintenance, according to Gausserès. ADAC Luftrettung’s managing director, Friedrich Rehkopf, sees a rigid rotor as being clearly better than a conventional one. “Fewer parts, therefore less maintenance, no risk of mast bumping and better maneuverability are major advantages,” he said. Rega spokesman Walter Stünzi, too, said having a rigid rotor is “a big advantage.”

Eurocopter told AIN that “the EC 145’s hingeless rotor system is one of the most successful and safest ever developed. It is uniquely responsive, making the aircraft maneuverable with utmost precision and instant response in difficult terrain (such as mountains) and low-level flight. More than 1,400 BO 105s, some 480 BK 117s and, by now, 71 EC 145s fly with it. The EC 135’s bearingless main rotor and the Tiger’s FEL rotor are derived from it.”

One consequence of the rotor that the Sécurité Civile did not expect is its “blowing” effect when the helicopter is near the ground. The EC 145 has the same rotor diameter as the agency’s former workhorse, the Aerospatiale Alouette III, but much more power. “If you don’t pay attention, the helicopter can take tiles off roofs, throw gravel onto vehicles or knock down parked motorcycles,” Gausserès commented.

EC 145 Engine Control

Surprising on such a modern aircraft is the absence of full authority digital engine control (FADEC). Eurocopter said only that it might consider FADEC as a future upgrade. All three interviewed operators told AIN that their pilots do notice the lack of FADEC on the engines. “It makes the starting phase more complicated,” Gausserès explained. The pilot must closely monitor temperature while setting the fuel flow. Some got distracted, resulting in an overtemp and requiring an immediate visit to the maintenance shop.

Engine start with FADEC is considerably easier. “You push a button and that’s it,” said Gausserès. FADEC improves synchronization of the two engines’ power output, too. ADAC Luftrettung’s Rehkopf agrees. “Furthermore, modern FADEC design allows incorporation of a training mode, which is a tremendous advantage for realistic emergency flight training,” he added. Rega pilots, too, miss FADEC on the EC 145.

However, operators do not feel the lack of a fenestron anti-torque rotor on the EC 145. Instead, Stünzi praised the conventional tail rotor for its ground clearance. “At 6.2 feet, it is high enough to allow rear stretcher loading,” Gausserès added, through the popular rear clamshell doors.

The cabin of the EC 145 is four times bigger than that of the Alouette III, and operators appreciate the extra space. It allows three people to sit next to the patient.

Increasing Performance

Among the EC 145’s advantages, Stünzi mentioned “all equipment–hoist, double cargo-hook, IFR, NVG-compatibility and so on–is available from the manufacturer.” Sécurité Civile’s Gausserès agrees on three at least. “The hoist is ideal,” he told AIN. It can rewind quickly, slowing down at the end. The cable’s 300-foot length makes it safer than the 160-foot cable the Sécurité Civile had previously used. The hoist’s maximum load is 600 pounds, which gives some margin for two people.

The IFR capability will be increasingly useful at the Sécurité Civile. The French civil aviation authorities are developing GPS-guided landing approaches, which should allow Sécurité Civile helicopters to perform direct IFR approaches to hospital helipads. Rega is starting IFR operation in the near future in the lowland area, noted Stünzi.

Rehkopf explained how the IFR capability could be useful for ADAC operations. “Currently we do not regularly operate our helicopters IFR on actual missions. However, especially for HEMS operations at night with two pilots aboard, IFR capability is clearly a great advantage during bad weather. For inter-hospital missions from/to certified heliports the unavailability of HEMS services due to weather could be reduced–[and IFR capability would be] a big benefit for both patients and flight safety. This would require–at least in Germany–a change in attitude by the authorities, ATC (Deutsche Flugsicherung) as well the LBA (Luftfahrt-Bundesamt).

“Contrary to ICAO rules, IFR in uncontrolled airspace and below minimum radar vectoring altitude is currently not allowed. There are initiatives under way to introduce to hospital landing sites ‘point-in-space approaches,’ which have been common in the U.S. for a number of years. Also the airspace structure needs to be redesigned to accommodate military low-level night flying as well as low-level HEMS flights,” he explained.

Night-vision goggles, said Gausserès, are a great step forward in safety, and they make night flying and especially night hoist operations much safer, he insisted.

ADAC also mentioned the EC 145’s low noise level as one of its benefits. According to Eurocopter figures, it is 6.7 dB below ICAO limits.

Of the 32 aircraft delivered, the Sécurité Civile has lost one in a July 2003 fatal crash. According to Gausserès, the accident resulted from a loss of yaw control at high altitude and high weight and “disturbed meteorology.”

A flight-test campaign last year at CEV, the French state flight-test center, set out to confirm the flight envelope at altitude. “We then performed an additional assessment in the mountains with Eurocopter and CEV pilots,” Gausserès told AIN. It was determined that the EC 145 and the Alouette III behave quite differently at altitude. As a result, Sécurité Civile added new elements to its pilot training.

The Sécurité Civile will receive a flight and navigation procedure trainer next year that will allow type-rating revalidation.

Gausserès recalled that the delays that plagued the program resulted in tensions between the OEM and the Sécurité Civile. Eurocopter would not comment on the early problems of the EC 145. However, it must be said that the Ministry of the Interior’s specification for its future workhorse complicated Eurocopter’s development task. It seems the European manufacturer’s engineering effort has now paid off.

EC 145 by the Numbers

Max takeoff weight: 7,903 pounds
Useful load: 3,952 pounds
Capacity: 1 pilot+9 passengers (standard configuration)
Cabin volume: 213 cubic feet
Rotor diameter: 36 feet
Engines: two Turbomeca Arriel 1E2
Max emergency power (one engine inoperative): 770 shp each
High-speed cruise (at max weight): 133 knots
Maximum range (from max-weight takeoff): 370 nm

                          Source: Eurocopter