EC155 Performs for the University of Michigan

 - June 4, 2014, 5:25 AM

Although popular with police, EMS and offshore operators in Europe and Asia since its introduction in 1999, the Airbus Helicopters (née Eurocopter) EC155 has been slow to catch on in the U.S. market. Customers panned the initial model for its unreliability and inadequate engine power. Those issues were largely addressed with an improved variant, the EC155B1, which entered production in 2002 and introduced uprated engines.

The University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) Survival Flight took delivery of three EC155B1s to replace its fleet of aging Bell 430s in 2011 and began service with them in 2012. UMHS was the first U.S. operator to use the EC155 for medevac missions. UMHS chose the EC155s for their increased speed, range and cabin room as well their ability to use the same helipads already qualified for the 430s, which the program operated for 14 years, according to Denise Landis, UMHS manager of critical care transport.

Landis said mission range increased to 350 nm (with reserves) with the EC155s and enables flight direct to rural hospitals as far away as Michigan’s vast Western Upper Peninsula; Iowa City, Iowa; Frederick, Md.; or Syracuse, N.Y. On lengthy round trips within the state, as far away as Traverse City (KTVC), the EC155s can skip refueling, using cheaper fuel at the program’s 10,000-gallon fuel farm at the hospital in Ann Arbor. Part of the range increase comes from a 1,500-pound useful load increase the EC155 posts over the 430.

The helicopters are operated single-pilot IFR. Survival Flight pilots took EC155 transition training at HeliSim in Marseilles, France, using the Level-D simulator there; mechanics trained at American Eurocopter in Grand Prairie, Texas. Two executive-configured EC155s are operated in the U.S., and Florida-based ShandsCair has ordered one for helicopter EMS.

Despite the improvements in the EC155, the helicopter’s popularity continues to be retarded by its direct operating costs, which are higher than those of both the Sikorsky S-76 and the Bell 430. According to consulting firm Conklin and de Decker, a 2003 EC155B1 has an hourly DOC of $1,999 (December 2013).

Of course, it also has a larger cabin than either the Sikorsky or the Bell. Landis said the extra cabin volume–77 cubic feet more than the 430–allows UMHS helicopters to carry pilot, five medical personnel and one patient or two patients and four medical personnel. She characterized cabin noise as “slightly” above that of the 430, but “not to the level where it irritates anybody.” UMHS opted not to install additional cabin noise dampening as part of its cabin completions.

Additional installed equipment includes wire cutters and optional avionics. The panel includes the familiar Eurocopter vehicle and engine management display (VEMD) along with dual Waas-capable Garmin 430s, MFD, dual Thales Efis displays, King KMD 500 weather radar, Safran 4-axis dual-channel AFCS, and Technosonic TF7000 communications suite.

Two helicopters are on call 24/7 and one is held in reserve.

Custom-designed Medical Interiors

The EC155s’ medical interiors, complete with a custom-machined aluminum medical floor with integrated tracking, were designed and installed by Metro Aviation in Shreveport, La., and the helicopters are managed and supported by Pentastar Aviation.

The Metro interior, installed under STC, includes a secondary patient restraint system, as well as custom interior lighting and audio systems. An innovative flat-screen, multifunction system at three cabin stations controls and indicates the condition of the onboard equipment. The Metro STC also includes an aft storage system, portable oxygen mount, supplemental strobe lights, 10-liter liquid oxygen bottle, dual gas towers, IV support rail and a medical inverter. Metro is also installing the interior for the ShandsCair EC155. That helicopter will also be equipped with the Spectrum Aeromed litter system, which allows direct transfers between rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft.

Pentastar recently completed 600-hour inspections on the UMHS EC155 trio and the fleet came through the process with few squawks, according to rotary-wing maintenance manager Bryan Clay. The inspections took an average of two-and-a-half weeks per helicopter. Given UMHS’s utilization rates, Clay anticipates initiating 1,200-hour inspections by this summer and thinks they will take three to four weeks per helicopter.

“It’s been a really good aircraft and we really haven’t run into anything that has been a major problem,” Clay said, noting that the anomalies encountered have been minor and not consistent across all three aircraft. Clay and his crew worked on UMHS’s fleet of Bell 430s. He said the newer EC155s are definitely easier to work on in comparison, thanks mainly to easier maintenance access, including disassembly of the main rotor head, and simpler engine and transmission access. “The 430s were cutting edge for their time, but the maintenance is considerably easier on [the EC155s],” he said, with fewer major inspections. However, the EC155s do require a seven-day/15-hour minor periodic inspection that Clay characterizes as a “glorified pre-flight.” He called the to-date performance of the EC155s’ Turbomeca Arriel 2C2 engines (935 shp each) “solid.” The 2C2s warm up in 30 seconds; the Rolls-Royce 250-C40B engines on the 430 required three minutes.

Pentastar services the fleet with six mechanics through its maintenance hangar at Ann Arbor, Mich. (KARB). UMHS also keeps one EC155 at the hospital helipad in Ann Arbor and one at Livingston County Airport (KOZW) in Howell, Mich. The mechanics follow their helicopters to the bases as needed.

Airbus Helicopters provides Pentastar with a large stock of consignment parts and the fleet is enrolled in the OEM’s hourly maintenance program. Pentastar also manages and maintains a Cessna Citation Encore for UMHS. The Encore is based at Howell.

UMHS Survival Flight employs 21 flight nurses, 11 helicopter pilots, eight fixed-wing pilots and 10 communications specialists. Since its founding in 1983, program aircraft have flown 4.5 million miles. UMHS Survival Flight flies between 1,000 and 1,500 missions annually, transporting 800 to 1,000 patients and numerous organs for transplant. o