Once again I am interrupting my usual programing for a bit of breaking news… on 14 April at around 13:30 local, the CIOS recycling plant in Zagreb caught fire. Apparently the plant’s warehouse had gone up in flames, creating a smoke plume that has blanketed the entire town center and can seen for dozens of kilometers around. Given the magnitude of the blaze, the Croatian Air Force had been drafted in, sending a “bambi bucket” equipped Mi-171 to assist in operations…
While continental Croatia has, on the whole, been spared a visit by the Four Riders of the Winter Apocalypse – Freezing Cold, Low Cloud Base, Snow and Fog 😀 – the light aviation scene had nevertheless wound down for the season, existing now only in traces and a few sporadic pleasure flights flown over the weekend. Even though we’ve been graced with generally good visibility and temperatures of 10 to 15 Centigrade, few people are inclined to get some serious flying in, leading me to a serious (and worrying) deprivation of news and photo opportunities…
So, to fill the void – and wish my readers belated season’s greetings – here’s a photo of some helicopters in fog 😀 .
In light of my recent run of law enforcement themes, for this next, short bit I’d decided to draft in the military as well and give their flying forces a bit of screen time too 🙂 . While the Croatian Air Force’s rotary units are featured here on occasion – operating, as they do, from Lučko – most of its fixed-wing assets are generally kept out of sight in the country’s two main air bases, one of which can be found tucked away behind the terminal of Pleso Airport (LDZA).
Even though the AF boasts a number of different airplane types – including the Air Tractor AT-802, Antonov An-32B, Pilatus PC-9 and the Zlin Z-242L – the most interesting of them all have always been the MiG-21s; old, worn and tired beasts that are still the elite of the entire force. The rock stars of the local aviation world, they don’t have much in the way of raw military capability – with all of them already in their late 30s – but their iconic looks, distinctive camouflage schemes and (not least of all) their deep, throaty roar never fail to excite the inner nine-year-old 🙂 . Put simply, they’re like the Rolling Stones: years of hard graft and abuse have taken their toll, and in purely technical terms they’re somewhat past their expiry date… but when you see and hear them in person, you’re as sold as you would have been when they were in their prime!
However, while their evocative rumble on take-off can often be heard all the way to town, seeing them up close is quite a different story. While I personally do get the odd chance to enjoy them from the apron – as in the shot above – for many the only shot at a close approach is at the (almost) annual Open Day at Pleso, held this year on 13 December. While this may seem an odd date to host an open-air exhibition – with visitors having had to contend with 100 meter visibility, -5 degrees Centigrade and pervasive freezing fog – the event is traditionally tied to the anniversary of the formation of the Air Force, officially created on 12 December 1991 🙂 .
Undaunted though by the increasingly pessimistic forecasts from the airport met office – and eager to test out my new 24-105 lens 😀 – I decided to brave the cold and fog and see just what kind of shot I could pull off this year… 🙂
Even though Eurocopter had ultimately emerged as the victor in the recent tender to re-equip the Croatian Police helicopter squadron – managing to dethrone Bell as the county’s de facto default helicopter supplier – I could not in all honesty complete this run of rotary themes without at least casually mentioning Bell’s losing entry 🙂 .
A brand that has been associated locally with law enforcement ever since the late 60s, Bell has sadly been autorotating steadily downwards for years now, devolving into an almost marginal manufacturer living off little more than its former glory. Indeed, even a casual look at the company’s recent production lineup was enough to reduce one to tears, being made up mostly of models my grandparents would have taken for granted 😀 . The civilian division is especially guilty, having become quite comfortable in its rut of periodic refreshes of models way past their prime. The 407GX, for example, is a warmed-over 407 from the mid 90s, itself a development of the LongRanger (still in production as well!), which was created by stretching a JetRanger II back in the 70s. The 412 doesn’t even need an introduction, its family tree sprouting all the way out of the original long-body UH-1D of 1961.
The company’s military arm lags little behind in terms of complacency, offering only the 407GT (a lightly armed 407GX), the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior (a more thoroughly militarized original 407), the UH-1Y Yankee (a shiny 412) and the AH-1Z Cobra, an upgrade of the first proper US attack helicopter.
One Bell, many whistles
When all was said and done then, up until a few years ago, the last all-new civilian helicopter to come out of the Bell works was the elegant 222 – debuting way back in 1976. The military division had fared somewhat better though, having managed to pull off the MV-22 Osprey in 1989 (despite what was a VERY difficult birth). But for the most part, Bell’s pre-2007 catalog was as refreshing and interesting as a week-old salad… *
* however, the rival Eurocopter can’t boast an all-new offering either 🙂 . The AS.350 Ecurueil is an Aerospatiale handover, like the AS.365 Dauphin and the veteran AS.332 Super Puma (their military versions included). The EC-145 had also started out in life as a late 70s design (the BK-117), as had the EC-135 (the on-off Bo-108) – while technically even the Tiger gunship predates the creation of the company (if only by a few years, having been jointly developed by Aerospatiale and Daimler Aerospace/MBB right before their merger into Eurocopter). The only “pure”, new designs on offer are the EC-120, EC-130 (and even that’s a stretch), EC-175 and the NH90, developed together with AgustaWestland. But, unlike Bell’s refreshes, virtually every Eurocopter upgrade is a significant leap forward in all aspects of the aircraft’s design – and not just a few bits of new tech shoehorned into an airframe that hasn’t changed much since its introduction.
In terms of sheer development speed though, even Eurocopter lags behind the aforementioned AgustaWestland – a company that seems to pop out a new model every lunch break, with the majority of its products developed on this side of the year 2000 🙂 (even though it, like Eurocopter, had a crop of existing Agusta and Westland helicopters to choose from at the time of its creation in 2000) .
Some – but not all – of this would change in 2007 with the first flight of the all-new 429 GlobalRanger 🙂 . Bell’s first civilian helicopter designed from the ground up since the old 222, the 429 at first glance doesn’t really suggest that the company’s engineers had fully woken up from their stupor just yet, bearing a startling visual similarity to the unloved (and commercially unsuccessful) 427 twin. The ultimate – if slightly forced – evolution of the JetRanger, the 427 is essentially a thoroughly updated version of the very rare 206LT TwinRanger, itself (as the designation suggests) a LongRanger with an extra engine. Heavy, yet underpowered, with a useless cabin configuration and severe asthma at altitude, the 427 had failed miserably in its quest to become the new standard in HEMS/utility machinery, eventually ending up making the most money (and not much at that) on the private marked (with one example even having made it to Croatia as 9A-HTI 🙂 ).
Still sore from this debacle, Bell’s engineering teams had finally put their heads together and decided to go all out, no-holds-barred with the new GlobalRanger – agreeing also to future-proof it as much as possible along the way in order to avoid any hassles when they (inevitably) decide to recycle it later on 😀 . To this end, the 429 was conceived around a modular construction concept – called the Multiple Affordable Product Line, or MAPL – in which the design would essentially be made up of three sections (front, fuselage and tail) that could then later be scaled up or down to quickly and cheaply produce new helicopters of different sizes and roles.
However, therein lay the 429’s first stumbling block – a block that continues to haunt it to this day. Being the module that holds the whole helicopter together, the fuselage section would naturally be subjected to the greatest loads in flight, requiring it to be made the toughest and strongest. Now, this wouldn’t be much of an issue if the design would later only be scaled down; the fuselage section could then be designed to fit the 429, with any smaller helicopter – with a lighter nose and tail – benefiting from additional robustness and crash protection.
The original intent though was that the design could also be scaled up, which required the fuselage to be capable of withstanding the greater loads imposed by the new machine’s increased weight. Consequently, the GlobalRanger had ended up with a thoroughly over-engineered fuselage for its size, a fuselage that had added considerably to its (already not insignificant) empty weight.
From a purely engineering standpoint however, this was still not the end of the world – you could simply bolt on more powerful engines and off you went 🙂 . Yes, the resulting machine would burn more fuel and be more expensive to operate, but the added structural strength would (as in the case of a scaled-down machine) make it considerably safer and more durable* – traits particularly useful in the world of HEMS, often noted for its appalling safety record and the need to operate at high loads in almost any weather.
* the fixed-wing world provides ample proof to back this up, especially in the form of the superlative DC-9 🙂 . A singularly tough old bird, the Diesel-9’s longevity needs no special mention, with numerous examples still flying scheduled commercial services all over the world. The legendary Dakota – as well as Bell’s own untearable Huey – also leave little room for doubt.
But, while all of this sounds perfectly reasonable here, in the real world it’s not nearly as straightforward – especially when aviation regulators become involved 😀 . As designed, the GlobalRanger was intended to be certified to FAR Part 27 standards, which specify a maximum take-off mass of 3180 kg/7110 lbs. But, the extra bulk of the one-size-fits-all fuselage had kicked the 429’s empty mass up to 2012 kg/4455 lbs, leaving just 1159 kg/2555 lbs left over for the fuel, crew and whatever/whoever would be crammed into the back. While this too doesn’t sound like a show-stopper, this payload is a whopping 640 kg/1411 lbs (or roughly 45%) lower than that of the design’s main rival – the EC-145 – which was from the outset certified against the much more demanding FAR Part 29, allowing it a higher maximum take-off mass (all the while being 228 kg/503 lbs lighter while empty).
However, the very FAR that taketh had also offered Bell some hope of reprieve 🙂 . Among its myriad stipulations is a paragraph that gives individual Civil Aviation Agencies free hand in approving a 227 kg/502 lbs increase in MTOM within their jurisdictions, bringing the 429’s payload deficit down to a more agreeable 413 kg/911 lbs. Creating thus the 429IGW (Increased Gross Weight), this approval was duly granted by the CAAs of Canada, Brazil and China – but, surprisingly, not by the FAA, denying Bell a competitive place on its traditionally most important market…
While it can then be conclusively stated that MAPL had backfired straight into Bell’s face (leading to its swift abandonment even though it was now forever integrated into the GlobalRanger), other innovations intended to give the design the edge had met with more success 🙂 . One of these is what could best be described as a “brand-neutral” cockpit (officially called the BasiX Pro), in which Bell – and not the manufacturer of the actual equipment – is responsible for systems integration. In simple terms, in a “traditional” cockpit, the aircraft maker selects one avionics manufacturer and then commissions it to put together the entire avionics fit AND then get it to work seamlessly on the actual aircraft. This was always a laborious and time-consuming job – since the avionics maker has to tailor its setup to the specifics of the aircraft and its systems – whose sheer costs and complexities generally perclude it from being repeated with a second avionics brand.
What the BasiX Pro did was leave all that integration to Bell – meaning Bell’s own engineers would now have to do the hard work of connecting the electronic dots 🙂 . The upshot is that each buyer can now request an avionics setup from a different manufacturer, as opposed to just deciding between predefined options from only one maker. For example, one buyer might want a system built entirely out of Garmin blocks, while another might be more partial to Bendix-King; previously one of them would have to choose, but now both can have their cake and eat it 🙂 . The downside though is that this had ended up consuming FAR more time and resources (financial included) than Bell had anticipated, adding yet another item to the list of things the company will not attempt again in the near future 😀 .
But, by far the most successful (and painless!) innovation of them all was the implementation of the advanced MSG-3 maintenance standard, itself short for Maintenance Steering Group 3 and a first for any helicopter to ever go into series production 🙂 . In a traditional maintenance system, the useful life of an aircraft component is defined by a fixed time period known as the Time Between Overhauls – TBO – expressed either in terms of flight hours flown (more common) or “regular” months and years (for components that wear out regardless of the actual “airtime”). The default measure that has been used for ages, TBOs are however often quite conservative and rigid (in the interests of safety) and may not be at all representative of the actual state of the component. For example, a bearing that has a 1000-hour TBO might break in half after just 700 flight hours – but it may also continue to work all the way till 1500 with no issues whatsoever*.
* a real-world example is the engine on the Skyhawk I currently fly. It’s nominal TBO is 2000 flight hours, a pretty standard figure for that type of engine – and a figure that has been shown though experience to usually be on the money 🙂 . However, as 2000 had ticked over on the totalizer, the engine was still as tight as a nut, with all of its parameters showing near-perfect scores. Clearly it could keep going well beyond its TBO with no ill effects – a fact that had enabled us to get a one-time 200 hour extension to the servicing interval, bringing it up to 2200 🙂 . And, 76 and a bit hours into that extension, the engine is still happily droning away.
MSG-3 gets around this issue by introducing specific monitoring procedures for each major component, giving the user unparalleled ability to see and track the ACTUAL state of the aircraft – and not just rely on a predetermined number. The advantage is that if the user notices a component has the potential for weakening before its TBO, he/she can replace it in due time before it starts making trouble. Another benefit is that if the user determines a component is holding its own better than the manufacturer said it would – like the engine in “my” Skyhawk – he/she can retain it in use beyond its normal TBO, reducing expensive replacements and loss of productivity due to aircraft down time (for reference, the overhaul of the O-320 on the N model Skyhawk takes up to two months and drains EUR 20,000 out of your pocket – almost HALF the value of the entire aircraft). Naturally, if the component can be kept going beyond what the papers say, MSG-3 specifies frequent checks and performance tracking more rigorous than a nun in a convent 😀 *.
* actually, the greater, overarching point of MSG-3 is the creation of a revised global maintenance standard, a standard rooted not in theoretical approximations or lab tests, but in actual data collected from real-world operations in real-world conditions.
Having finally shook itself out of its sedentary lifestyle, Bell was naturally quite keen to show the 429 off to potential customers from around the globe 🙂 . Somewhere on what would later turn out to be quite a long list was the Croatian Police, at the time still shopping around for something to use once the EU hands it the baton of protecting its borders.
The first of what would be the GlobalRanger’s two visits to Croatia would come in December of 2011, when N10984 – the type’s third prototype – stopped briefly in Zagreb on a promotional tour of the region…
Once N10984 had moved on – with photo evidence placing it at Nagoya, Japan barely two weeks later – we would have to wait a further 11 months for the type to return to the field, this time in the shape of the earlier second prototype. In town specifically to be presented to the Police and Mountain Rescue Service in great detail, C-FTNB had arrived fitted out with a full HEMS interior, including an appropriate – but hardly exciting – white-blue scheme 🙂 .
Hot on the tail rotor of my previous post come yet more Eurocopter news from the Croatian Police 🙂 . Not two weeks after 9A-HBA – the service’s first EC-135 – had started active duty has a second example joined the fleet. Christened 9A-HBB, this machine is also an EC-135P-2+, and sports pretty much the same family tree as its predecessor: manufactured in 2008 for Spain’s Guardia Civil (and coded HU.26-14), but never taken up and instead placed in long-term storage until being sold to Croatia late this year. Like HBA, it was also delivered with flight hours in the low dozens – and like HBA it still needs to be fully kitted out before assuming its intended border patrol role.
Thankfully, on the day of its arrival we’d had another of those beautiful, oddball days in the middle of an otherwise dreary month, making for some excellent photographic opportunities… 🙂
In living proof that the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slowly, 9A-HBA – the first EC-135 for the Croatian Police – has finally entered active service, more than a month after originally arriving at Lučko 🙂 . The culprit for the delay was, rather unsurprisingly, the mountain of paperwork needed to transfer the machine onto the Croatian register – paperwork that involved cancelling its test reg in Spain, re-registering it in Croatia, sorting out its insurance, airworthiness, maintenance providers, training programs and various other technical and legal procedures (that are, truth be told, common to all aircraft).
Though not yet fully kitted out – an EO/IR (electro-optical/infra red) turret cam being in the works – HBA had nevertheless still played a policing role on its first mission, providing air support for the commemoration of the fall of the city of Vukovar during the 90s civil war 🙂 .
While last year’s spectacular run of rotary visitors at Lučko – including two US Chinooks and Knighthawks, a German Super Puma and EC-155, and the second prototype of the Bell 429 GlobalRanger – had raised hopes for an equally eventful 2013, the cold reality had seen the arrival of only one real highlight. But the lack of quantity was made up for with quality, with the highlight in question finding its way even into the mainstream media (without actually having to crash 😀 ). The machine in question is 9A-HBA, the Croatian Police’s first all-new helicopter in over 20 years… 🙂
Not really an exciting type per se – with droves upon droves plying the skies of Europe – the EC-135 has nevertheless signaled a small (but significant) shift in the local helicopter community. Having inherited all of its hardware from former Yugoslavia, the Police had ended up being a staunch operator of Bell machines since the early 90s, flying a handful of JetRanger IIs and IIIs – as well as single, and much loved, Twin Huey – till this day. The arrival of HBA – whose acquisiton was sponsored in part by the EU – has broken Bell’s two plus decade long dominance in force, becoming the first Western European helicopter ever to be operated by any Croatian government agency 🙂 (with all the perks and ramifications attached).
While its shiny & clean exterior would suggest a new-build frame, HBA was actually completed back in 2008 and originally intended for service with Spain’s Guardia Civil, where it was briefly known as HU.26-15. However, soon after completing its validation and acceptance flights, it was – for various complicated reasons – mothballed and placed into long term storage. As there was no foreseeable need for it in Spanish service (having stood unused for five years), it was put up for sale, eventually finding its way into Croatian skies :).
With just 20-odd hours on the clock – most of which were incurred on the ferry flight from Albacete – HBA will be primarily used in the border patrol role, where it will eventually be joined by two additional examples (one of which is already on the books). Given their twin engine nature and full IFR avionics, these three machines will also likely become a replacement for the aforementioned 212, which is slowly nearing the end of its useful life after several decades of hard graft… 🙂
While I’d assumed we’d checked the German Bundespolizei off the list of potential future visitors after their last hop over, I was more than pleasantly surprised to the other day to stumble across another of their machines at the field – a hot find coming right on the heels of the US helicopter fleet that had stationed with us for a few days (welcome to Lučko International 😀 ). Sporting the service’s classy and elegant navy blue scheme, the machine in question is a nowadays rather rare EC-155B-1 medium-lift helicopter, a type completely alien to Croatia – and only the second one I’d ever seen in person…
Seemingly a relatively new type at first glance – having been introduced in 1997 – the EC-155 had actually started out in life as the twin-engine Aérospatiale SA.365/AS.365 Dauphin 2* of 1975, itself evolved from the earlier (and stubbier) SA.360/AS.360 Dauphin* single-engine light utility model.
* like many French helicopter designs, both of these machines had gone through several designation changes throughout their lifetimes, a reflection on their constantly changing manufacturers. A holdover from the 60s, the SA prefix stands for the initials of Sud Aviation – the first large scale helicopter manufacturer in France – which had in 1970 merged with Nord Aviation (formerly SNCAN) to form what we know today as Aérospatiale. Taking its time, the new company had introduced the “proper” AS prefix only in 1990, just two years before the company would transform into Eurocopter. The new prefix had however survived the change, and would remain in use even today on older models that had remained in production
In essence occupying a niche below the heavier Puma transport, the EC-155 is not however a direct copy of the Dauphin, which is still in production as the Eurocopter AS.365N3+. Using (most of) the Dauphin as a base, the 155 had introduced a wider and more commodious fuselage, new digital avionics with many bells and whistles – and, most importantly, a completely new composite main rotor and more powerful engines for significantly improved performance in hot-and-high conditions (which also give a slight increase in maximum take off weight).
A design element that has however survived all designation and equipment changes is the type’s eye-catching Fenestron rotor, a trademark feature of many French light and medium helicopters. Literally translated as “small window”, this concept – pioneered by Sud Aviation – replaces the traditional tail rotor’s few large blades with up to 18 smaller ones, shrouded within the tail assembly itself. While this solution does add a fair bit of weight due to the structural reinforcements needed – and tends to shift the CG backwards, decreasing stability – it does allow the individual blades to be lighter and more durable, as well as be able to withstand significantly higher forces and stress. Among other benefits, this includes sharper, quicker and more controlled yawing, which adds quite a bit to the helicopter’s maneuverability.
A competent machine all-round, D-HLTL was in town on a demonstration visit, flying mostly at night to show off its advanced on-board imaging equipment :). Rumor on the apron is that the Croatian Police is likely to buy a few examples – supported by the EU and it accession funds – to supplement is aging (and comparatively under-equipped) Bell fleet… so we may yet see more of them quite soon :).
While our placid little airfield generally deserves the epithet of “the airfield at the edge of town” – despite what has been written here over the years 😀 – it does occasionally have its bright moments. Due to the relatively poor condition of its grass runway – among other issues – precluding the landing of any “serious” fixed wing aircraft, these tend to occur only when something rotary is in town, like the previously photographed US Navy Knighthawk or Bundespolizei Super Puma.
However, while these very welcome one-of visitors do make for a pleasant change of tempo – often becoming major attractions in their own right – they hadn’t really prepared us for the miniature assault fleet that had pitched up camp on the military apron between 8 and 12 September… 🙂
In town to participate in the annual Jackal Stone multinational military exercise – this year starting on 13 September – this fleet had included no less than four transport helicopters (nothing to sneeze at when Lučko is concerned!), and even a supporting Cessna Caravan that had occasionally popped into the field on general transport business. And while their numbers alone were enough the cause widespread interest, their composition – once confirmed by a quick search on the Net – had elevated them to “must photograph at all costs” status :D.
The “less interesting” pair – using the term lightly – were two already familiar US Navy Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawks, pretty much identical to the example that had visited us a couple of months back, save for being equipped with turret IR cameras on their noses.
Far more interesting by any measure – objective or otherwise – were the “big guns”, two US Army Boeing MH-47G Chinooks. Significantly more potent than the stock transport CH-47s, the MH-47G is a dedicated special operations model, conceived and designed on the back of lessons learned during special forces deployments and insertions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rarest – and among the newest – of all Chinooks, these models carry virtually no external markings (apart from faint titles and an incredibly-difficult-to-find serial) and sport a distinctive matte black finish that makes them impossible to photograph effectively in all but early morning light 🙂 (which had presented a slight problem for yours truly, since none of them had actually operated during the early morning).
Of course, being the hopeless GA enthusiast that I am, both of these incredible – and incredibly rare – machines were overshadowed somewhat by a brief, five-minute visit of one of my favorite prop singles, the Cessna Caravan :D. The first one I’ve ever seen in person – which says much about the traffic at Lučko – this specific example belongs to the military U-27 family, operated in this instance by the US Army. Based on the stock 208B Grand Caravan, the U-27 differs mostly in its more spartan interior fittings – suited to its military transport role – and the absence of the imposing cargo pod seen on many civil versions…
While foreign aircraft at my base airfield of Lučko are not really uncommon – and usually take the form of various skydive aircraft from neighboring countries – 2012 has seen something of a spike in the number of “higher ranking” and government rotary visitors :). Following closely on the heels of the US Navy MH-60 Knighthawk seen here earlier, a couple of months ago we’d been visited by a German Super Puma, in town for a week during an international rescue exercise.
Operated by the Bundespolizei – Germany’s Federal Police – D-HEGM was tasked with providing aerial support during the IPA-CRO FLOODS 2012 international civil defense exercise, held in May on several artificial lakes close to the airfield. Interestingly, back in March 2011 – when it was just a year old – this helicopter had suffered a double engine flameout while transporting German chancellor Angela Merkel. The cause was determined to be intake icing, necessitating a – thankfully safe – forced landing :).