AB139 deliveries continue as Bell/Agusta awaits FAA OK

 - February 6, 2007, 6:04 AM

Bell/Agusta AB139s seem to be headed far and wide at the moment. Deliveries of the new medium twin to the Namibian government and, most recently, to philanthropist the Aga Khan (see sidebar) are recent milestones, as the companies announce orders from Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. (The U.S. Coast Guard’s Deepwater order for up to 35 aircraft was a particular coup.) At press time, Bell/Agusta reported orders for more than 80 aircraft.

The first delivery took place to Italian operator Elilario, an Agusta service center and one of Italy’s biggest public transport operators. Since then, news about that particular helicopter’s progress has been difficult to find; in fact, it rated only a short reminder in the detailed announcement of the first Namibian handover.

So what has it been doing all this time? It turns out that, although Bell/Agusta handed the helicopter over to Elilario, the OEM took it back to use as a sales demonstrator for other potential customers during the course of this year. The reason for this was partly prestige for Agusta–it was important to make an early first delivery and, ideally, to an Italian customer–and partly practical. Bell/Agusta had to make a nationwide sales tour and secure RAI (Registro Aeronautico Italiano) certification for the EMS equipment fit–vital for Elilario’s mission profile–before the helicopter could be put to work. At press time, this had yet to be awarded (although it does hold RAI certification for IFR operations).

Elilario’s headquarters are at Colico, at the north end of Lake Como in northern Italy. However, the company has established outposts throughout Italy and Sicily, from which it flies more than two dozen helicopters, primarily AB412s and BK 117s, on HEMS/ SAR operations. Its offshore operations are concentrated in the eastern coast port of Ravenna, from where it flies over the northern “Alpha” sector of the Adriatic Sea on behalf of Agip. In general, the AB412s operate to the north of the country, as it rises toward the Alps, while the BK117s cover more low-lying, temperate areas to the south. The operator holds options for four more AB139s.

Maurizio Lepet, head of flight operations at Elilario, told AIN that the AB139 is a natural successor to the AB412. “Cabin volume [in the AB139] is slightly less than [that in] the old workhorse but the new ship can do so much more,” he said. “Its power margins give our pilots great confidence, whether ferrying oil workers during a Mediterranean summer or lifting a casualty off a 6,000-foot Alpine slope during the winter. With the AB412, you have to husband your power carefully.” The new machine’s modular interior means that operators can switch roles between EMS and offshore configurations quickly–a flexibility that appeals to Elilario if an offshore opportunity presents itself.

Meeting the Needs of the EMS Market
When Bell/Agusta returns the AB139 to Elilario next year, Lepet expects to see the new aircraft employed in the EMS role–the exact location is not yet known–fitted with two litters and for a crew of two nurses and a doctor. It will also carry a hoist for extracting injured skiers or climbers. The service is funded, incidentally, not by the hospital but by a mixture of regional and national government grants. Unsurprisingly perhaps, these fund-holders were high on the list for the Agusta/ Elilario sales tour earlier this year.
Why such a big machine for EMS? Apart from the patient capacity–it can accommodate up to six litters–transits can be quite long in rural Italy and, with more than 20 inhabited offshore islands, can involve an over-water leg. For example, flying from Sicily to the mainland includes a sea crossing of more than 80 miles. The AB139 has an endurance of nearly four hours, so extended flights will be a breeze. Nevertheless, Lepet conceded that Elilario will be sorry to see the AB412s retire. “They have worked so well for us over the years. But the AB139 is in a different class.”

The other reason behind Elilario’s selection of the AB139 is a significant level of mission flexibility. The EMS/SAR rear cabin can be swiftly reconfigured from a six-litter capacity, say, to a two-litter capacity with a full medical team and rescuers– such as a winch operator or mountain rescue team.

Training in Italy for technicians and pilots has been completed for Elilario and continues apace for future deliveries, according to Bell/ Agusta. The sales tour seems to have been a success–already Airgreen, a competitor of Elilario, has ordered “at least” one helicopter (also replacing an AB412) for SAR duties in the mountainous Piedmont region. Airgreen will take delivery in June.

Filling the Executive Role
Elsewhere in the marketplace, Bell/Agusta delivered a second AB139, to the government of Namibia in September. The handover took place at Eros Airport, near Windhoek, the capital, and was presided over by the southwest African state’s president, Dr. Sam Nujoma. Unlike the Elilario ship, this aircraft is already in active service, performing utility, EMS and transport duties for the country’s Government Air Transportation Services.

Closer to home, Canada’s London Air Service (LAS) has now ordered two of the helicopters. The first will be delivered late next year, before beginning operations in Canada in spring 2006.

The LAS AB139s will undertake helicopter charter flights to complement a fixed-wing fleet of Learjet 45s and Challenger 604s. In particular, the helicopters will provide
a passenger service to and from Sonora Island, a luxury resort on the Campbell River sandwiched between Victoria Island and the British Columbia coast.

LAS president Wynne Powell said that the company selected the AB139 because of its “innovative technological design and excellent operating characteristics, including the number of passengers and its baggage weight/size handling capabilities.”

The helicopter is also likely to be in demand as an executive transport: its single-engine performance makes convoluted takeoff procedures a thing of the past. However, escalator costs–extra fees imposed by Bell/Agusta to protect the companies against price increases between order and delivery–have deterred at least one British executive operator.

In the U.S., FAA certification remains imminent–it may even be in place by the time this article is published. It follows the successful return last month of a second pre-production airframe, which conducted both high-altitude trials in Colorado and hot-weather tests in Palm Springs, Calif. Full clearance to FAA category A (class 1) public-transport performance should be forthcoming. (The AB139 has already received European EASA IFR type certification for its three-cockpit-display version.) The AB139
is designed to meet current JAR 29/FAR 29 standards.

Final assembly of AB139s at the new Bell plant at Amarillo, Texas, will begin in the second quarter of next year. The Amarillo facility will produce a limited number of aircraft next year, ramping up to a full production rate in three years. Completion and delivery of the first Amarillo aircraft is scheduled for the first quarter of 2006.

Bell/Agusta Aerospace plans to maintain an AB139 in the U.S. throughout next year for demonstrations and training. In addition to the U.S. Coast Guard Deepwater order, Bell/Agusta asserts that government agencies around the world are showing “a keen interest” in the new helicopter.  

Constructive Use

At the end of October, Bell/Agusta delivered the first of four AB139s to the Aga Khan Development Network at Agusta’s Vergiate plant in Italy. The new helicopters will operate in remote, mountainous regions of south and central Asia, primarily to ferry personnel and material involved in constructing three campuses of the University of Central Asia (UCA)–a new international institution, operated on secular principles and “dedicated to the problems and needs of mountain communities.”

When completed (scheduled for 2007), the co-educational university will reach as many as 40 million potential students in Central Asia who do not currently have access to post-secondary education. Founded by the presidents of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan, as well as by the statesman and philanthropist the Aga Khan, the university aims to foster economic and social development throughout the vast and largely impoverished mountain zones of the region. The AB139s will be moved around the three construction sites–Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; and Islamabad, Pakistan.  

The Bell/Agusta AB139

Bell/Agusta describes the AB139 as a next-generation medium twin-engine helicopter designed with inherent multi-role capability and operational flexibility. Suitable applications include law enforcement, EMS, offshore, corporate and executive transport. It can carry up to 15 passengers or eight law enforcement officers and two armed crewmembers for aircraft protection at high cruise speeds, in what Bell/Agusta claims is the most spacious cabin and with the best power reserve in the medium-twin class. Onboard systems include Honeywell Primus Epic avionics, a four-axis digital autopilot, and four large flat-panel displays in the cockpit, with the option for night vision goggle compatibility. 

Bell/Agusta AB139 Specifications