USA — Aerial firefighting specialist Intermountain Helicopter is putting its only aircraft, a Bell 212 HP, through an estimated $450,000 retrofit involving airframe modification, an avionics upgrade and engine replacement in preparation for this year’s fire season. Of that amount, some $70,000 will be spent to meet US Forest Service (USFS) contractual mandates.
“It is very unusual for a company of our size to invest that kind of money into an aging aircraft, but we had to for contract compliance, and operational safety,” said Rick Livingston, President of the Sonora, California-based company.
The helicopter a 1975 model was acquired by Intermountain in 2003, and to date, has nearly 14,000 hours of flight time. With a capacity of nine passengers, plus the pilot, the Bell 212 HP is deployed by Intermountain Helicopter in an initial attack mode, ferrying ground-based firefighters and supportive equipment where needed. It is also used to drop water and retardant from a 324 gallon external Bambi bucket.
Livingston reported that one of the contract compliance modifications involves the installation of a BLR Aerospace FastFin® and Dual Tailboom Strakes kit, which will enhance the helicopter’s stability and improve out of ground effect hover performance.
“It’s a labor-intensive, and expensive modification at a cost of about $40,000,” he noted. “At the same time, we are mandated to install an air traffic advisory component, although the challenge is to find one for which we have room on our instrument paneland affordable.” That, Livingston explained, would add another $25-30,000 in mandatory upgrades.
But the most extensive modification is the replacement of the helicopter’s two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3 engines with the more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3B powerplants. “The PT6T-3B twin pack will give us better ‘one engine inoperative’ (OEI) performance for a greater margin of safety,” explained Fritz Bayer, Intermountain Helicopter’s Chief Pilot.
The engine change decision, Bayer said, was not a contract mandate, but prompted by the fact that the PT6T-3s had reached their life limits. “One of the engines had just about hit its 4,000 hour limit, while the other was nearly 500 hours beyond the 4,000 hour limit, operating under an approved extension by the FAA and Pratt & Whitney-Canada,” he explained. “We had the choice of overhauling them to zero-time, or spending the money for a more modern engine with greater supportability and available parts, since there are more PT6T-3Bs in the active Bell 212 and Bell 412 fleets.”
The new powerplant installation, which will run about $380,000, is slated for completion by the end of February.
The modifications, which have been ongoing since Christmas, will have no impact on the helicopter’s availability during the fire season, since they were performed in tandem with the normal, 12-month scheduled maintenance. This, as Bayer explained, includes component overhauls, and replacement of parts which have reached their life-limits.
“We do a lot of routine, heavy maintenance during the winter,” said Bayer, who added that in June, the helicopter will deploy to the Forest Service’s Shenango Helicopter base near Bozeman, Montana for a 120 day exclusive use contract period.
“In today’s aerial firefighting business environment, private operators are being told by the US Forest Service to do more, at their own expense, in order qualify for Federal contracts for wildland firefighting,” said Tom Eversole, Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services And Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA). “Intermountain Helicopter is a good example. This is why it is imperative that the private enterprise aerial firefighting infrastructure, typically made up of small to midsize companies, be maintained, and allowed to compete on a level playing field.”
Intermountain Helicopter is a member of AHSAFA, the Washington, DC-based trade association representing commercial operators of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft engaged in aerial wildland firefighting.