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A Bold Step in the Pacific

Pacific Helicopters introduces the H145 to the harsh jungles and environment of Papua New Guinea

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The Airbus H145 is becoming a popular choice for demanding twin-engine utility applications around the world. It is the latest generation of aircraft built under the BK117 Type Certificate and the BK117 lineage is plainly visible. As Pacific Helicopters introduces the model to its fleet, Papua New Guinea can now be added to the extensive and growing list of countries in which the new-generation machine serves.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) provides a particularly inhospitable environment for helicopter operations, as Mal Smith, CEO of Pacific Helicopters knows well, having flown in the rugged country for the last forty-five years. . Dense, virtually impenetrable jungle carpets steep, mountainous terrain and little road infrastructure exists so helicopters are the only viable tools to support the large-scale mining and oil exploration/recovery operations that are prevalent throughout the country. It is a difficult and demanding location in which to fly, with countless wrecks dating back to WW2 rusting quietly and invisibly away, deep in the jungle.

Smith has been flying in PNG since first arriving in 1969 as a 2,000hr army pilot on Bell 47s, following active duty flying in Vietnam. His total is now an impressive 17,000hrs and amazingly, despite PNG’s reputation for destroying aircraft and pilots, after his 45 years flying helicopters in PNG, he himself has never had a crash or major incident there. Smith joined with several other Australians to put the core of Pacific Helicopters together and from its inception with a single helicopter on April Fool’s day in 1975, the Goroka-based company’s fleet quickly expanded, peaking at 55 helicopters about twelve years later. Smith is now the sole remaining original partner and is assisted by his indefatigable ‘number-two’, Nicole Demosky, who aids Smith in the day-to-day operations of the company and worked closely with him when the decision was made to add Airbus Helicopters’ new H145 into the fleet.

The H145 is Airbus Helicopters’ latest offering in the 4-tonne twin-engine class and its introduction into Pacific Helicopters’ fleet marks the first occasion in many decades that the very newest offering in contemporary helicopter technology has been put into service in PNG. It is a technologically advanced and complex machine that’s carries a hefty price tag for utility work, so why did Pacific Helicopters make that choice? As Smith explained, evolving client requirements meant the company was not really in a position that left them a lot of options for new platforms. “We’ve looked at a lot of information on different types over the years but nothing until now has had the required performance with genuine hot-and-high capability,” he said. “We were always looking for a Category A certified machine capable of operating at Performance Class 1 in this environment because we knew that was the rising trend but everything that we looked at was either too big for us or it had wheels. Then this (the H145) came along. It’s on skids so is capable in bush operations and it has the true performance.. It was a no-brainer after that.”

Previously, Smith had added the BK117 850D2 to the Pacific Helicopters fleet to fill a gap in capability that some clients were demanding. That earlier type was not, however, able to provide the complete package that Smith was seeking. Not only is the BK117 unable to meet full Cat-A performance under all required operating conditions, it is also an older type that fails to meet a now-common oil and gas customer requirement for airframes less than 25 years old. According to Demosky, the ever-more stringent mission-specifications of clients in the oil and gas industry were rendering Pacific’s entire fleet either under-performing or obsolete for their purposes. The age requirement in particular frustrates Smith. “We send our aircraft to Alpine Aerotech and if you see one of our 212s back from a major overhaul, it’s like a factory built machine,” he opined. “The oldest component on it is the data plate and everything else has a life limit. If you do a proper major they come out like brand new again.” Regardless of Smith’s feelings on the matter, he and Demosky knew that the only way to compete long-term in the oil and gas support role was to add an aircraft type to the fleet that complied with the clients’ specifications. They looked at other types including the Bell 429, but in the end the H145 turned out to be, in Demosky’s words, “…the best of the best for what we wanted the aircraft to do.”

Pacific’s criteria for selecting a new type were stringently demanding, to say the least. “We wanted something, that was versatile enough for the utility role but also good as an IFR platform.” The H145’s ability to operate effectively in a nine-seat configuration has already impressed Smith. “We came out of Moresby with seven passengers, full fuel and at Gross Weight. We couldn’t squeeze another bit of freight into the cargo areas,” he recalled. “As full as we were, it just climbed out and the thing that amazed me about this machine is that we climbed to almost 14,000ft and it was still just cruising so well. I couldn’t believe it was doing about 120kts and still just so smooth.” This example is particularly relevant, as for the majority of PNG operations the terrain tops are around 10,000ft and it is therefore commonplace for flights to climb to 12,000ft or more.

There is no doubt that the choice of the H145s has been a ‘gutsy’ call from Mal Smith. Bearing in mind that the selection and acquisition of the new helicopters has been carried out in the absence of any existing contracts or agreements from the intended client-base, one has to admire his determination to secure a substantial portion of the oil and gas work in the region.. Demosky listed the requirements that the oil and gas companies have dictated, “They want Cat-A performance, twin engines, two pilots, IFR capability, aircraft under 25 years old, the ability to longline and skid landing-gear. They want it all from one machine and they all told us ‘Fulfill this and we’ll talk.’ Well, now we have it, we’re the first ones to do so and it’s exciting!” Such a serious commitment to the new type means that it will play an ever-increasing role in Pacific’s fleet as time progresses. The Pacific Helicopters fleet currently boasts around 24 helicopters in PNG, but the total fleet numbers almost 50 machines as operations are now spread widely, with machines based with other companies and overseas, as far afield as Israel and China. When asked to summarize his view of the H145, Smith described it as a new-generation helicopter for young, new-generation pilots. “It’s not for old pilots like me who like to have their hands on it all the time. I see that helicopter hanging around for at least ten years before they can find anything to beat it.” In terms of longevity Smith has few concerns. “From what I’ve seen, it’s a well-built and solid product and I have no concerns about that. The rain and humidity in this operating environment will be the biggest challenges I think, so if there is anything I’m concerned about it would be the computers and electronics, but only time will tell,” he explained. “I’m happy with the purchase, I’m happy with the crews, I’m happy with everything.

As a place to live, PNG is not really the wild and dangerous land that seems to be the perception held by many. As far as Smith is aware, there are no longer any tribes remaining which practice cannibalism, although jokes about the subject are not uncommon. “They don’t need to be cannibals any more,” quipped Smith. “They can get tinned meat now.” He went on to add in an aside that he did learn many years ago from one cannibal tribe that the best and most tender meat on a man was apparently that from the cheeks. “That’s kind of scary though,” remarked Demosky in response, “to think that they’ve eaten enough people to know that the most tender parts are the cheeks!” One of Smith’s very good friends is Jimmy, a Singaporean national who has always refused to visit Smith in PNG. Smith jokes that when he pressed him to come and visit, Jimmy adamantly refused and said in explanation, “You just want me to be a Chinese take-away.” It is Smith’s opinion that much of the misunderstanding about life in PNG stems from the desire of many to safeguard the myth, simply in order to perpetuate the common practice of paying danger money to overseas employees stationed in the country.

One of the first pilots to fly the H145 in PNG is New Zealander Lance Donnelly, an 11,000hr pilot with experience flying Offshore and EMS work on the BK117 and Bell 212 and police work in the NZ Police ‘Eagle’ helicopter,. After about four years as a job-sharing pilot for Pacific he is now full-time and is both impressed with and enthusiastic about the new machine, although all his comments were prefaced with the proviso that the machine has only been in service for barely over a week. “So far it’s performing really well, even beyond our expectations,” he reported. “Because it’s a new model to New Guinea we’ve got a steep learning curve as we establish exactly how it performs in all the various flight phases we require of it. I must say that, so far, it’s proving to be very, very good in this environment. I had initial concerns about the fenestron at altitude –that’s probably only because I’ve never operated a fenestron before this – but this morning we were up at 11,600ft at around ISA+20, so with a density altitude around 14,500ft and it was awesome. We were about 300kgs under the maximum weight we could carry up there and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it performed doing pedal-turns both left and right.” Donnelly has substantial experience in BK117B2 variants and considers the 145 to be far superior.

“The long-lining is another learning curve, just because every new aircraft requires a slightly different set-up to work out of. It’s a very stable machine in the hover, in fact in all phases of flight and it’s a lot more stable than the 117. Because the fuselage is wider than the 117 you do have to lean out a little further, but when you’ve got it set up the way you want it, it’s as comfortable as any other machine to long-line out of. A nice feature that helps is the electric mirror that allows you to see the hook and about the first hundred feet of the long-line. The aircraft certainly has oodles of power.” Donnelly is also highly impressed with the way Airbus Helicopters has set up the engine operation procedure and instrumentation. “There’s a blue OEI line on the FLI and as long as you have that above your lubber line you’ve safeguarded the integrity of the second engine, so if you lose an engine in any phase of flight you don’t have to physically do anything.” He described just how well the aircraft performs with one engine inoperative. “When I was with the German instructor, I asked about run-on OEI landings and he said it wasn’t necessary,” recalled Donnelly. “I questioned that and he proved it to me. At maximum gross weight and around 200 – 300ft he lost one engine and we just flew around a bit and then came back to a hover. I tell you, it’s got power to burn!” Even the fuel-burn has proved to be better than initially expected with reported averages around 230-240kg per hour during twenty hours of fairly hard work. This compares closely with the burn of a BK117-850, despite the 145’s substantial performance gains.

“Most people think we don’t fly IFR in PNG but we actually do quite a lot and the H145 is a fantastic IFR machine. The four-axis autopilot and Helionix system is just state-of-the-art. It’s just one of the reasons that the 145 is such a versatile aircraft. In the morning I can be long-lining at 11,000ft, then in the afternoon I can be flying IFR offshore, all while fully offshore equipped.” Like Smith, Donnelly sees the H145 rapidly supplanting the BK117 and becoming the fleet mainstay type. “I don’t think any helicopter is one-size-fits-all, but this is a great compromise and once a customer has seen what this machine can do, I’ve no doubt they’ll go for the 145 every time.” Although the H145 is a development of the BK117 line, there is now very little similarity between the two aircraft. Donnelly noted that, apart from the transmission and main rotor-head, they were two very different aircraft from a pilot’s point of view. “It’s not 1970s technology like the BK, this is today’s technology. Pacific is leading the way in new technology and in the way they operate. The training we have had with Airbus is fantastic. I’m very keen on the new technology and the whole culture that Pacific Helicopters has got going on here is very satisfying, right from the top on down.”

Donnelly has yet to find anything major about the H145 that he doesn’t like or that gives him cause for concern. “Anything I’ve found so far has been an issue of me learning the machine and honing my techniques,” he admitted. “Things like slow maneuvering, pedal-turns in the hover out of ground-effect; that’s the whole point of all the training and testing we do when we put a new model into service.” In summary, Donnelly described the H145 as beautifully responsive and admitted that, despite his initial concern, he was very impressed with the fenestron.

When the first customer contract is commenced, Mal Smith has no doubt that the client will be getting the best possible service that they could hope for. “The aircraft is right, what my guys have done to put it into service is right, the training in Germany is right and everything has been done as professionally as possible.”

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