The control tower granted permission to climb to 1,000 feet (about 300 metres), but Mr Roffo thought it better to stick to 500 feet and keep the speeds low.
“The EC130 T2 has a range of 332 nautical miles and can fly at speeds up to 236 kmh. This is not the kind of weather to play around, though,” the seasoned aviator explained through his headset.
With dark black clouds rolling in over the green landscape and visibility decreasing by the minute, the passengers understood what he meant. Only 3.000 feet away, the airport was hidden behind a curtain of torrential rain.
After a short flight and showcasing some manoeuvres, Mr Roffo decided to return to the airstrip. As we hovered stationary near the parking apron while waiting for permission to land, the squall buffeted the silver hull of the helicopter and the passengers became ever more apprehensive.
Ten minutes later we were back on the tarmac. Alive and well.
“It was a bumpy ride, with the winds and the rain closing in,” said Lionel Sinai-Sinelnilkoff, vice president, customers, at Airbus Helicopters Southeast Asia. “But at least we proved the helicopter can fly in difficult weather," Mr Sinai-Sinelnilkoff said. "The monsoon season stretches to five months in Myanmar. Our clients rightfully expect the Squirrel to perform in bad conditions as well. And it does," he said.
Mr Sinai-Sinelnikoff was in Myanmar on a weeklong mission to show prospective buyers what the EC130 can do. The previous day Airbus was showing off its flying machine in Nay Pyi Taw to officials from several ministries. It was the second time Airbus Helicopters, formerly known as Eurocopter, had visited Myanmar since it re-established a presence in the country last year. Demonstration flights of an AS350 B33 coincided with a civil aviation conference held in Yangon in March.
“Airbus helicopters were already flying here for many years, before the sanctions,” said Mr Sinai-Sinelnikoff. “Our Alouettes are a familiar sight in Myanmar airspace. During this trip we explored civilian operations with potential public and private clients.”
The latest EC130 T2 model has an improved performance with a higher maximum gross takeoff weight and a top speed of 236 kmh. The single-engine helicopter can carry up to seven passengers. Its equipment includes demisting systems, a crashworthy fuel tank and a patented Fenestron tail rotor, embedded in the tail and therefore less vulnerable to damage than conventional tail rotors. It doesn’t come cheap: the retail price of the EC130 T2 is more than US$3 million (about K2.9 billion).
A striking asset of the Squirrel is the low external sound levels it produces, said Mr Sinai-Sinelnikoff. “The helicopter performs 7db [decibels] below the ICAO limit, the international standard," Mr Sinai-Sinelnikoff said. "In fact, the Squirrel is the only helicopter that is silent enough to be allowed to fly in the Grand Canyon, an UNESCO World Heritage site," he said, adding that the helicopter was popular for any popular tourist destination because it is much quieter than other choppers.
Aircraft built by Airbus Helicopters and operating in Myanmar include single-engine lightweight AS350 B3 Ecureuils in private use and the twin-engine AS365 Dauphins used to carry passengers, including in the oil and gas industry.
Mr Sinai-Sinelnikoff is optimistic about sales opportunities for the Squirrel.
“Myanmar has a lot of potential as a country and we feel there are many possible applications for our helicopters in the tourism, health and business sectors. The Squirrel is also eminently capable to carry payload or to participate in search and rescue operations and emergency evacuations.”
After my trip in the monsoon with the Squirrel, my first flight in a helicopter, it is not hard to imagine why rescue operations are not beyond this newest member of the Airbus family.
This Article first appeared in the June 26, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.
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