Round-the-world speed record falls to A109S

 - August 29, 2008, 1:25 PM

The around-the-world helicopter speed record fell hard on August 18.

Pilots Scott Kasprowicz and Steve Sheik flew a stock twin-engine 2007 AgustaWestland A109S Grand 20,078 miles in 11 days, 7 hours and 2 minutes, shattering the old record by 5 days and 23 hours and substantially beating their goal of breaking the old benchmark in 13 days. The pair beat the record without auxiliary fuel tanks, chase planes or an elaborate mission control center. En route they also set a new New York to London helicopter speed record, making the 3,449-nm trip in 40 hours, 41 minutes, breaking the current record by more than 35 hours.

The previous round-the-world helicopter speed record has stood since 1996, when pilots Ron Bower and John Williams flew a Bell 430–outfitted with auxiliary fuel tanks–20,508 miles in 17 days, 6 hours and 14 minutes.

The team departed New York La Guardia just after 3 a.m. on August 7. En route the helicopter underwent two 50-hour inspections–one at AW in Milan and one in Fairbanks, Alaska–as well as a major preflight conducted by AW tech rep Rey Sobretodo in Ironwood, Mich., early the morning of August 17.

The trip’s northern route took the pair from New York to Canada and then through Greenland, Iceland, Europe, Russia, Alaska and Western Canada before the crew took a circuitous route through the continental U.S. on its way back to La Guardia. En route there were 78 fuel stops and the crew reported encountering myriad weather and wind conditions, including icing and thunderstorms. Headwinds over Russia ranged up to 40 knots and tailwinds across the lower U.S. produced groundspeeds of more than 185 knots.

The crew had access to satellite weather en route, but that worked only in the U.S. The A109S was not equipped with weather radar and the instrument panel was largely stock save for a pair of Garmin GNS 530s.

Mechanically, the trip was uneventful except for a short, precautionary inflight shutdown of one of the helicopter’s twin fadec Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207C turboshaft engines over Russia. That came after a stuck bypass valve sent the oil temperature spiking to the “upper edge” of the operating range, according to Sobretodo, who was not aboard but flew commercial from Fairbanks to Ironwood.
Kasprowicz and Sheik flew on one engine approximately 70 miles before stopping in Severo Evensk, Russia.

There, after consulting with AW technical support, they changed the sticky valve from an elaborate parts cache aboard that included valves, belts, hoses, dampers, transducers and other “stuff we know that might break during a trip like this,” said Sobretodo. He added six ounces of engine oil at Ironwood but otherwise said the inspection was nominal.

The usually capacious four-seat passenger compartment of the Grand was piled high with parts, survival gear and a variety of dietary staples such as trail mix, energy bars and freeze-dried tuna.

Travails of International Stops

Changing the valve threw the trip schedule into chaos and could have cost the pilots the record, according to Harlan Hamlin, who served as the trip’s logistics coordinator from a makeshift control center in Peachtree City, Ga. The airports that dot sparsely populated Eastern Russia keep short and erratic hours, according to Hamlin. If the airport you are at is closed, you cannot take off. If the next airport you are going to is or will be closed by the time you get there, you cannot take off. Adding to the complexity, each flight segment within Russia had to be individually approved by the Foreign Office.

“A lot of these places were cities officially closed to foreigners during the Cold War,” Kasprowicz explained. “In many ways, they are still cut off from everything.”

The team planned for difficulty traversing nine different time zones in Russia. It hired a Russian translator in Peachtree City, contracted with a Russian handling company, and the flight took aboard a Russian translator/navigator in Riga, Latvia, before it entered the country.

Through the handler or from a stash of rubles carried by the crew, it paid what Hamlin characterized as “large extended-hour fees” to Russian airports to stay open and keep things moving. But even all those measures could not guarantee success.
A bureaucratic snafu grounded the team in Okhotsk for 22 hours on August 12.
Sheik spent 14 hours sleeping in the Grand’s baggage compartment while the navigator and Kasprowicz shared the only remaining room in a “very bad” hotel. Sheik, a former helicopter instructor pilot with the Maryland State Police, stayed with the helicopter in part to guard it. “There was really nothing out there [at the airport],” Kasprowicz said. “It was wide open.”

On August 15, Russia shut down a critical airway along the planned route, causing re-routing, significant delay, and a behind-schedule arrival at Anadyr, where, according to Hamlin, near-disaster again struck. “Somewhere in the Russian system, they were not letting us leave. Anadyr was getting ready to close in 30 minutes and was not going to open again until Monday [August 18].”

Hamlin put in a 911 call to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Embassy Security connected him to U.S. diplomat Aaron Fishman. “I don’t know what he did, but in ten minutes we were out of there,” Hamlin said. He said the episode caused him to “lose ten pounds and gain a lot of gray hair.”

The delayed departure from Anadyr triggered a significant change to the flight plan. The airport at the next scheduled Russian stop would be long closed so the team elected to re-enter the U.S. through Gambell, Alaska, a 600-person village on the Eastern tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. The airport there has no services or fuel.

A Bering Air Beech 1900 was chartered to fly out three 55-gallon drums of jet-A and a pump. “Half the town came out to meet us,” said Kasprowicz. Authorities agreed to allow the team to refuel at Gambell before proceeding to Nome to clear Customs.

From Nome the team pressed on to Fairbanks and the lower 48. On August 16, Hamlin started a quick-turn time competition between FBOs at the various fuel stops, offering Outback Steak House gift certificates to line personnel as inducements. It got the turn time down to less than 10 minutes.

At Ironwood, the team bunked at a local hotel for three hours while Sobretodo gave N1US one last going over on the moonlit ramp. It would be their last “prolonged” rest stop until arriving at La Guardia August 18.

Kasprowicz said he got the idea for the trip when he ordered his Grand in 2005. He said he and Sheik prepared for the trip through a “progression of long and difficult trips,” including flying the Grand back from the factory in Italy last summer and breaking the New York to Los Angeles transcontinental helicopter speed record in February (2,139.8 nm in 15 hours, 9 minutes, 10 seconds). When the trip began August 7 he had “just under 200” hours in the ship.

After officially breaking the around-the-world record by landing at La Guardia, the team pressed on to AgustaWestland’s plant in Philadelphia for a celebratory lunch of pizza and cheesesteaks, then returned home to their base outside Washington, D.C. “We’re fried,” said Hamlin. “We’re standing on the ramp drinking champagne. Call me tomorrow.”