Russia—a country made for helicopters
Gifted engineers, new ways of thinking and versatile applications dominate
Originally a ship-based antisubmarine chopper, the Kamov KA32 has become an extremely successful firefighter thanks to its coaxial rotors and good payload capacity.
We were supposed to serve it using an MI8. Something went wrong, though, and they had to redesign the platform. After they finished, it could no longer receive a heavy machine, so they ended up renting a Bell. There are lots of them in India."
Gazpromavia, on the other hand, uses helicopters to support offshore platforms of its parent company—for example, the yet-to-be-launched Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea. This will be the first oil rig in the Arctic.
The workhorse, as in other companies, is the MI8 and its various modifications. (The new platform will be served by the MI171.) They carry loads and passengers, deliver supplies and construction materials and take part in SAR, EMS and surveillance missions.
Efficiency is the trend, however, and even this opulent operator is cutting costs with a fleet of 8 ЕС135 T2+ machines. Each spends about 600–800 hrs in the air annually, mostly patrolling pipelines and carrying light equipment and engineers to take care of integrity problems.
The money-rich industry has led to the growth of huge helicopter clusters in Siberia. For example, UTair has major bases in Surgut and Tyumen with all sorts of services—pilot and engineer training, flight simulators, a huge MRO facility (which overhauls 80 machines per year), operations and dispatch offices, etc.
And this is not just for rotorcraft of Russian make. Being a major Eurocopter customer, UTair has made the effort to certify its training and maintenance facilities under stringent manufacturer requirements, and has become more or less self-dependent in its operations.
UTair Crew Training Center Head Vladimir Demkin also speaks of economy. "We are big on Eurocopter," he says, "although there was a time when there were no light helicopters in Russia. The AS350 and AS355 have proved very capable and economical.
Nowadays we pay around $1300 per flight hour when we need to deliver small loads or patrol a certain area. Before we had these light machines, we were be forced to use the MI8, which costs almost $4000 per hour."
He continues, "For now, there are many more pilots and engineers for Mil helicopters, but we are working on the solution. Since 2011, when the center was certified by Eurocopter, we have trained 76 pilots and 69 maintenance personnel, reaching a rate of 40 of each last year."
SAR and EMS
The AgustaWestland AW139 is considered the ultimate "flying limo"—so much so that an assembly plant has been established near Moscow and has already produced its first helicopter.
This is a segment of helicopter services destined for impressive growth in the future. Today, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) is the biggest SAR and EMS operator, with 6 MI26s, 40 MI8s, 6 KA32s and 4 Eurocopter machines.
The total annual flight time per helicopter has doubled since the 1990s and has reached 200 hrs. According to EMERCOM itself, the network is still in its infancy. At least 150 helicopters will be needed to patrol major highways and another 200 have to be based in key cities, meaning another 350 machines required in the near future.
In Moscow, there is a separate entity backed by the city budget—Moscow Aviation Center. Its fleet comprises 8 helicopters—a mix of EC145, KA32, MI26, and Bell 429. According to Moscow Aviation Center Dir Kirill Svyatenko, "Moscow is a no-fly zone.
Only firefighting and emergency medical services are allowed according to federal rules and regulations. We were selected after lengthy and thorough checks, and have a special license that allows us to operate within the city itself. We are the only company that has such a permit, and chances are another one won't get it just because it's so difficult."
He adds, "Our high season is summer. The 3 EC145s are particularly busy in EMS, doing up to 4 trips a day. Mostly these are traffic accidents, many involving motorcycles. We had a lot of work to do after the terror attacks in the Moscow metro in Mar 2010.
I'm very proud that so far we haven't lost a single patient, although the condition of most of them was understandably grave, otherwise nobody would use a helicopter in the first place. The MI26 and KA32 also accrue plenty of flight hours fighting fires in the city."
Helicopters of foreign make have a big future in SAR and EMS in Russia due to their efficiency, optimum cabin size, smaller rotor diameters than that of the MI8, and lower noise levels. As of today, however, some Eurocopters and the odd Bell 407 are used for these purposes in cities, while in the rest of the country Kamov and Mil helicopters perform most of the work.
Although the KA32 is well known all across Europe for its firefighting performance, it has also been successful in SAR operations, especially over water.
The summer of 2010 will be remembered by many Russians for the sweeping wildfires that raged on and on, swallowing lands and houses and choking dwellings in a blanket of smoke.
In Moscow, the sky was dark and visibility low for almost a month, although nothing burned in the city itself. It doesn't take a natural disaster of that scale to call for a helicopter, though, and firefighting KA32s and MI26s are arguably the most observed flying machines in the Russian capital.
When a fire broke out at night atop one of Moscow City's skyscrapers, both types, operated by Moscow Aviation Center, were called to put it out.
Mikhail Schezhin, the MI26 senior pilot, has been flying for almost half a century. He comments, "It was the first time we'd had to put out a fire so high up. It wasn't the first night mission for us, though.
There were 3 cranes on the roof, about 100–150 ft each, and no lights—nothing to show us where exactly they were. The wind was heavy too, blowing in gusts. It wasn't an easy job to keep the machine steady and dump the 15 tons of water where we wanted them, but we succeeded."