Kamov Ka-32 gets high marks from Canadian logging firm

 - September 19, 2006, 1:05 PM

Having flown more than 32,000 hours to date on the Kamov Ka-32, British Columbia, Canada-based Vancouver Island Helicopters (VIH) Logging can claim the title of the world’s most experienced commercial operator of the Russian twin. Since taking delivery of two Ka-32s in 1997, it has added another to its fleet and uses them primarily on logging and construction contracts at sites remote from its base.

VIH, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, first took an interest in the Kamov in 1992, when founder Ken Norie realized that the 11,000-pound-capacity helicopter could carry heavier loads than the Sikorsky S-61N (10,000 pounds), while incurring significantly lower operating costs than the S-64E, which can lift 18,000 pounds. It still took him five years to convince Transport Canada to certify it for aerial work.

However, the regulator insisted upon restrictions: the helicopter was not permitted to fly over built-up areas (a handicap the agency has since rescinded) or carry passengers–even aerial workers such as logging engineers–in its nine-seat cabin. Project manager Dave Thompson said he expects the agency to withdraw this limitation by the spring.

“Meanwhile, we carry our passengers in one of the S-61Ns. The crews like it and we can give 19 of them a comfortable ride rather than just nine of them in a much smaller cabin. But there’s no doubt the removal of the restriction will give us more flexibility.”

The Ka-32 can now pick up a 10,000-pound rock drill (used for taking core samples from bedrock at dam construction sites), sling it 60 miles into position and fly back. The S-64 can do that as well, Thompson conceded, but at twice the price.

And the Ka-32s fly hard–250 hours is not uncommon for an aircraft and team of four (two pilots, two engineers) working in the bush for a month. Some helicopters only log that many hours in a year. The lead aircraft in the VIH fleet has accumulated 12,100 hours.

Add the intercontinental factor to that heavy workload and the proper planning of maintenance takes on new significance. VIH has a power-by-the-hour maintenance agreement with Kamov, which outsources most of its small component requirement to nearby Acro Aerospace. Thompson and his maintenance team try to forecast their major spares requirements “six to nine months” down the line to avoid any problems with Russia’s uncompromising customs service. VIH has had no AOG problems for more than two years, and Thompson cautiously admits that the company has become adept at anticipating future needs “down to a fine art.”

VIH has also had some success in getting Kamov to extend the life of some components; the Ka-32 A11BC (export) variant has some service intervals at odds with those in the domestic Russian fleet. Its Klimov TB3-117 engines used to have a useful life of 1,500 flight hours but that figure is now 6,000 hours, a fourfold improvement gained in eight years of operations. The rotor gearbox life is currently 1,500, hours and VIH is trying to get it raised to 2,000.

Ka-32 Fills Roles beyond Logging

A current trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada has led to two seasons of fairly “soft” logging work, but VIH has unearthed plenty of construction contracts with customers such as Hydro Quebec. Thompson would not reveal details of a particularly big overseas contract that the company is hoping to secure early this year.

In the meantime, the Kamovs have been firefighting and even prospecting for gold in northern Canada. They have been farther afield as well. In October, one was dispatched to northern Pakistan in an Antonov An-124 to assist Canada’s military DART (disaster assistance relief team) engineers and medics in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.

“DART represents a short-term fix but is highly responsive,” said Thompson. “I believe they were in Kashmir within hours of the quake, and Toronto-based SkyLink Aviation flew a stripped Ka-32 and a ‘ton’ of spares to Islamabad inside an An-124 within four days. The two others were put on standby for a World Food Program contract that never materialized.”

The VIH team flew from an air base to the north of the capital, transporting engineers and medical teams to remote mountain communities. Toward the end of its stay, the crews were flying in winter shelters to protect people as the cold weather took hold.

The Ka-32 has a number of quirks that set it apart as a specialist heavy-lifter. It flies with a longer line than most helicopters–250 feet instead of 100 feet–to minimize the effect of the downwash from the contra-rotating rotors. The airframe is perhaps not as flexible as that of some heavy-lifters; the cargo hook suspension system intrudes into the cabin and requires about 35 minutes to role change.

It is certified to be flown single-pilot but VIH uses two pilots during external load operations, where an onboard weighing system ensures that limitations are not exceeded. It also makes sense for the pilot-in-command to be in the left seat, so he can lean into the bubble window without weakening his grip on the collective.

Thompson acknowledges that one reason VIH Logging is so successful today is because of the Ka-32. “It took a huge leap of faith for Ken to decide to take on a new type when he did. You can imagine the barriers that had to be dismantled on both sides, before mutual understanding could be established.

“It was a long haul, but it seems to have worked.”