Western helicopter operators are discovering that Russian types are good for more than just lifting loads and are proving their worth in a variety of roles
Not so long ago, certification and maintenance support issues made acquiring the services of Russian helicopters seem more trouble than it was worth. But now, with the country’s rotorcraft having achieved certification in several countries, they are becoming part of the landscape – and not just for external sling jobs.
As a result, Russian helicopters are being looked at more objectively and their advantages better appreciated. Apart from their rugged, reliable and simple construction, they remain significantly cheaper to operate than their western equivalents – despite Russian domestic inflation of more than 400% over the past 10 years.
UK offshore transport provider Bristow Helicopters’ first association with products from the Mil design bureau came in 2000 when it formed a joint venture with an operator in Kazakhstan, flying Russian-crewed Mil Mi-8s to support a pipeline project to the Black Sea coast. To service exploration efforts, Bell 212s were later introduced in Atyrau, an oil boom town at the mouth of the Volga river.
The pipeline project and the Mi-8 experience gave Bristow the track record to seek more business in 2003, in Sakhalin Island, to the north of Japan’s Hokkaido Island. The all-Russian helicopter fleet deployed there included five Mil-8 MTVs, two lower-powered Mi-8Ts and, for communications with Sakhalin and to Korea and the Russian mainland, three Dash 8 turbopops – which are leased to a local airline to serve an oil and gas contract with an Exxon joint venture on the island.
General manager of the joint operating company, Sakhalin Aviation, is Jim Barnet and the chairman is Bristow Group director Allan Blake, who told Flight International: “We wanted a bigger footprint in Russia and Sakhalin, potentially, is one of the prime oil-producing areas in the world, with significant expansion of its on-line capability due during 2006.
“Sakhalin Energy Investment Corporation is a joint venture with Shell, our principal client out there [BP and Exxon have similar operations], and in 2003 we started talking with them about taking over the aviation contract from a local operator. Their long-term aim is to introduce western aircraft to Sakhalin.
“Essentially, the operation is staffed by Russian aircrew and engineers – who I have to say are fantastically professional – with oversight and management by a rotating cadre of Bristow staff and a Russian manager. Our main base is Nogliki, with outposts at Okha to the north and Yuzhno in the south. We audited the local operation and made some improvements to the Mils for our customer.”
Short-term fixes included upgrading the Russian cabins with safety features such as high-back seats and four-point harnesses. In the longer term, BHL also needed to integrate a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) – now a standard requirement for aircraft carrying employees of Shell and other major companies. The selected system has two elements: a vibration health monitoring capability developed by the Central Institute for Aero Motors in Moscow; and a rotor track and balance capability for the main rotor using Meggitt Avionics’ Rotabs system.
Sakhalin Energy financed the upgrade work and the project involved working closely with Russian airworthiness authorities. Certification by Russian regulator MAKS in June marked the first time HUMS had been integrated into a Russian type.
The engineering work – performed during a three-month scheduled overhaul at the Okha maintenance base – proved fairly straightforward, but obtaining certification took longer and a surprising number of signatures. “Until that could be achieved,” says Blake, “we had to fly the unmodified aircraft, as had been done under the previous operator. We still have only one of the Mils HUMS-fitted, but now that we have proved the system, we will be modifying the others.”
Blake says there is a “huge amount” of work going on in Sakhalin. Apart from increased production next year, a pipeline is being laid from a rig to the island, then to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the south. “With experience now of operating the Mi-8, we will also be looking for other work – perhaps with the United Nations. We already use the fleet for utility work, including SAR and medevac if required, anywhere around the island.
“We have been impressed with the Mils, particularly operating in the extremes of temperature we experience. Temperatures can drop to -40°C in Sakhalin and top 40°C in the Caspian region.”
Blake denies that operations have been affected by the recent spate of fatal Mi-8 accidents, one of which involved a civil machine. “We continue to monitor the position with the Russian aviation authorities,” he says.
Aside from this relatively new passenger role, Russian helicopters are best known in the west as sturdy, low-cost utility aircraft. They would probably be even better known were it not for the fact that only a few new airframes – precisely eight Mi-17s, five Kamov Ka-32s and three Mi-26Ts – are made available each year for sale or lease abroad. This is due to the production limits set by the manufacturers because the civilian market represents only a tiny fraction of their output. A full 98% of capacity is committed to domestic military or government requirements.
Such is the demand for Russian helicopters in this role that western operators such as Belgium’s Skytech have also drifted into government contracts, providing military Mi-17s to the UK in 2003 (for onward delivery to the Royal Nepalese Army) and supporting anti-insurgent activity along the Saudi-Yemen border between 2002 and 2004. Such contracts are profitable for a civilian operator, but there are risks. Last April, a Mi-17 leased by another operator to US private security contractor Blackwater was shot down in Iraq and the survivors executed.
Most of the strictly commercial market for Russian rotorcraft still revolves around construction and firefighting: Ka-32s are in use in Spain and Greece, Mi-26Ts in Greece and Mi-17s in Portugal and Turkey. However, western types – especially the Erickson S-64 Skycrane – offer fierce competition in the region. In Greece, the Mi-26T has been fighting fires for five years.
Commenting on the continuous ebb and flow of companies prepared to offer Russian types in Europe, Skytech chief executive Thierry Lakhanisky says newcomers often lack the experience and customer endorsements to secure international or government contracts. “Less than five non-Russian companies can demonstrate more than five years of ‘form’ with the types,” he says. Skytech – perhaps best known for its heavylift work using the huge Mi-26 – started up in 1991 and now operates in 33 countries.
Back in 1992, Skytech attempted to certify the Mi-26 in Belgium. But Mil’s management was in turmoil at the time and the project was postponed indefinitely. “Nevertheless,” says Lakhanisky, “we got hold of all the manuals in English and have since acquired a detailed technical knowledge of the type. We operate under Russian registration all over Europe, dealing with the local regulatory authority on a case-by-case basis.” Skytech also operates the Mi-26T in central Africa and maintains three aircraft in Europe for an undisclosed government programme.
The Kamov Ka-32, with its coaxial main rotor, has been in common use in Asia for about the same length of time, providing specialist long-line sling-load support such as heli-rigging (transporting oil rig components to remote areas) and firefighting. Skytech operated a Russian-registered Ka-32 in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea for years, while local operator Heli Niugini achieved certification on its fleet of leased A and A1 models.
Between 2001 and 2003, the type accumulated more than 3,000 flying hours on logging duties in Taiwan and nearly 50 Ka-32Ts are now operated in South Korea by the state forestry service.
In 1999, the more modern Ka-32A11BC was approved under a restricted category by Transport Canada for use by Sidney, British Columbia-based logging specialist VIH. More recently, the same variant has also made inroads into the European market. Heliswiss was the first operator to certify the Ka-32A12 and now, in partnership with Germany’s Helog, flies two aircraft on logging duties in the Alps. Since May 2004, four of the type have been registered with Helisureste in Spain under a restricted sling-work category.
Helisureste commercial director Antonio Martinez says his company was introduced to the type in the 1990s when it wet-leased six older Ukrainian and Bulgarian models. “Its 5t payload and stable handling made it an ideal tool in the strong winds and turbulence often associated with forest fires,” says Martinez.
“With Canadian and Swiss approval in hand, achieving Spanish certification was easier than we expected. Product and training support from Kamov has been good and among our 10 rated pilots are several Russians, who make communicating with the manufacturer that much easier.”
The firefighting season in southern Europe has been particularly challenging this summer, but for Helisureste it has been safe and the Kamovs have been tested extensively. “We could drop 4,500 litres of retardant at a time,” says Martinez. “They performed great in the hot and high conditions, gave the pilots no problems in the continuously shifting crosswinds, and delivered great reliability. These helicopters are really hard workers.
“Once the season here is over, we may send two of them to South America for the southern season. However, there is also a risk of fires in northern Spain during March and April – so we shall see.”
There has been a trickle-down effect too. Firefighting equipment specialist Simplex Manufacturing has seen a big rise in demand for Ka-32-compatible Bambi bucket systems. “The helicopter fills a payload gap at the 3t level,” says marketing director Steve Daniels. “We are working directly with Kamov to build a bigger system that will offer operators a 5t-capacity within a 5.5t payload. That will put it up against the Mil Mi-26.”
Certification is mainly a political problem of bilateral acceptance, says Skytech’s Lakhanisky. “Design and manufacturing processes follow all [US] FAR 29 and 33 requirements and the problem will be solved as soon as western manufacturers seriously target Russian markets.
“After the precedent set by Transport Canada, restricted category certification is now easy to achieve. At least three companies are involved in training civilian crews on Kamov and Mil types, including Skytech, which has trained Nepalese pilots on the Mi-17, Congolese and Korean pilots on the Mi-26 and American, New Zealand and Australian pilots on the Ka-32.”
Training services are marketed by Toronto-based Concord XXI, which organises familiarisation training for UK and US aircrew at the Kremenchug flying college, Ukraine. Russian companies such as Spark of St Petersburg offer training on a full-motion, full-visual Mi-17 flight simulator.
Spares have never been a problem, says Lakhanisky. “And I don’t believe there will be a problem either, now that greater industrial efficiency is a presidential priority. The only drawback is cost – prices have gone up by over 400% in the past 10 years and appear set to continue. In 1992, a brand new export Mi-17 was priced by the manufacturers, Kazan or Ulan Ude, at less than $1 million. Today it is $5 million – but still much less than an equivalent western type and offering better performance and lower maintenance charges.”
Kamov’s holding company is working to establish a network of authorised service centres to supply spare parts and materials, address airworthiness issues, repair and overhaul main components, update maintenance publications and submit updated information to aid owner, pilot and technician training.
Lakhanisky says he has always been treated openly and in good faith by the Russian authorities. “It can take an age to communicate with them, though – but then that’s a problem the world over.”