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The Eco-Star: A New Era in Helicopter Touring

by Neville Dawson

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Being the launch operator for any new aircraft is a massive step forward. It takes lots and lots of intestinal fortitude, guts for short. Is the new machine going to work? Will it live up to expectations? Dave and Patti Chevalier, owners and operators of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters in Hawaii , have every right to be nervous about laying out more than US $17 million for ten brand new Eurocopter EC-130-B4s. That's a lot of cash and a lot of helicopters.

For the Chevaliers and others, operating a helicopter business in Hawaii has become more difficult over the past few years because of the inevitable noise issues, complicated by the FAA's dogged attempts to nail any operator who slightly steps outside some very unrealistic guidelines. "Over 80 percent of our tours are over national parks on Maui and the Big Island , so it was of crucial importance that we look at ways to decrease noise exposure in these areas," Dave explained.

Having a helicopter designed the way the operator wants it in the past has been a pipe dream. Well, not this time. Back in 1995 Dave was the chairman of the Helicopter Tour Operators Committee (HTOC) within Helicopter Association International.  "As a committee we decided we should approach the manufacturers to see if we could encourage them to seriously look at quiet technology," he recalled. The public acceptance of the helicopter and its associated noise is one of the biggest obstacles facing not just helicopter tourism operators, but helicopter operators in general. " I suppose you could say that operators such as ourselves are the public ambassadors for the industry, since the majority of people who fly with us have never been on a helicopter before. This gives us a perfect opportunity to show them just how incredible the helicopter can be, as it gets them in to see things they couldn't see any other way," he added.

The feedback to the committee from the various manufacturers was mixed, with most thinking they had already turned the corner on the noise problem. Bell already had its 407 and was sure that it would be sufficient. MD Helicopters was already using the NOTAR technology. Although these two products provided some alternatives, their technologies weren't what the committee was after. One manufacturer was, however, willing to listen and that company was Eurocopter. It was receptive to the proposals and indicated that it would be willing to work with the committee, but this in turn created a problem as the committee was made up of operators with various makes and models of helicopters. The solution was to form a users group that included Bob Engelbrecht of North Star Trekking in Alaska, and Ron Williams of Air Star Helicopters in Arizona .

Having the designers who worked for one of the world's leading helicopter manufacturers listening to what the tour operators wanted in a helicopter and then incorporating it into a brand new product is an amazing feeling. "We all decided that what we needed was a helicopter that was primarily a lot quieter than the AS-350. Many passengers also complained that it was a tight fit, so the new design needed more room built into it. Better visibility was a must also. From here it was now up to the Eurocopter design team," explained Chevalier. when the design team in had finished their task, the result was the EC-130-B4.

A first look at the EC-130 tells you it's obvious that it was based on the AS-350 family. But from there, things have changed...considerably! Gone is the tail rotor and in its place is the EC-135 Fenestron. It had to be reverse engineered because the original on the 135 accounted for the main rotor blades going in the other direction. The 135 was German built, thus the blades rotated one way. The 130 on the other hand is French built so the blades go the opposite way. Simple logic, simple solution. The asymmetrical array of the ten blades spaced at different intervals reduced the noise signature substantially, because the majority of helicopter noise comes from the tail rotor blades. On the EC-130 it's the exhaust and blade tip noise, which you normally don't hear on an AS-350 that is the problem.

A closer look at the tail boom shows that Eurocopter has given the aircraft a smooth, clean look. All the rivets that are common on the boom of the 350 have disappeared. "We still have the large amount of bolts holding the tailboom to the fuselage, but now we have a true honest-to-goodness frame there and this ensures added strength," explained Eurocopter Technical Representative Tom Brown. "One thing I like about this aircraft is that it is designed using technology that already exists," explained Chevalier. "The doors are from the EC-120, as are the main windows and controls, with the VEMDs from the AS-350-B3 and 120, so it is already field proven," he added.

The new tailboom has an extended blast shield to protect the tail rotor drive shaft bearings. Between the blast shield and the drive shaft cover there is also a layer of protective covering, providing yet further protection. "The way you get horsepower out of these engines is you have to get the air super-hot to go across a set of wheels and keep them spinning, but you have to keep them just hot enough so that the blades don't start stretching on their own. This requires some very exotic metals, which they call Unatanium and it is manufactured in very exotic ways so that you can spin it at high RPM against high temperatures and still get the horsepower," added. Brown.

Also noticeable on the new helicopter are the larger landing gear fairings. These were designed to prevent "Dutch roll." If is wasn't there, the back end of the aircraft would have a tendency to wiggle around. If you look at helicopters with vertical fins on their horizontal stabilizers, they are working on a stability issue. Eurocopter could have put fins on the stabilizer, but the design group decided they could achieve this with fairings on the aft landing gear instead. They stretched the fairings out and this in turn eliminated the Dutch roll tendency. It also helps to create lift under the aircraft, adding to its stability. Eurocopter did, however, extend the length of the horizontal stabilizer, and rumour has it, that the way they found out how far to extend the stab was to keep adding to it until bugs started appearing on the leading edge.

The landing gear is much like the EC-120. The gear is, in a sense, it is articulated like the Gazelle. It's mounted in three positions, two in the front and one at the back, so the aircraft has a bit of a wobble to it. Ground resonance has always been a problem in helicopters, but with the EC-130 this is virtually eliminated. The natural harmonic of the landing gear is so far away from the harmonic of the aircraft that it prevents ground resonance. A feature with the A-Star is that the landing gear is very stiff and rigid, so it has a frequency at which it shakes, in sympathy with the main rotor. This had to be dampened, but if the devices aren't really right and the rotor rpm drifts downward, when the two drift together you get ground resonance. At the top of the fenestron fin the kink is also very noticeable. This was designed to help reduce the forces and unload the tail rotor during flight, requiring less control input. The top of the tail is actually a wing, and starts to fly in its own right at certain airspeed, creating lift along the leading edge and pulling the tail into proper position.










The EC-130 lands flat instead of right rear first, like the AS-350. This is due mainly with the controls on the aircraft and how they are rigged. Mostly it was necessary to counter the right drift of the aircraft because of the rotor turning. Eurocopter tilts the disk slightly to stop it from drifting to one side. The flight controls are slightly tilted, but not very noticeably. When the cyclic is centered, it actually has a very slight tilt built in. Neutral, you would think, would mean a flat disk, but it, too, has a slight tilt built into it. "You can actually land this more like an MD500," explained Blue Hawaiian's Chief Pilot, Dave McGuff.

All the cowlings on the EC-130 are carbon fibre, which has reduced the aircraft's weight substantially. Operators are hard to please.  They always want an aircraft that can pick up a large amount of weight, but weighs next to nothing itself. Unfortunately, there are not many aircraft like the Lama anymore. The lifting capability of the EC-130 is about the same as the B3. The top cowlings are also a little taller, and cover up more of the swash plate than the regular A-Star. Normally about an inch below the stationary star is exposed, but on the EC-130 it comes right up to the split line between the stationary and rotating star. This helps protect it a little more, plus keeping it out of the environment. The airframe itself is beefed up all the way around. The keels that runs through the belly of the aircraft, which is what the aircraft is sitting on, are chemically milled beams instead of stamped metal as on the A-Star.

The front of the EC-130 is certainly distinctive. Since one of the user group requests was to give their passengers more room, the Eurocopter designers did just that, plus more. It's nearly a foot wider from inside door to inside door which allows seating four across, not your normal bench seats as in the BA or B2. The new EC-130 also has energy attenuating seats as used in the 120 and 135. This means that nothing can be put under them, as they have  to be able  to crush and absorb the energy. This required Blue Hawaiian to relocate their video recorders in the rear baggage compartment. The width of the cabin is also maintained all the way to the front, and doesn't taper in from the back as in previous models. To do this, an EC-120 cabin was cut in half and an additional center section added. This is what gives the cabin its unique look.

Currently Blue Hawaiian is working the aircraft with a four-across layout in the rear, and two passengers in the front. A seventh passenger seat should be certified by the end of the year.  The French didn't need to approve the new seats because the EC-130 came under the original AS-350 Type Certificate. But the FAA decided that it wanted to have the aircraft installed with the new crash-worthy seats, and therefore had to undergo further approval processes. The new seats added weight to the aircraft which hadn't been expected. With the extra weight added by a new style seat it also moved the center of gravity forward. To overcome this, plans were called for moving the battery into the tailboom to compensate. [Note: Eurocopter has already built a compartment in the boom for the battery showing good foresight.] There is currently a forward evaporator for the air-conditioning system at a very far forward arm in the aircraft, which Eurocopter thinks it can eliminate by relying on one aft evaporator with extra ducting. This would significantly reduce the weight penalty of that front forward arm and help bring the cg back to where it should be.

The biggest addition is the First Flight Limit. This combines three gauges, torque, T4 and Ng, into the one indicator. At aircraft start, the primary indication is T4, so the biggest needle will reflect that the pilot can watch it clime to staring limitation. Once it gets past a certain point, which is 60 percent Ng in this case, it switches over to what they call FLI. The main part of the screen will be the FLI with the smaller gauges on the right of the screen. This needle swings from 0 to 10. As the limits are approached, a yellow bar appears under whichever parameter is reached first. Then it will change color to red. A second and a half into the red zone, a tone in the pilot's headphones tells him that he must do something about it immediately before it records an exceedance causing maintenance attention. The fuel quantity is also shown on the VEMB (Vehicle and Engine Management Display) by a vertical bar on the left hand side. No doubt if you ask a pilot who has been flying the EC-130 for some time, what NG he was pulling on a certain flight, he will probably say, "I don't know. I was just pulling an 8 on the FLI". Somewhere in there is the torque, T4 and Ng. All he knows is that the needle is somewhere in this position because they are all combined on one display. "Instead of having to look at three or four different instruments, you only need to look at one needle which tells you what your first limitation is. It reduces pilot workload from that respect," Chevalier commented.

The EC-130 also has a dual digital channel FADEC with a single analogue backup. It has dual computers with information fed to each one. There are multiple sensors on the engine, one to feed the left channel and one to feed the right channel, as well as one to feed the VEMD and the backup control channel. All three of them are independent of each other but they "talk" to each other, so if one gets a bad signal the other two say "No, you are not right, this is what it should be," and the bad signal is cancelled out. The metering valve is controlled by what is called dual stepper motor. There are two independent electrically-wound motors on a common shaft that move the metering valve in and out. No more fly weights. When channel A is no longer in charge, the B windings are doing it. And if the fuel control says more fuel is needed, the pilot moves in two clicks to gain the proper fuel flow. There is a resolver that double checks to see if the proper amount of clicks were indeed made. These are the two ways of the system checking to see if it is all working correctly.

Eurocopter placed dual hydraulics on the new EC-130. These are AS-355 servos. They were mechanically-driven through the combining gearbox on the 355. On the EC-130 they have one that is still driven by the belt, on the right hand side of the gearbox, but now have one that is mounted on the front, coming off of a power take-off of the bevel ring gear. This is not unique, in that it was actually designed to be a hydraulic pump that would run spray systems. The left hand side hydraulic system is controlled by the forward pump, and the original is a right hand system, which in a sense is the lower system.

The new VEMDs also take care of a lot of the calculations that used to be done manually by the pilot. For example: You have an Ng limit. At sea level you can pull say 97.1 percent Ng. But as you climb you can actually have a higher Ng based upon the density altitude. This indicator calculates what you can actually pull. As you climb you are not limited to a fixed number, as the number should vary based upon density altitude. The system does all the calculations. This gets rid of all the flip-up charts that pilots used to have, showing different density altitudes for different temps and heights etc. the VEMD has an atmospheric pressure sensor going into it, as well as an OAT probe. The system also does all the power checks instead of the pilot having to write down all the info while flying. Instead, he can pull up the info off the VEMD after landing.

Going all digital was a two-edged sword for Eurocopter. On the good side, the system can now display extremely accurate information. But in the beginning, digital accuracy was a hindrance. Eurocopter designed a computer program that went by the book. For example, the maximum cold temperature you can operate in is minus 25 degrees. This temperature limit was written into the program. However, the tailpipe might be minus 25 degrees but it's only minus 15 degrees outside temp. The aircraft won't start because it was outside the established parameters. Changes had to be made, and were.

By modifying the software, Eurocopter was able to refine the displays and performance. That is also the reason why no one is able to download information from the VEMD. Every operator would love to be able to download all the information from the FADEC and put it in their laptops, but all you have to have is a smart fourteen year old with a decent computer to hack into the VEMD's FADEC's core code. This, as you can appreciate, could result in severe consequences. For Eurocopter, it is a big issue to the point that if you installed a new engine or even an overhauled engine, and want to zero out the VEMD info so that all the engine times and cycles add up correctly with what they should be, you can't. However, the design team is busy looking at ways to solve this problem. If access was allowed, imagine the following scenario. A pilot over-temps an engine and he nearly fries it. He could delete the info and you no longer have an over-temped engine. It didn't exceed the parameters, according to the new data. What sort of risk do you think that would pose to those that flew the aircraft next? That is why Eurocopter is reluctant to let people into the systems source codes. The designers are looking into ways in which sections can be firewalled. This could mean a VEMD design change, but time will tell.

Another great addition to the EC-130 is the ability to reduce its own noise signature during cruise flight. There is a sensor that sends information to the FADEC system based upon tail rotor position. As the pilot starts applying tail rotor pitch, it senses that change and increases to what they call a reference rpm. The system knows that, for example, between sea level and 5000 feet it has a set range for its rpm, with a max of say, 397. The blocks are set in segments of 5000 feet, but at anything over 15,000 feet the system will stay at the higher setting, because up there you are going to need it. On the ground right now you are running say 384-385 rpm, so, as the pilot applies tail rotor pedal, it senses that and in six seconds from the time the pitch is put in, it will start increasing the main rotor rpm to the reference rpm. It stays like that until the tail rotor pedals come back to the neutral position, usually when the aircraft reaches cruising speed. It will then sense that and take six seconds to come back down to the lower rpm setting for that altitude block. This could be down to 385 to 386, reducing the noise signature by approximately 7db.

With the EC-130, pilots have to use a lot more pedal than with the AS350. Pilots are used to tail rotor movement, which has a lot more effect for less movement, yet in the 130 you need more movement for the same effect because of the Fenestron system. These pedals are not boosted. In a 350, to move the nose 10 degrees, you may need to move the pedals only 3 or 4 degrees. In then 130 you will have to move them about 7 or 8 degrees. When new pilots first get in and start flying the aircraft they are going to have to learn to use the pedals a lot more.

The new air conditioning system is A1. This is one built into the aircraft, not an aftermarket accessory. Eurocopter has made provisions on the airframe for airflow to keep the system cool. It has an intake built into the baggage door, but there is a slight weight penalty. Hawaii would have to be the worst environment for an air conditioning unit. Reliability and maintainability will be very crucial. There is high humidity, salt-laden air and constantly high temperatures.

This is probably the best proving ground for any helicopter manufacturer, and it will be interesting to see how, not just the air conditioning unit performs, but the EC-130 itself.

A great addition to the EC-130's control panel is the King KMD-550. It provides a number of functions but for Blue Hawaiian it has two significant uses. The first allows the pilots to monitor what the onboard video camera system is seeing. There are a number of cameras mounted to both the inside and outside of the aircraft so that a personalized video can be given to the passengers. The second reason is one that has become a priority to enhance safety. Working in conjunction with a team of engineers from Honeywell Blue Hawaiian incorporated the Honeywell Ground Proximity Warning System, but as Dave Chevalier calls it, The Terrain Mapping System, into the KMD-500. This is the first time that the two products have been integrated.

"I read in a magazine about the Honeywell system so we made contact and started working with them," explained Chevalier. "They came out six months ago and we started flying the system in the valleys and have been working with them ever since to develop the system for helicopters. I think we have probably been able to show them the more severe terrain that the system could be used in, and would have to ever deal with, in the terms of the deep valleys and high mountain peaks.

The GPS data is has to acquire must be very accurate to integrate with the database," he added.

The Garmin 430 GPS data correlates with the information in the Honeywell database and is displayed on the 550, which paints a three dimensioinal image of the terrain. There are lots of valleys on Maui , so the system will really come into its own in this environment. This monitor will be able to be used to map or paint the terrain, which means that a pilot who has inadvertently gone into IMC can use this to still avoid the terrain and fly his way out of the valley. Weather moves in very quickly up in the valleys and having a display which is bright and easy to see is a great advantage," said Chevalier.

According to those at Blue Hawaiian involved with the project, Eurocopter has been great to deal with, in sorting out these "teething" problems. [Eurocopter] is dedicated to making us happy and making this aircraft work," said Director of Maintenance Bob Pistorino. Going from the AS-350 to the EC-130 is like moving from Economy class up to  Business Class, some say. And, everyone seems to be pleased thus far. No doubt during the next few months it will be interesting to see if the EEC-130 lives up to its expectations.