|Operator and public expectations are pushing engine makers to explore means of improving powerplant efficiency.
Photo courtesy of Turbomeca.
Times have changed for helicopter powerplants. Not too long ago, helicopter operators didn’t share the desires of their fixed-wing counterparts for greater and greater engine efficiency. Specific fuel consumption wasn’t a concern and few helicopter operators gave much thought to what the things that went into and came out of their engines did to the environment.
What helicopter operators wanted was power, pure and simple.
They still want power. But they also want simplicity, in the form of engines that are easier to maintain and gentler on their budgets. Today, they also feel the same pressures as the rest of aviation to mitigate the ill effects of their operations on the environment. How long, for instance, do you suppose local, state and national governments will permit piston-powered helicopters to burn fuel with lead in it?
These changes have engine manufacturers and aviation vendors exploring ways to improve the operational and cost efficiency of existing products.
Engine makers also are investigating means of making the next generation of powerplants even more efficient, in some cases in ways that make current operators uncomfortable. Think an inflight “sleep mode” for one of a twin-engine helicopter’s powerplants.
Service remains a focus area for efficiency improvements. Turbomeca is a case in point. It suffered for a long time for a reputation for poor service.
“For a very long time, we were an engineering company focused on manufacturing the most beautiful technical product we could and we probably forgot a bit about the fact that someone was operating it,” said Jean-François Sauer, Turbomeca’s Arrius/Arriel program manager. “We have had to change the way we perceived our customers. In recent years, we said we are going to put customers back into the core values of our company.”
The company launched customer councils in Europe, North America, South America and Asia that meet for two days once or twice a year. It selected 10 to 15 operators, “not all of them ones who have always liked us,” Sauer said.
“We wanted to hear bad things about us as well,” he added. “They have given us very, very useful feedback that has led to us identifying the top areas of improvement on the product side and on the service side.” One product of those conversations was an understanding among Turbomeca’s leaders of why it lost engine competitions.
Through customer councils and other meetings, Turbomeca laid out what product improvements it had planned and asked customers whether those were the right things to focus on.
“In many cases, we learned that we just improving things because we thought they were important,” Sauer said. “But the customer would say, ‘No, please, work better on coking issues or fuel leakage issues,’ or maybe ‘Try to reduce my maintenance workload.’”
There are many ways to get rid of fuel leakage, for instance. You can seal better or you can drain better, Sauer said.
“In many cases, the customers said, ‘Please, just drain better, because I don’t want to have a complex engine. I want to have something which I understand and which is simple.’”
Sauer said Turbomeca still has work to do.
“We have not yet achieved our goal, but we are getting there as steady as we can,” he said. “We have even had some customers telling us that, because of the support improvement, they are reconsidering a Turbomeca engine even if they have Pratt & Whitney equipment.”
A case in point is Norwegian Air Ambulance (Norsk Luftambulanse AS). That operator has Pratt & Whitney Canada engines on its 13 EC135s. But when it recently ordered three of Airbus Helicopters’ upgraded version, the H135, Norwegian Air Ambulance selected Turbomeca’s Arrius 2B2 Plus.
“We had never equipped that aircraft for them,” Sauer said. “With their order for three H135s, they are renewing their fleet and they are doing it with our engine. Our contract is for six engines for those three aircraft, with options covering 14 more aircraft.”
The operator cited three reasons, he said.
The Arrius 2B2 Plus gives it the option of flying with or without inlet barrier filters, which gives it the choice of removing 50 to 60 kg (110 to 132 lb) of weight from an aircraft to get additional payload or range. (P&WC offered only inlet barrier filters.)
Turbomeca also offered a combined support contract covering the new H135s and Norwegian Air Ambulance’s H145s, which are powered by Arriel engines.
The third reason was “Turbomeca’s clearly improved customer support,” Sauer said. “Norwegian Air Ambulance spoke with other major European air ambulance operators who are our customers, who clearly indicated the major improvements they have seen in Turbomeca’s customer support in the last three years or so.
On the R&D front, Turbomeca is studying “sleep modes” to optimize power available with mission profiles. Under the concept, the sleeping engine would be rapidly spooled up using electric power.
The manufacturer said this concept would allow significant cuts in fuel consumption while preserving the architecture of other Turbomeca’s engine designs.
BLR Aerospace is flight testing the FastFin Tail Rotor Enhancement and Stability System on the AH-1 attack helicopter, commonly referred to as the Cobra, the company announced Oct. 5.
Company flight testing has confirmed that FastFin will improve the AH-1’s left pedal authority and engine thermodynamic efficiency. BLR holds the restricted category type certificate (H10NM) for the AH-1 and is developing a performance improvement suite of products aimed at increasing hover loads of the AH-1 in excess of 1,000 pounds. Featured in the performance bundle will be BLR’s flagship FastFin System, providing the necessary anti-torque requirements for increased hover loads. The U.S. Army took delivery of more than 1,100 AH-1s, a subset of which remain in operation with foreign militaries around the world.
“The AH-1’s left pedal limitation significantly reduces hover capacity for this aircraft,” said Dave Marone, BLR’s vice president of sales and marketing. “This exciting development project will provide the needed left pedal authority to safely hover in strong cross winds and with heavy loads while maintaining precision hover hold necessary for targeting accuracy.”
Operator and public expectations are pushing engine makers to explore means of improving powerplant efficiency.