AIrbus Helicopters' Ecostar EC130B4
Oversized windows, economical operation, and a quiet rotor system are among the reasons it earns high marks from owners, operators, pilots, and passengers.
During the 1980s, helicopter tours over U.S. National Parks surged in popularity. In 1987, Congress passed the National Park Overflight Act to limit noise over the Grand Canyon and other federal lands. The legislation defined a standard in decibels for “natural quiet” that tour overflights had to maintain at least 75 percent of the time. When the legislation was being drafted, it was assumed that none of the helicopters in use at the parks could meet that standard.
The helitour business saw the new law as a direct threat to its livelihood and began to work with Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) to design a rotorcraft that could comply with it. They succeeded with the EcoStar EC130B4, which beats the noise limits for National Parks as well as those set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. First delivered in 2001, the six- to seven-passenger EcoStar has now become the gold standard for helitour operators, not just at the Grand Canyon but worldwide.
The EcoStar marries the guts—engine, controls, and main rotor system—of the ubiquitous and proven Airbus Helicopters AS350B3 with the ducted tailrotor (called a Fenestron) from the company’s light twin H135 in a capacious, but bulbous 130-cubic-foot cabin that measures just over six feet wide and seven feet long. The forward fuselage of the EcoStar may not be the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but for a single-engine helicopter it is definitely the most comfortable; and it is shrouded in plenty of Plexiglas, which offers both pilot and passengers superb viewing—the primary sensory delight for flying in a helicopter.
Adding the Fenestron with a two-speed rotor system that automatically cuts cruise power rpms resulted in a noise signature that’s significantly below the limits. And besides being quiet, the EcoStar incorporates numerous advances aimed at reducing pilot workload and increasing safety and passenger comfort. A hammer attenuation system for the main rotor significantly reduces vibration. The Safran Arriel 2B-1 engine (847 shaft horsepower at takeoff) features full authority digital engine control (FADEC) for more precise operation. The EcoStar also has dual hydraulics for smoothness and safety; a skid and suspension system that makes landing and ground operations safer; and the shrouded Fenestron, which not only reduces noise and alters its pitch to make it less irritating but guards against anyone walking into it during power-on ground operations (unlike the exposed tailrotor on most helicopters).
While the pilot in command sits on the right side in most helicopters, he or she sits on the left in the EcoStar. This is primarily to guard against any accidental passenger bumping of the collective control that is operated with the left hand. Up to three passengers can sit next to the pilot and another four in the row behind.
Entry and egress is a no-drama affair, thanks to four large cabin doors; the front ones open forward on hinges while the rear ones slide aft in tracks, much like those on a minivan. The stock interior is relatively Spartan, and most tour and charter operators have either selected the factory’s “Stylence” interior—which features upgraded seat coverings and accents—or fashioned their own retrofit through a completions shop. The three baggage holds (left, right, and rear) combine for a capacity of nearly 39 cubic feet; and you can augment them with optional and aftermarket left- and right-hand cargo pods called “squirrel cheeks” that increase storage room by 35 percent and can swallow sets of golf clubs and other outsized items. The “cheeks” add 44 pounds to the EcoStar’s typical empty weight of 3,324 pounds; maximum takeoff weight is 5,321 pounds.
The vehicle and engine management display (VEMD) reduces pilot workload by presenting critical engine and rotor system information as needed. Combined with the engine’s FADEC system, the VEMD makes the EcoStar “idiot proof,” according to one large tour operator who flies dozens of EcoStars. The model addresses two of the biggest problems in single-engine helicopters—hydraulic and fuel-systems failure—by providing backup hydraulics and a virtually bulletproof hydro-mechanical metering unit for fuel. To start the engine, you simply push a button and the computers do the rest. If something is amiss, the system won’t let you start up.
Fuel capacity is 143 gallons (972 pounds), and at a comfortable cruise speed of 120 knots with a full load, the helicopter will burn around 347 pounds per hour, making the EcoStar a solid two-hour ship with ample reserves. Fast cruise is listed at 135 knots and you start to get a little chop in the cabin north of 130.
While operators and pilots praise the EcoStar EC130B4’s low noise signature, spacious cabin, and outstanding visibility, the model does have a few quirks. The factory-supplied air conditioning is anemic—most operators have opted for a third-party provider such as Enviro Systems—and the helicopter’s big windows, ideal for sightseeing, can turn the cabin into a greenhouse in places like Las Vegas and Maui. Door hinges and bushings have failed repeatedly under the daily tour grind.
Tail booms developed cracks near the Fenestron assembly, eventually prompting an airworthiness directive. Changing out a tail boom is not cheap—it costs about $65,000. The Fenestron produces less anti-torque tail rotor authority than that of the unshrouded A-Star and when the winds kick up, it increases the likelihood of “running out of pedal” (in pilot vernacular). This makes maneuvering, particularly at low speeds close to the ground, the impetus for ramp betting pools. So when the winds are above 35 knots you are likely—and sensibly—to be sitting on the ground.
While the engine time-between-overhaul interval (TBO) is 3,500 hours, a critical engine component called the swirl plate—which creates a more efficient fuel-air mixture in the turbine—was routinely failing at half that interval, making for unplanned downtime and maintenance. Changing out a swirl plate is no small task, requiring up to 40 maintenance man-hours. Overall maintenance hours required run approximately 1.4 to each hour of flight time.
Airbus Helicopters addressed most the EC130B4’s deficiencies when it introduced the EC130T2 in 2012. The updated model offers longer routine-inspection intervals, 10 percent more engine power, and a completely flat-floor cabin. (B4 rear-row passenger seats are mounted on a box shelf.) The T2 also boasts better anti-vibration technology, improved factory air conditioning, new seats, and more maximum takeoff weight (5,512 pounds versus 5,351 on the B4). Of course, all these improvements come with a price; new T2s start around $3.3 million while much of the fleet of 421 B4s can easily be had for less than $2 million.
The EC130B4’s large cabin is not only appreciated by tour passengers; it has made the model increasingly popular as a medevac helicopter for operators seeking twin-engine comfort with single-engine economics. You may not think of it as a corporate machine, but compared with noisier singles such as the Bell 407 and the A-Star, it has much to offer in terms of convenience and safety. It also stands as a welcome reminder of what manufacturers can achieve when they work closely with customers—a machine universally praised by owners, operators, pilots, and passengers.