In Portugal, state-owned helicopter operator Empresa de Meios Aéreos (EMA) seems happy with the six Kamov Ka-32 A11BCs it acquired for firefighting and search-and-rescue operations (SAR). The 12-metric-ton Russian design, relatively rare in the Western world, can carry four tons of water. And it is much less expensive than its competitors, according to pilot and media officer João Manuel da Silva dos Santos.
A year-and-a-half ago, Portugal decided to buy helicopters for SAR and other emergency operations. Until then, it had been renting the aircraft. The company acquired six Kamovs and four Eurocopter AS 350 B3 Ecureuils. Emergency operations now also include road traffic control, law enforcement and, soon, coast guard. During the summer months, EMA rents additional helicopters to fight forest fires.
“Our Ka-32s are the first ones to be able to fly at night and under IFR,” da Silva noted. Russian instructors provided the training. EMA is happy with support, too. “We have the replacement parts we need, when we need them,” the pilot said. However, obtaining detailed data such as performance charts can sometimes be difficult, he added.
The Ka-32 is valued for its ability to carry four tons of water in a Bambi bucket (as a sling load). Thanks to the coaxial contrarotating rotors, which eliminate the need for traditional power-robbing anti-torque measures, “We have no problem with tailwinds,” da Silva said. The Ka-32 can also rescue up to eight people at a time, he pointed out.
To fly, the Ka-32 is “smooth, even compared with the AS 350 B3. We do have to be aware of the powerful downwash, which could fan the fire,” da Silva acknowledged. For this reason, EMA pilots do not fly low when they are dropping water.
In the search-and-rescue role the Ka-32 offers four hours of endurance. For EMA this equates to a maximum radius of 40 nm from the coast. Da Silva also pointed
out the single-point refueling. Two of EMA’s Ka-32s are available 24 hours a day for SAR, medevac and law enforcement.