Dam Good

B.C Operator Sets his own Course
James Careless
June 30, 2009
By James Careless
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By the time Eurocopter stopped manufacturing the BO105 in 2001, 1,407 had been built.

 
Given a chance, most helicopter operators will buy the latest-and-greatest aircraft. But that’s not the case with British Columbia’s Dam Helicopters. Instead of buying the newest helicopter on the market, Dam Helicopters recently purchased the last “new” Eurocopter BO105 LS. From now on, there are no new BO105 LS helicopters available: you’ll have to buy one used, or spend upwards of $5 million for the BO105’s successor, the cutting-edge EC135.

“The delivery of this helicopter to Dam Helicopters is of significant importance to our company; it is the last delivery of a new BO105 LS,” observes Marie-Agnès Vève, president and CEO of Eurocopter Canada. “This aircraft, for which Canada holds the type certificate, is from one of the most successful light twin-engine helicopter programs of all time and we are proud to have the last of this aircraft type delivered to a Canadian customer.”

So why would Dam Helicopters spend $2.5 million for the last of an aircraft developed in the 1960s, and out of production for years? “The reason is money,” replies Duncan Wassick, owner of Dam Helicopters. “The BO105, from which the EC135 is based, has the same maximum payload of 2,500 pounds, but only costs half as much. Granted, the BO105 has an analog cockpit, as opposed to the EC135’s computers, FADEC and glass cockpit. But I don’t mind that: in fact, there are very good reasons to buy products at the ‘trailing edge.’”

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Duncan Wassick, owner of Dam Helicopters.

 
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For years, Dam Helicopters relied on its single-engine aircraft, the Eurocopter SA315B Lama (pictured here) and Bell JetRanger 206B, to perform its missions.

 
A VENERABLE AIRCRAFT
The BO105 dates back to a time when there was no Eurocopter. That was in the 1960s when the original BO105 was designed by the German firm Bölkow Engineering. By the time the BO105 was first test-flown in 1967, Bölkow was part of a larger merged company called Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB). That company became part of Eurocopter in 1991, but even today, many people refer to the BO105 as the “MBB BO105.”

The BO105 is notable for a few reasons. First, it was the first light twin-engine helicopter to enter commercial service. As a result, the BO105 gained widespread use by police and EMS agencies due to the safety of having two engines, extended flying range, a large cabin and rear-opening clamshell doors that allow easy insertion and removal of stretchers. Second, the BO105’s four-blade hingeless main rotor makes this helicopter extremely manoeuvrable. In fact, Red Bull flies a BO105 CBS for aerobatic displays – including back flips!

The BO105 is also noteworthy for the size of its production run. By the time Eurocopter stopped manufacturing this aircraft in 2001, 1,407 had been built. Besides its extensive use in commercial aviation, the BO105 has been deployed by the German Army in both observation and armed anti-tank configurations. According to Eurocopter, 1,008 BO105s are still in service, having collectively chalked up more than 7,067,955 flying hours.

ENTER DAM HELICOPTERS
Established in 1981, Dam Helicopters operates out of bases in Castlegar and Nelson, in British Columbia. These are mountainous areas, where natural resources and tourism dominate the local economy. As a result, the company specializes in EMS/heli-rescue, forestry and mining aerial surveys, firefighting, hydro power-line inspections, wildlife management and sightseeing flights.

For years, Dam Helicopters has relied on single-engine aircraft such as the Eurocopter SA315B Lama and Bell JetRanger 206B to perform its missions. However, a growing safety-driven demand for twin-engine helicopters motivated Duncan Wassick to seek out such an aircraft. “Twins cost more to operate and not everybody wants to pay that hourly rate, but an increasing number of customers do,” he tells Helicopters. “As a result, we need a twin that can do the kinds of hot and high altitude missions that the Lama is famous for. As well, the LS version of the BO105 provides us with the extra cabin space we need to do more EMS flying.”

Four years ago, Wassick was considering buying a new EC135, but its $5 million price tag was too much to bear. “As well, I would have to charge $4,000-$5,000 an hour to my customers to make it economically viable,” he says. “That’s a lot of money to ask.”

It was then he stumbled across “a brand new BO105, fresh from the factory, that had been sitting in storage at Eurocopter Canada’s factory in Fort Erie, Ont.,” he says. “Eurocopter Canada had manufactured and run a production test on it, but they couldn’t find anyone to pay the price they wanted.”

At the time, Wassick couldn’t afford the price either. However, after a few years passed and his need for a twin had become more pressing, he decided to bite the bullet. The result: The factory-fresh BO105 LS that had been sitting unused for almost four years finally got a home and a mission.

WHY OLD TECH CAN BE BETTER
Duncan Wassick is a seasoned, savvy aviator – one who cares about the nuts –and bolts of actual helicopter performance rather than whether the aircraft he is flying has the latest bells and whistles. He also knows a lot about the pitfalls of new technology, and the strain it can put on a small operator like Dam Helicopters.

“The advantage of buying an aircraft at the end of its production cycle is that all the bugs and issues have long been dealt with,” Wassick explains. “The BO105 LS is a known commodity. People know how to fix it, any factory issues have long been resolved, and parts are widely available. In contrast, FADEC is certainly nice, but it’s a sophisticated system whose failure could ground an aircraft for a month or so. That’s something we just can’t afford. We need our helicopters to be working for us as much as possible, and we need their maintenance costs to be reasonable.”

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Dam specializes in EMS/heli-rescue, forestry and mining aerial surveys, firefighting, hydro power-line inspections, wildlife management and sightseeing flights.

 
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The BO105 was the first light twin-engine helicopter to enter commercial service.
 
Functionally, the BO105 LS can provide Duncan Wassick’s customers with the same kind of performance as a new EC135. But thanks to its price tag – “half that of an EC135,” he emphasizes – the per-hour rate he charges can be much lower. “I only need $2,400-$2,500 an hour to make a living on the BO105 LS,” Wassick says. “My customers are getting virtually all the advantages of flying in an EC135-style platform at half the cost. This allows more of them to enjoy the redundancy of twin-engine flight on a budget. Do they care that the cockpit uses analog avionics? Not likely.”

Currently, Dam Helicopters will be flying the BO105 LS in daytime VFR conditions. Although Wassick has no intention of flying IFR – “it’s too difficult flying in the mountains by instrument; you really need to be able to see where you are going” – he is considering acquiring Night Vision Goggles for the aircraft. “NVG effectively makes night into day; at least in VFR conditions,” Wassick says. “Adding NVG would substantially expand the conditions in which we can fly, making the BO105 LS even more valuable to us.”

All told, Duncan Wassick is very happy to be known as the purchaser of the last new BO105 LS. “This helicopter will bring a lot to our business, at much less than it would cost us to buy leading-edge,” he says. “I like to think of this as ‘smart shopping’: saving money for ourselves and our customers!”

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