Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 50 seconds.
With wildland fires growing ever larger, more frequent, and more intense, the landscape of aerial firefighting is evolving. The market is evolving, too. In the United States, military surplus Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks are starting to fill the need for more capable firefighting helicopters, edging out the Bell mediums that have dominated the market for decades. These surplus aircraft are plentiful and cost-effective, but they’re also limited to restricted category operations — a fact that holds them back from their full potential.
Across the Atlantic, Heli Austria has hit on a different solution. In its search for an economical heavy-lift utility and firefighting helicopter, the company saw promise in the Airbus AS332 L and L1 Super Pumas that were being phased out of the offshore industry. Robust, reliable, and still well supported by the factory, the L and L1 variants are less expensive than later AS332 L2 and H225/EC225 LP Super Pumas, without those models’ history of main rotor gearbox problems. Moreover, because they are certified in the normal category, they can carry passengers including firefighters without special permission, and with few limits on where they can fly.
Starting in 2016, Heli Austria added four of these Super Pumas to its fleet, acquiring three offshore aircraft from CHC Helicopter, plus a former Japanese police helicopter from a company in New Zealand. Leveraging its expertise as a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)-approved alternative design organization, the company stripped excess weight from the helicopters and updated them with new radios and avionics, including GTN 650 and 750 systems from Garmin. The aircraft also received right-side bubble windows for external load operations, and a new cargo hook weighing system from Onboard Systems.
Eventually, in collaboration with a fully approved design organization in Italy, Heli Austria obtained a supplemental type certificate (STC) for “baby sponsons” to replace the original housings for the rear landing gear, shaving around 300 pounds (135 kilograms) off the empty weight of the aircraft. All told, Heli Austria managed to reduce the weight of its Super Pumas by over 2,200 lb. (1,000 kg) compared to their previous instrument flight rules configurations.
“[Our] first idea was to use the aircraft for heavy-lift tower construction, like cell towers, power line towers, and so on,” explained Heli Austria CEO Roy Knaus when Vertical visited the company at its headquarters in St. Johann im Pongau in August. Ski lift construction was another obvious application for the Super Pumas, he added, since ski lifts in Austria are regularly torn down and rebuilt.
“It took us some time to get into this market because in the beginning, of course, customers were a little bit cautious,” he recalled. However, with a lifting capacity of around 9,600 lb. (4,350 kg), the Super Puma quickly proved its value, and Heli Austria’s heavy-lift aerial construction business has been growing ever since.
Meanwhile, the company learned of a firefighting tender in Sardinia — the Italian island around 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of mainland Italy — for a helicopter with the Super Puma’s capabilities. “We bid on it, it was a trial period for one month . . . they were very happy,” Knaus said, adding that the first trial led to a second, two-month trial the following year. The government of Sardinia had been an early European customer of the Erickson S-64 Aircrane for firefighting, and was able to compare the Super Puma’s performance against historical data for the Aircrane. The results were favorable.
“Where the Super Puma really excels is the aircraft is dispatched very fast on a fire, it’s got a high cruise speed, and it has got a very good endurance because you can stay on the fire for three hours,” Knaus explained. Compared to larger aircraft like the Aircrane that spend more time transiting to and refueling at airports, the Super Puma with a 4,000-liter (1,060-gallon) Bambi Bucket “stays on the fire all the time and delivers more water onto it,” he said.
Satisfied with the aircraft’s performance during its trials, Sardinia awarded Heli Austria a three-year firefighting contract, the second season of which wrapped up in August. “We found out how really capable the aircraft is,” said Knaus, noting that in the four summers the Super Puma has flown in Sardinia — two on trial and two on full contract — “we didn’t have a single day when the aircraft broke down, which is quite extraordinary.” Pilot Michael Auer echoed, “It’s a very strong helicopter, and also we never have problems with [it].”
As engineer Jean-Louis Leveau explained, the Super Puma’s established track record over four decades of operation makes it easy to maintain compared to newer helicopter types with still-undiscovered technical issues. “Technically speaking, the Puma is fantastic, a very good machine,” he said. “We have plenty of places where we know to look, especially for the lifting, so as not to have any problems,” he said.
Now, Heli Austria is taking its Super Pumas to the next level with the evolution of a tanked version of the aircraft, called the “Firecat.” The operator has acquired an additional eight AS332 L/L1 helicopters that it plans to make available for wet and dry lease, and has partnered with the Australian company Helitak to develop a 4,250-liter (1,120-gallon) belly tank for the aircraft.
Helitak’s proprietary design features a flexible bladder that expands while being filled, and retracts when empty into a housing with a flying profile of just 12 inches (30 centimeters). Compared to solid tanks, the design occupies less space underneath the aircraft and is also lighter in weight, at around 660 lb. (300 kg) installed. Helitak said the funnel shape of the retractable water bag provides maximum head pressure for controllable water delivery, while a next-generation programmable logic controller provides all of the telemetry and data required for reporting and maintenance management.
As of early December, the first tank had completed testing at Helitak’s facilities in Australia and was on its way to the U.S. for certification flight testing in California. Helitak and Heli Austria also planned to showcase the tank at HAI Heli-Expo 2020, Jan. 28 to 30 in Anaheim. The companies aim to receive an STC from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in the first half of 2020, with validations by Transport Canada and EASA to follow. Additionally, Helitak plans to certify the tank for other models of the AS332 (now called H215) and H225.
According to Knaus, the tank will offer several benefits. Most immediately, it will enhance safety during operations in wildland-urban interface areas, where jettisonable external loads like water buckets pose a potential hazard to people on the ground. But the long-term goal is to prepare the Firecat for nighttime aerial firefighting operations — something that is currently being done in California and Australia, but would be a first for Europe.
“Night firefighting operations is our next plan,” said Knaus, revealing that Heli-Austria plans to certify a Genesys Aerosystems electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) with synthetic vision to enable operations under night vision imaging systems (NVIS). The upgrade is not strictly necessary, but Knaus believes the investment will enhance safety, and it mirrors the company’s similar investments in Garmin G500H glass cockpits for its MD 902 and Airbus H125 and, most recently, AS355 aircraft.
“You can put in an NVIS cockpit faster, but we really want to have something that is also in line with the other cockpits that we have, not just use the old steam gauges,” Knaus continued. “We want to have the best set-up for our crews.”
Heli Austria is targeting EFIS certification by the end of 2020, in time to enable NVIS operations starting in 2021. Details of the NVIS certification have yet to be confirmed and will be an ongoing discussion with EASA, he said.
In his decision to spend a little more for new technology, Knaus is following a playbook that has served him well so far. The second-generation helicopter pilot, now 43, took the reins of his family’s business after his father was killed in an Alouette crash in 1997. A little over two decades later, the company has grown to around 200 employees and 45 aircraft — from the Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters in its flight training academy, up through the Bell mediums in its aerial work fleet, and the new-generation Airbus H135 and H145 models it uses for helicopter emergency medical services.
“We think it’s always important to do the investment first, and then you see how the market responds, and we’ve had a very good history with that,” Knaus said. “It’s not my goal to fly at the lowest prices,” he emphasized — rather, Heli Austria strives to establish a higher quality standard, then convince the customer that it’s worth paying more for better equipment.
“It’s important to us that we can show the customer, and convince the customer so that long-term the customer says, ‘I want to have this,'” Knaus said. “We really think that we’re driving innovation in this way, and it also pays off.”