By August, AgustaWestland plans to start final production in the United States of Agusta A119 Koala helicopters in a move intended to "put us closer to our customers," said Agusta Aerospace Corp.'s President and CEO, Robert J. Budica. Company officials broke ground March 2 on a new production facility at the Agusta Aerospace site at North Philadelphia Airport in Pennsylvania as the first phase of a $6.8-million program to expand the site by 40,000 sq. ft. and increase its workforce by 50 percent.
The United States is the biggest market for both the seven-passenger, single-turbine Koala and the six-passenger, twin-turbine A109 Power. Those helicopters currently are built in Italy and flown to the United States for final fitting and customer delivery.
"With all of our new products such as the A119 and AB139, plus the possibilities for the US101," Budica said, "this is a perfect time to commit to expansion" in the United States Agusta has been in Philadelphia since 1988.
Steve Moss, president of AgustaWestland Inc., said the shift of Koala final production to the United States will help the company's efforts to pick up additional U.S. vendors for its product line. It will also lead to a stronger relationship with current U.S. component manufacturers, he said. AgustaWestland and its predecessor companies have been working with the U.S. helicopter manufacturers such as Bell and Sikorsky since the earliest days of the industry, "so we've had these relationships for over 50 years," Moss said. The expansion "is the natural thing to do. Our strategy is to bring jobs and technology into the United States."
The change in Koala final production comes as AgustaWestland, the joint venture of Italy's Finmeccanica S.p.A. and the United Kingdom's GKN plc, is weighing possible U.S. locations for production of the AB139. It is developing that twin-engine helicopter with Bell Helicopter Textron through their Bell Agusta Aerospace partnership.
The companies had hoped to gain FAA certification of the AB139 by the end of 2003. Italy certificated the aircraft, which can seat up to 15, in June 2003. But U.S. certification has slipped to the middle of this year, in part because the manufacturers and avionics partner Honeywell face continuing challenges in integrating the Primus Epic integrated cockpit system into the AB139.
Even with the delays, Bell Agusta officials planned to showcase the AB139's flying characters during the HAI Heli-Expo 2004 last month in Las Vegas, offering flights to current and potential customers from the United States and elsewhere during that show. The aircraft undergoing avionics integration testing at Honeywell's Phoenix facility was to perform the demonstration flights. Aircraft serial no. 6 also was slated for display at Heli-Expo. That aircraft will serve as the AB139 demonstrator in North- and South America.
Bell Moves Commercial Unit, Training Academy
Bell Helicopter Textron has relocated its worldwide commercial sales and marketing offices and its training academy to Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas as part of an effort to transform the commercial unit "into an absolute premier world-class organization," said Bell CEO Mike Redenbaugh, and handle the "future growth we expect at Bell." The new facility will serve as the delivery center and training school for the BA609 when deliveries of that civil tiltrotor begin. The Bell units will occupy facilities vacated by Galaxy Aerospace after that business jet maker was acquired by Gulfstream Aerospace two years ago. Bell has signed a 15-year lease for the facility.
The 160,897-sq.-ft. facility will house more than 300 employees. Renovations are to be completed by late June. The new site "provides more room, a better workflow and … plenty of lodging and restaurant facilities nearby to support our many customers from around the world that train with us," Redenbaugh said.
Sikorsky Consolidates Service Center
Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. has consolidated its customer service facilities in a single 180,000-sq. ft. site in Trumbull, Connecticut. Helicopter Support Inc., a wholly owned Sikorsky subsidiary, had operated from six separate, leased facilities scattered in three Connecticut cities. Five of those are now housed in the Trumbull facility. The sixth, field maintenance, will remain in its current facility. HSI President David Adler said the consolidation allows his company to better accommodate planned business growth. "Helicopter Support provides aftermarket service for Sikorsky helicopters as well as Agusta, Bell, Robinson and Schweizer products.
Pensacola, Florida Hospital to Take Over EMS Operations
Florida's Pensacola Baptist Hospital has taken over the helicopter operations previously operated by the University of South Alabama, adding the university's SouthFlight service to its own LifeFlight service. The hospital said it could afford to operate the helicopter ambulance service in Mobile by flying more missions and cutting costs. Kevin Stanhope, the hospital's program director, said the hospital would take over the city's ambulance service beginning April 1. The university said that it was quitting the service because it could no longer afford to absorb the 17-year-old SouthFlight's service's yearly losses of $1 million or more. Baptist Hospital has been operating a LifeFlight helicopter since 1977 and currently operates an EC135P1. Stanhope said the hospital plans to lease a new twin-engine BK117 helicopter, allowing it to fly over large bodies of water. The new service, to be dubbed LifeFlight-Mobile, will serve Mobile and outlying areas.
CJ Systems Adds to Florida Operations
CJ Systems of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is putting two new Eurocopter EC135s into its EMS programs in Martin County and Sebring, Florida, replacing BK117s. The EC135 going into Martin County is part of CJ Systems' LifeStar program.
The aircraft was selected because it will be faster, quieter and will offer greater ease and safety with regard to landing zones due to its smaller footprint and greater visibility than the BK117, according to Aviation Site Manager John St. John. Additionally, the EC135 will provide the program with greater fuel efficiency and improved maintenance and operational costs with its capability to get approximately 100 extra nautical miles out of the same fuel load as the BK117. The helicopter is also advantageous for pilots and medical crews due to its enhanced technology and medical configuration, he said.
David Franc, vice president, business development for CJ Systems, said that LifeStar has operated as an alternate delivery model program for the company's Critical Care Transportation Group division since October of 2000. Evaluating an upgrade to the program's aircraft originated from several inquiries made to LifeStar from local cruise lines interested in providing medical transport services to their off-shore properties.
The Sebring-based Aeromed II AMS program will receive a new EC135 helicopter completed by CJ Systems' affiliate Heli-Dyne Systems. Based out of Tampa General Hospital, Aeromed is split into three base sites located at Tampa General, in Sebring and at Iverness Airport in Citrus County. The mission profile at Aeromed II includes exclusively three-point transports (from scene to nearest trauma center and back to Sebring), so the program ends up serving a very large geographic area, Franc said. That factor was a primary motivation in the decision to upgrade the base site's BK117, due to the EC135's improvements with regard to speed, reliability and cost efficiencies.
"The average flight time [for Aeromed II] is close to an hour and a half," said St. John. "The EC135 is not only significantly faster, it's also significantly more economical on fuel-it'll be much more efficient for their type of mission." Similar to the upgrade in Martin County, the new Aeromed II EC135 will provide the program with quieter operation, enhanced safety considerations, updated avionics and GPS technology and an overall improvement in operating and maintenance costs.
U.S. Cancels Comanche, Vows Army Aviation Overhaul
U.S. Army leaders canceled the 20-year-old, roughly $40-billion program to develop the RAH-66 Comanche-armed reconnaissance helicopter in late February. The Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, and acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee vowed February 23 to use the money freed up by that move to revamp existing Army aircraft, upgrade National Guard fleets, install countermeasures in all Army helicopters, and pursue development of new light utility and armed reconnaissance rotorcraft. The decision, which includes plans for greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Army operations, stunned the U.S. helicopter industry.
Control Problems Prompt V-22 Redesign
Boeing and Bell are modifying the V-22 Osprey's flight control hardware and software to address anomalies experienced during flight tests in mid-December 2003. The U.S. Navy's executive officer for air antisubmarine warfare, assault and special mission programs, Tom Laux, told a congressional hearing March 4 that the modifications should be installed in the V-22 test flight starting within a few months.
Laux was testifying before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee.
A V-22 undergoing flight tests at NAS Patuxent River on December 12, 2003 experienced the anomalies while hovering in helicopter mode. The anomalies, rapid yaws that apparently occurred despite the pilot's control inputs, were reported to have occurred between tests of the tilt-rotor aircraft's flight characteristics during lateral flight. As a result, modest restrictions have been imposed on the 12 V-22s currently participating in U.S. Marine Corps/U.S. Air Force flight testing.
The flight-control modifications come as the Pentagon awarded Boeing and Bell an additional $849.3 million for production of 11 more Ospreys. Eight of those are destined for the Marine Corps, with the remaining three designated for the Air Force.
Production Problems Halt H-60 Deliveries
U.S. military officials stopped accepting Black Hawk and Seahawk deliveries from Sikorsky for several weeks in late February because of what a U.S. Navy report called systemic manufacturing problems. According to the Navy, those problems included stripped bolts, leaking gearboxes, bolts insufficiently tightened and incorrect parts installed on Seahawks destined for the Navy and Black Hawks headed for the Army. Pentagon officials said they expected to begin accepting aircraft delivered by Sikorsky in early- to mid-March.
Latin American Nations Buy Schweizer 333s
Two of Mexico's federal law enforcement agencies have ordered five Schweizer Model 333 helicopters for delivery this year, and the Dominican Republic's air force has ordered four.
The five helicopters will be delivered to the Mexican Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR) and the Agencia General de Investigación (AFI) to perform airborne law enforcement and surveillance missions including border patrol, drug enforcement and interdiction.
The four 333s destined for the Dominican Republic's Fuerza Aérea Dominicana are the first new turbine-powered helicopters in their class to join the that air force's fleet, according to Schweizer. They are to be used primarily for airborne patrol and pilot training. The Dominican air force has already taken delivery of the first three helicopters. The fourth is slated for delivery this month.
The aircraft will have Schweizer's recently upgraded Rolls-Royce 250-C20W engines with take-off horsepower increased from 252- to 280 shp. The upgrade powerplant significantly increases the 333's take-off, rate-of-climb and hover performance. In-ground-effect and out-of-ground-effect hover ceilings are increased by about 3,000- and 6,000 ft., respectively.
Each aircraft will be outfitted with a full avionics and equipment package for the patrol mission including a night-vision compatible cockpit and Wescam 12DS200 electro optical/infrared sensor.
Schweizer sold 37 helicopters last year, including 34 piston engine and three Model 333 turbine engine aircraft. Projects for 2004 are for 42 piston engine helicopters and 10 turbine-powered ones. Current orders will cover the production program through June, according to the company.
Police Agencies Lose Helicopters to Budget Cuts
Two law enforcement agencies, one in the U.K. and one in California, have joined the ranks of those losing their aviation assets to tight budgets.
The police in Norfolk, England have been flying a Bolkow (now Eurocopter) BO105 leased from Sterling Aviation at an annual cost of £320,000 ($595,200). The British Home Office has stopped supporting the permanent leasing of the helicopter. The Norfolk Police are unable to finance the purchase of a helicopter. Norfolk's Chief Constable Andy Hayman called the Home Office funding policy "draconian" and said it made the force's goal of having full-time air support "an impossible goal".
In the past year, the aircraft had flown 546 flights and aided in the arrest of 118 people. It also helped locate 20 missing people, recover 25 stolen vehicles and trace £181,720 ($338,000) worth of property, including drugs and stolen goods.
The San Joaquin County, California, Sheriff's Department has had to mothball its helicopter following the loss of $90,000 in state funding.
The Sheriff's Department Aviation unit operates an MD500 and has also lost its one pilot. A department official said that no decision will be made on reactivating the helicopter unit until the department is able to find out what the budget plans are for the county and the state.
California is currently going through a severe budget crisis, cutting county budgets throughout the state.
"The helicopter was a fantastic tool when we were able to use it," but the situation has now gotten to be more about maintaining policemen on the street, than about equipment, the department official said.
Asian Police Forces Beefing Up
Two Asian police forces are increasing their helicopter operations with the addition of European helicopters. The Shenzhen Police in China have received an AgustaWestland A109 Power fitted with special police equipment for extensive night-surveillance operations, special police avionics, video link, rescue hoist, cargo hook, rappelling kit, searchlight and floatation system. The Royal Thai Police in Bangkok have ordered two Eurocopter EC155 B1 VIP-configured helicopters for delivery by next January. The contract, signed in early February, is worth about e21 million ($26 million). The two new aircraft will have the improved, digitally controlled Turbomeca Arriel 2C2 engines, which offer 10% more power, and a max take-off weight increased to 10,692 lb. (4,850 kg.) In addition the EC155 B1 is to be certified for an increased temperature range up to 50C (instead of 40C) with corresponding enhanced cooling capabilities. The EC155 B1 version offers improved performance in high altitude and hot temperature conditions as well as in OEI conditions. The EC155 B1 is rated for single-pilot IFR, which further opens up its flight envelope. This certification is very important as it provides a confirmation of the helicopter's flight characteristics, the low crew workload, and its operational effectiveness with one pilot at the controls.