“We didn’t take no fancy rock-star airplane [to get here]. [Pause.] All right, all right, we did take a fancy rock-star airplane. But we thought about driving. ”
The robust Eurocopter EC145 light/medium-twin helicopter, which has long been popular with EMS operators and the military (see box), is increasingly being ordered for executive transport. Now the manufacturer has collaborated with Mercedes-Benz to develop a flexible, upscale executive cabin for the model, with seating for four to eight passengers and more streamlined skids, nose, cowling and cladding to the exterior that add around three knots to the cruise speed.
The helicopter has enormous utility. It has a range of 362 nautical miles at 131 knots (with full fuel, no reserve and one pilot and six passengers, each 180 pounds). It was developed in the late 1990s as a stretched version of the popular BK117C1, which Germany’s Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) and Japan’s Kawasaki originally built in the late 1970s. Daimler Benz later bought MBB and rolled it into Eurocopter in a merger with France’s Aerospatiale.
The original EC145 proved popular, selling more than 500 civil copies over the last decade, but the model was not without its critics, who knocked it for its lack of digital engine controls (Fadec), temperamental heating and air-conditioning system, outmoded avionics, anemic climb rate and higher-than-average direct operating costs. However, the helicopter’s overall cabin space and durability overshadow these shortcomings in the minds of most operators.
Nevertheless, Eurocopter realized the EC145 needed updating if it were to remain an attractive and competitive offering. Rumblings about a replacement model began in 2010 and at Heli-Expo 2011 in Orlando Eurocopter pulled off the wraps, revealing the EC145T2. The manufacturer anticipates that the T2 will be certified later this year and that deliveries will begin in 2014.
Differences from the T1 are immediately apparent. The T2 sports a longer composite tail boom attached to a shrouded tail rotor or Fenestron. At 44.6 feet, the T2 is 1.9 feet longer. The Fenestron does two important things: It prevents people who are loading cargo, luggage or patients through the rear clamshell doors from walking into a spinning tail rotor. It also reduces noise.
Helicopter noise is a hot-button issue in many communities and on the federal level. Quiet helicopters invariably cause less commotion and public complaint. Over the last several years, legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to restrict the movement of civil helicopters over Long Island, the Los Angeles basin, national parks and other federal lands. The FAA has restricted helicopter routes over Long Island and is contemplating adoption of more stringent helicopter noise standards for manufacturers. Flying a “quiet technology” helicopter such as the T2 mitigates the impact of this kind of government reach on operators.
While the addition of the Fenestron is the most visible change on the T2, it is not the most important. That distinction belongs to the new pair of Turbomeca Arriel 2E engines, which are rated at 894 shaft horsepower each. They deliver 21 percent more takeoff power than the engines on the T1. That extra power lets you do a lot more. Compared with the T1, the T2 is faster, can carry more weight in passengers and fuel and climbs higher more quickly. It also posts dramatically better hover numbers than the T1. That means you can operate it in hotter temperatures at higher altitudes–up to 18,000 feet. The helicopter also comes with a new gearbox and both the gearbox and the engines have longer time-between-overhaul (TBO) intervals. The Fadec controls use computers to operate the engines with increased efficiency and safety and reduce pilot workload. Inspection intervals also have been lengthened to reduce maintenance costs.
T2 pilots will enjoy a new “Helionix” state-of-the-art glass-panel avionics suite and standard four-axis autopilot for flying in the most demanding instrument conditions.
However, the cabin remains the T2’s strongest selling point. Larger than the ones in some light jets, it measures 9.7 feet long and 5.4 feet wide and offers a combined cabin/baggage volume of 217 cubic feet. Add the approximately $1.5 million Mercedes-Benz package to the $7.5 million price of the basic helicopter and you get all that utility and a lot of style.
The Benz package provides comfortable seating for up to eight passengers in a highly modular, flexible cabin that can easily be configured to haul passengers and outsized toys, including surfboards and dirt bikes. You can actually change the size of the baggage compartment with an adjustable wall and there is tie-down hardware to secure even the most unwieldy cargo. Plug-and-play multifunction boxes between the luxurious captain chairs slide in on rails and can hold coolers, DVD players and tables. Passengers can adjust the color and intensity of the LED lighting. Customers can choose from four color and trim combinations.
More power, less noise and great style. These few but important changes will likely keep this helicopter a market favorite for at least another decade.
The EC145 Fan Club
Eurocopter’s EC145T1 light/medium-twin helicopter has long been a favorite of EMS operators who fly in instrument environments or need extra cabin space for things such as neonatal transport units.
The U.S. military likes it, too. In a controversial decision, the Army selected the European aircraft for its Light Utility Helicopter program in 2006, ordering up to 345 to replace ancient, Vietnam-era Hueys and OH-58 scout/attack helicopters in Army National Guard fleets. These militarized EC145s are designated the UH-72A Lakota and fly an expanded post-9/11 role that includes homeland security and medevac missions. The Army has taken delivery of more than 200 Lakotas to date in a production contract that runs through 2017. They are assembled at Eurocopter’s Columbus, Miss. plant. A heavily militarized and armed version of the EC145, the EC645, is being promoted by Eurocopter and Lockheed Martin for the Army’s anticipated Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program.