Delays stymie EC 145 entry into service in Europe & U.S.

 - May 9, 2008, 7:08 AM

The French Sécurité Civile (the state rescue arm) no longer has a defined entry-into-service schedule for its Eurocopter EC 145 twin-turbine helicopters. It has officially taken delivery of the first three of 32 ordered aircraft (a $150 million contract) during the last six months, two years after the originally planned date. However, problems remain with some equipment and the launch customer cannot say its EC 145s are 100-percent operational.

Although the thornier technical problems were solved before the first delivery, Col. André Ben Kemoun, head of communications at the Sécurité Civile, told AIN, “We are still experiencing little problems with some accessories, such as the winch.” Pilots and maintenance technicians are currently training on the three delivered aircraft in Nîmes. “However, we used our EC 145s for flood-rescue operations in September,” Col. Ben Kemoun said.

The entry into service of the EC 145 is all the more urgent as some of the Alouette IIIs fulfilling the mission are more than 30 years old. Three have already been retired. As a compensation for the delay, Eurocopter has loaned some newer Alouette IIIs to replace the retired ones. The manufacturer also pays for the maintenance of those aircraft. The current delivery schedule calls for another seven EC145s to be delivered this year, 10 next year, five in 2004 and the remaining seven in 2005. However, Col. Ben Kemoun declined to reveal a firm schedule for entry into service.

The nine-passenger EC 145 includes major enhancements over the BK117-C1 from which it is derived, such as increased cabin volume and new rotor blades. According to Eurocopter officials, the EC 145 has proved to be more difficult to design than expected. “Our customers gave us specifications that were based on an ideal aircraft, not an existing one,” said Jean-Pierre Brassler, head of market studies at the Marignane, France-based manufacturer. He insisted that “computations and simulations are usually less reliable with rotary-wing designs than with fixed-wing aircraft.” For instance, flight testing revealed that blade efficiency was well below expectations. Such problems heavily delayed delivery dates, the first of which was originally planned for early 2000 and finally took place in April this year.

When it issued its specifications for a multipurpose helicopter that should replace its 32 Alouette IIIs, Dolphins and AS 350B Squirrels, Sécurité Civile insisted on “two engines for offshore safety and [again for the maritime environment] corrosion-proofing.” For mountainous operations, the helicopter had to retain performance at altitude and withstand cold–specifications call for the EC 145 to operate at temperatures between -40 and +50 deg C (-40 to 122 deg F) and up to an altitude of 16,400 ft. It should be able to hover at 14,800 ft on autopilot with eight passengers in a light wind (this is called the “Mont-Blanc certification”). Other specifications include IFR certification and capability to perform night-vision-goggles operations.

Asked whether this could be too demanding a specification for one helicopter, Col. Ben Kemoun said, “No. Other customers such as the French Gendarmerie and EMS operators found the aircraft to meet their needs.”

Other orders include eight EC 145s for the Gendarmerie; four for Swiss Air Guard Rega; one for a U.S. EMS operator; two each for German EMS operators ADAC and DRF; and one for the German Land of Hesse police, a Eurocopter spokeswoman told AIN. The Gendarmerie expects to take delivery of its first EC 145 this month. It will be the first to be operated in mountainous terrain, in Chamonix.