The Northern Lights drape luminescent across the sky, trees are crisp with frost below, but the pilot of Phoenix Heli-Flight’s AS350 B2 can only spare a passing thought to the beauty outside. Bound for the site of a downed Piper Seneca, he needs to stay on high alert for signs of the wreckage in the dense boreal forests of central Canada.
“We searched for six hours in some of the worst fall weather conditions,” says Phoenix’s owner and the helicopter’s pilot, Paul Spring, as he recounts the events of that evening’s search and rescue. “We were finally guided to the site by a C-130 spotter that found a signal fire. Landing my AS350 in a natural 50-foot opening in the tree cover, the crew was able to trudge one mile through near frozen muskeg to the crash scene.” They found two adults and an infant suffering from burns needing rescue; three others had not survived. The Royal Canadian Air Force arrived as Spring and the spotter were cutting down trees to make a landing pad, where the RCAF were able to winch the survivors out. “This job had all the components of an emotional challenge, with a large dose of physical and mental exhaustion as well,” says Spring.
Challenging operations are par for the course for Phoenix’s crews. Operating for the past 20 years with a fleet that includes H120, H125, H130, H135, AS350 and AS355 aircraft, the charter company serves the remote community of Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo area in northeastern Alberta. Here, dense forests and temperatures ranging from - 40˚C to 34˚C require precision and adaptability from both man and machine. With missions ranging from aerial construction, cargo transportation, and forest management to photography, environmental surveys and wildfire suppression, the helicopters can undergo several configuration changes in one day. Pre-flight preparation might see the addition or removal of seats and doors, and the loading of external equipment like fixed floats, utility baskets or a cargo long line.
Phoenix maintains a fleet of ten Airbus Helicopters which, says Spring, allow the company to meet all of their customers’ requirements. “Our passengers deserve a smooth quiet ride with a good view and ample room,” he says. “The other criteria is performance. This is crucial to getting our customers’ work done efficiently.”
Among its fleet, the company’s hard-working H130 fills a need when power and agility are needed. Improving upon its EC130 predecessor, the single-engine H130 benefits from a higher maximum takeoff weight and more speed, thanks to a Turbomeca Arriel 2D engine which offers 10 percent more average performance and fuel consumption. “The cabin and ride are important,” says Spring. “These factors also reduce pilot fatigue.” The H130 cockpit redesign allows for an updated man-machine interface, while its Fenestron shrouded tail rotor contributes both to safety on the ground and a low external sound level.
Assuring the safety of crew and passengers is critical—particularly so in Canada’s frozen wilderness. “Phoenix’s managers are constantly searching for the problem that hasn’t surfaced yet,” Spring says. “To maintain quality and safety in flight operations, Phoenix employs digital recording devices that monitor the human-machine interface with a cockpit voice video recorder (CVVR).”
Despite the intensity of carrying out life-saving missions, Spring still marvels at Alberta’s vast natural beauty. “I have decades of amazing recollections with some of the best people I’ve ever known,” he says. “This includes fighting raging forest wildfires, thrilled first-time flyers, and those perfect calm days at 12,000 feet crossing the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, where it’s hard to believe anything could top the feeling of awe and exhilaration.”
Look for Phoenix Heli-Flight’s new H130 at the Airbus Helicopters stand at Heli-Expo 2016 in Louisville, KY, from March 1-3.