Belgium Ops Rectified
I was really surprised to see mention in your magazine of Belgium, a very tiny country in Europe indeed, as you say ("Charter, Air Tour Operations Going From Bad To Good," February 2005, page 48). Perhaps it was just a coincidence that President Bush paid us an official visit in the month in which your article was read by the readers of Rotor & Wing. The presence of the world media in our country during that visit has surely helped some readers to locate Belgium on our globe.
As Belgium is a small country, the helicopter scene is so small that everyone involved knows each other. So imagine my astonishment when I read that you cited a person who is not known in our helicopter company (NHV, which is the biggest helicopter air taxi operator in Belgium), and who is not known by any of our colleagues in the air taxi business.
We all know that an industry outlook is not an exact science, but we would have appreciated it if you would at least have cross checked the information on Belgium before going to press. By this, I mean checking the information itself with other people in the same branch in the considered region or area as well as checking the source of your information. As it is, your article misrepresented the state of the helicopter industry in Belgium.
For example, the speculation that airport security concerns were suppressing demand for helicopter leisure flights is totally irrelevant. The Brussels International Airport Co., which operates Belgium's main airport, reports no decrease of passengers since the attempts to "infiltrate" security services by some media just to get a good story spiced with cheap sensation. By the way, I cannot believe that your president would make use of this airport if it were not secure.
With regard to Belgium's "ill-equipped" medevac services, this nation has three helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS). Medical transport operations by helicopter are active on a daily basis. These activities are performed by two independent helicopter operators. (Sky Project Aeronautics, the company you cite, is not involved.) They conduct a 24-hr.-a-day HEMS operation in the Ardenne area, a daytime operation in the Antwerp area and a daytime HEMS operation in the coastal province of Belgium.
The rotorcraft involved are MD900s, AS365N2/N3s and AS355s, and have a HEMS-dedicated interior (with supplemental type certificate) either from Heli-Dyne Systems of Texas in the United States or Air Ambulance Technology of Austria.
All these helicopters are additionally equipped to the national emergency medical standards, called MUG or SMUR standards in Belgium, and are staffed with one medical doctor/anesthetist specializing in emergency medical care, one paramedic or nurse specializing in emergency medical care and a pilot.
The fleet of both operators together consists of eight helicopters for medical transportation, including the back-up machines of the same type and equipped to the same standards mentioned above.
To state that Belgium has "only three ill-equipped medevac helicopters" is patently incorrect. The first helicopter that arrived on the scene of the July 30, 2004 gas explosion disaster that you cite was an NHV HEMS helicopter, which had been on 24-hr. duty in the Ardenne area. The disaster was about 30 min. flight time from its base.
One of the SAMU helicopters of France dispatched to the catastrophe was an NHV HEMS helicopter. We provide it on an 11-year contract with SAMU 62, based in the north of France. (Yes indeed, our company also performs helicopter medical transports abroad.)
We regret that Belgian civil HEMS assets were not fully deployed in this relief operation. The disaster relief command on site decided not to have the other Belgian-based HEMS rotorcraft, 15-20-min. flight time from the disaster, dispatched to the scene. Other rotorcraft, including military ones, transported several patients to a hospital where one of our dedicated HEMS aircraft was on standby during the incident. It was not dispatched to the scene.
Two of our back-up HEMS helicopters were fully equipped and on standby at our main operations base at Oostende Airport, about 20-min. flight time away. They also were not dispatched to the scene. The military aircraft called in were based 30 min. away by air from the disaster site.
It is our aim in our country, as it is in any other country, to improve constantly the quality of our HEMS operations, because we believe in all the benefits that they give to the public.
In a world where helicopter operations must prove every day their reason for existing to critics, opponents and the general public, only correct information will help us in doing so.
Quality Manager, NHV
Oostende Airport, Belgium
Russian Helos are Robust
In his column on Third World indigenous manufacture of helicopters, Giovanni de Briganti implies that Soviet Bloc/Russian helicopters suffer from low performance due to aircraft-on-ground situations arising from poor parts ("Third World Meets Export Market," February 2005, page 65).
The Indian Navy now operates helicopters from the United Kingdom (the Sea King), France (the Alouette 3), Russia (the Kamov 28) and indigenous aircraft--Dhruvs and Chetaks. Experience there offers a unique perspective on aircraft availability and reliability vis-à¶is country of origin. That experience indicates that the reverse of Mr. De Briganti's argument is true.
The Sea King Mark 42B/C/Ds from Westland Helicopters were notorious for their AOG rate and consequent cannibalization to keep the aircraft flying. The Russian Kamov 28s, on the other hand, were robust and of good design fundamentals, needing significantly less maintenance effort and parts to keep the aircraft airworthy.
I think there is a misconception in the Western aviation community that Soviet Bloc aircraft--both helicopters and fixed-wing--are inferior in all aspects, including airframe and aero engines. Now that modular avionics packages are available, that drawback has been reduced considerably.
The black art of materials science and metallurgy still remains in the secret world of the few, and the Russians excel in that (as is clearly evident in their high-energy, high-torque main gear boxes, engine design and turbine blade design, to name a few areas).