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Armstrong: The Russians Aren’t Coming– They’re Here

Today’s topic is the operation of foreign, uncertified helicopters in Canadian airspace – and the conclusions aren’t black and white.


February 20, 2008
By Ken Armstrong

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Today’s topic is the operation of foreign, uncertified helicopters in Canadian airspace – and the conclusions aren’t black and white. Although professional helicopter operators and pilots should be concerned with their clients’ costs, our primary concern (and Transport Canada’s) should be the safe and efficient conduct of each flight. Many helicopter operators not employed in heavy-lift operations will think the Russian invasion doesn’t affect them and pilots might yearn for the possibility of flying these Russian behemoths. Read on and you might change your opinion.

Transport Canada dictates broad-ranging standards for operations, and for decades demanded full certification of helicopters that would carry the paying public.  There were exceptions whereby uncertified ex-military helicopters were allowed to conduct Restricted Category operations such as slung loads during fire suppression, etc.

Now, Transport  Canada has seen fit to grant an exemption that allows the operations of Russian helicopters, such as the massive Mi 26, currently carrying heavy loads for a few companies in Canada’s northland.  Those supporting this operation point out that no existing certified helicopter can carry these specialized loads and this is true as far as that goes. However, for decades there have been loads that heavy-lift helicopters couldn’t carry that were trucked on winter roads. Customers learned to make equipment heli-portable – in many cases by making large rigs out of individual modules that could be carried in segments by helicopters and assembled on the work site – often by the same helicopters.

Ostensibly for safety reasons, these same heavy-lift certified helicopters were required to adhere to all the legal requirements to meet the stringent certification criteria. This applied to all of their components such as engines, drive trains, gear boxes and avionics, as well as rigourous maintenance schedules and stringent component overhaul times. Additionally, all of the crew members had to meet all of the requirements of Transport Canada to ensure the crew was adequately trained, proficient and healthy.

With Russian crews and helicopters, it’s all a crap shoot. Having flown with many Russians, Russian-trained crews and in Russian helicopters over a 15-year period, I can assure you that all operational aspects I sampled were abysmal compared to Canadian/North American Standards. How can this be?  It should be remembered that virtually all of the Russian helicopter designs were created as military machines. Military experts tell us these helicopters were built strongly, but crudely and inefficiently with expected lives no longer than 600 hours typically. While I don’t know the veracity of this observation, it’s significant to note that those I saw and operated worldwide were in shoddy shape and a likely testament to the shortage of parts or maintenance techniques from a producer that was in turmoil as a communist country – and now under new regimes it fares no better. Proponents of this helicopter invasion will argue these helicopters are in excellent shape and well maintained by their Russian crews. Moreover, they might point out that Canadians are not at risk as they don’t actually operate the Mi 26 helicopters. This overlooks the ground crews and bystanders that are also prime considerations in Transport’s regulatory precedents.

There is a broader issue to consider and it relates to the “level playing field” concept for commercial helicopter operations. Certification standards are designed to protect aircrews and the populace in general and a great deal of the cost of design and approval to meet these requirements adds considerable overall cost to purchase prices – and subsequent maintenance.  Thus, North American operators have been forced to pay high premiums for approved aircraft and to allow Russian helicopters to compete directly against them is just unfair.  And for those of you operating JetRangers and AStars who think the Russian invasion doesn’t affect your financials, think again! There are many smaller, often surplus Russian helicopters, which are much cheaper to acquire than products from Bell and Eurocopter. Will Transport Canada next allow uncertified medium and light turbine and even piston helicopters into Canada because customers complain about the high costs of contracting existing helicopters? Can’t happen? If governments can make a promise one day and change it completely the next  – such as cancellation of income trusts (federal Conservatives) and cancellation of  long term oil/gas royalties guarantee (Alberta Conservatives) – what’s to say operators won’t be competing against a broad spectrum of Russian relics in time?

Insofar as flying ex-Soviet block helicopters are concerned, these machines are built hell for rugged, and flying them isn’t so much a matter of guiding a ballerina around the dance floor as herding a pregnant cow through a dense forest.


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