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From Russia With Love

January 16, 2013  By Paul dixon

Vancouver Island Helicopters commenced operations in a very modest manner in 1955 with a single Bell 47G2, but today, having grown by leaps and bounds, the VIH Aviation Group operates more than a dozen helicopter types in operations worldwide through a network of subsidiary companies.

Vancouver Island Helicopters commenced operations in a very modest manner in 1955 with a single Bell 47G2, but today, having grown by leaps and bounds, the VIH Aviation Group operates more than a dozen helicopter types in operations worldwide through a network of subsidiary companies.

A VIH hangar party. Two KA-32A11BCs and two of the company’s S-61s inside the heavy shop at VIH’s facilities at Victoria International Airport (YYJ). (Photo by Paul Dixon)


Three helicopters in particular have helped set the Victoria, B.C.-based operator apart from its competition – the powerful and distinctive Russian-built KA-32A11BC. The Kamov Ka-32 is the civilian version of the Russian Ka-27 (Helix) naval helicopter, used by several military operators worldwide for countless heavy-lift missions. Operators for missions ranging from search-and-rescue to aerial firefighting and more also use the civilian version of the aircraft globally. VIH designates the “BC” in its aircraft for British Columbia as homage to the aircraft’s first home outside Russia.

VIH brought its first Kamov to Canada in the mid-’90s to use in logging operations on Vancouver Island. The company felt the machine would be a good match for high-value heli-logging operations where sheer pulling power and flight stability made it a very effective platform. One of the initial challenges it faced, however, was gaining Transport Canada (TC) certification for the aircraft. Initially, it could only be flown by Russian pilots and under a special permit. Eventually, however, TC certified the aircraft, enabling VIH to return the original lease machine and purchase the first of what would become three machines. Today, the aircraft are the highest hour operating Russian helicopters in the world.


Vaughn Gouws, VIH operations manager, says working with Kamov has been highly beneficial for both his operation and the Russian helicopter manufacturer. “We’ve both learned a lot about the machine, us as an operator and them as a supplier,” says Gouws. “It’s a fantastic aircraft and we’ve made a lot of money with it over the years, but it hasn’t been without its problems as with any other machine. But we don’t ever regret having become involved with it.”

One of the unique traits of the aircraft is its unique coaxial rotor. This design helps create an aircraft that is inherently stable, yet highly manoeuvrable. With no tail rotor, all the power is directed to the main rotors. With the entire body of the aircraft within the disc of the main rotors, the KA-32A11BC can operate in tighter situations than other helicopters in its class. The powerful downwash from the rotors, however, can be a challenge; it necessitates the use of a 250-foot long line to lessen the impact on ground crew.

Adjusting To A New Teammate
Introducing such a unique aircraft into a highly established operation was not without its challenges for VIH pilots. Jim Neill, former chief pilot of VIH Heavy Helicopters, compares the Kamov to his experience on the Sikorsky S-61 (which VIH also operates) and the Eurocopter Super Puma.

Long-lining a load over a glacier in northwestern B.C., the helicopter’s coaxial rotors are clearly visible. (Photo courtesy of the VIH Aviation Group)


“When I first started flying the Kamov, the yaw control was probably the hardest thing to get used to as you could move the pedals from stop to stop at low collective settings with little or no change in heading,” Neill says. “When the aircraft is hovering, it uses differential pitch between the upper and lower rotor systems for yaw control. The more pitch on the rotor blades, the more yaw control you have and vice versa.

“For example, if you’re hovering close to a hillside where you have an updraft and you’re using very little collective pitch, the aircraft will weather-cock and stay into the wind until you pull collective. It takes a little bit of getting used to. At airspeeds above 54 knots, the dual rudders on the tail controlled by the pedals help you with directional control and do not rely solely on the differential pitch. This makes it interesting in an autorotation as we rely on airspeed only for directional control. However, when you start the flare, you have to increase the collective pitch by two thirds to slow the rate of descent and regain directional control with differential pitch as the airspeed becomes too slow for the rudders to have any effect. This brings us to another very good safety feature of this helicopter: the loss or jamming of yaw control in flight can be demonstrated to a safe zero speed touchdown.”

VIH’s three KA-32A11BC aircraft are the highest hour operating Russian helicopters in the world. (Photo courtesy of VIH Aviation Group)


Neill maintains that like all Russian aircraft, the Kamov KA-32A11BC is very robust, and for the most part very forgiving. He calls it “a good pilot’s aircraft” and finds it easier to operate than the S-61. The machine monitors its own engine starts, including the APU, which is required to supply compressed air for the engine starters. And from an enhanced safety point of view, in the event of an engine fire, it will engage the first extinguisher into the affected engine automatically.

Another positive feature about the helicopter, Neill says, is there is no requirement for a torque metre. The engines are governed by an engine electronic governor (EEG) that monitors the maximum take-off power. Changing the Ng topping automatically with the change in barometric pressure and temperature does this. There is also an amber maximum power light for each engine on the centre console, which illuminates when you reach take-off power. If you continue to pull the collective, the main rotor revolutions per minute (rpm) will droop and activate the low rpm light and audio horn without exceeding any engine or transmission limits.

In addition to key safety and engine features, the KA-32A11BC gets high marks for its payload capabilities. In comparing the payload capabilities of the S-61 and the Kamov, Neill gives the nod to the 32A11BC mainly because of its stability and power. “It’s stable because the Kamov, with its coaxial rotor system, has the reactive moment on the mast and not 35 feet back at the tail rotor,” Neill says. “From a power point of view, there is no need for a tail rotor, which robs a conventional helicopter of lifting power. It also has two Klimov TV3-117 turbine engines, which have 4,400 horsepower at maximum takeoff. The S-61 has two GE CT-58-140-2 engines, which have 2,500 hp at max takeoff. The maximum gross weight of the Kamov Ka-32A11BC for external lift operations is 28,000 pounds, compared to the Sikorsky SK61 at 22,000 lb.”

Dealing With Market Conditions
Logging in British Columbia is a fickle business, driven largely by the export market and world economic realities. As logging cycles have dipped over the years, VIH has become adept at providing heavy-lift capability in a wide range of markets, not just in B.C., but also around the world. Mining, oil and gas exploration and development, disaster relief, power line construction and specialty “one-off” missions, such as delivering new air conditioning units to the roof of the Royal British Columbia Museum in the downtown core of Victoria, are just some of the unique projects the company has taken on.

Aircraft maintenance technicians are close to completing a 16,000-hour check on C-Guri.  (Photo by Paul Dixon)


VIH’s experienced workforce has played an important role in helping it bid on and win contracts worldwide in a variety of different industries. “When logging went away here on the West Coast, we were really lucky to be able to retain a good pool of experienced logging pilots and engineers and mechanics and loadmasters and keep them busy on other projects,” Gouws says. The first big international project VIH secured saw two Kamovs dispatched to Taiwan, where they spent more than a year supporting a large power transmission construction project. In recent years, projects have included mining and exploration missions in South America and providing assistance to Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team in Pakistan in the wake of a major earthquake. Firefighting in Australia has also become an annual event, as VIH has joined a number of Canadian operators in heading to the southern hemisphere for the winter months.

Mining and mineral exploration along with oil and gas pursuits have been driving the economic boom in northern B.C – and the Kamovs have been very useful in this regard. This is especially true of the rugged, isolated northwest corner of the province. VIH has played in integral part in this development by providing the heavy-lifting aircraft and personnel to make it happen.

The Galore Camp operation in particular established VIH and its Kamovs as the “ones to call” when a job absolutely had to be done. Equally owned by NovaGold and Teck Resources and managed by the Galore Creek Mining Corporation (GCMC), Galore Camp is described as one of the largest copper/gold/silver mines in the world. Located in one of the most isolated areas of B.C., 300 kilometres north of Terrace and 43 miles from the nearest road, it’s a project that is forecasted to produce 6.2 billion pounds of copper, 4.0 million ounces of gold and 65.8 million ounces of silver over an approximate 18-year mine life.

Over a period of 15 days in May 2005, the Kamovs made 85 trips into the camp from the airstrip on Highway 37, delivering a total of 766,000 pounds in slung loads, while S-61s ferried human cargo and internal loads. The superior lifting capacity of the Kamovs allowed the trailers that were used for the 180-person modular camps to be designed in larger sections, which were delivered in 35 separate loads. The mine project was placed on hold in 2007 due to a combination of rising costs, fluctuating world metal prices and the state of the Canadian dollar on world markets, but in 2012, work started once again. Today, there is enough work in the northwest sector of the province for VIH to station one Kamov in Stewart, B.C. (where the average annual snowfall is 572 centimetres annually) on a year-round basis.

Providing a Safe Environment
At VIH, the commitment to safety in the air and on the ground defines corporate operations on all levels. Gouws says experiences in the logging industry helped shape the safety culture and recognize how it impacts productivity.

Everything is like new again. A KA-32A11BC displays its naval heritage – note the cluster of folded rotor blades. (Photo by Paul Dixon)


“With most construction and logging projects, you determine the success or failure of the project in the planning stage. If you don’t do your planning phase or preparation, it just falls apart, costing your clients a lot of money and they don’t call you again,” Gouws says. “So, we go out and sell expertise, 20 years of expertise, not just with the Kamovs, with the 61s and the rest of our fleet of helicopters. We sell safety, we sell safety as productivity and we sell efficiency and competency. The helicopter is just one of the tools we use. People come to us because they know we’ll get the job done as safely and efficiently as it can be done. That’s our business model.”

VIH goes a step further by putting its own loadmasters and riggers out on large projects. As Gouws says, “it’s not overly glamorous, but we do hundreds of thousands of loads every summer and we find that having a rigger on site contributes to safety. We can consistently monitor people in the field to make sure they are working to your best practices for rigging, using the right equipment, maintaining the equipment, ensuring they doing proper inspections on the rigging they hook up to an aircraft every day.

“We’ve had this culture since the logging days and now it’s starting to permeate into oil and gas and into mineral exploration – and clients are really buying into that now. It’s a culture change that’s slowly taking place from the old frontier mentality.”

Making Themselves At Home
The Kamovs are designed to work in the hostile environment of the Russian winter, so the snow and ice of a northwestern B.C. winter is water off a duck’s back for these machines. Mark Junker, VIH KA32 project manager, says a detailed 16,000-hour inspection was done last February on two of the aircraft.

The Kamov KA-32A11BC boasts simple, straightforward instrumentation. (Photo by Paul Dixon)


“There were 17 Kamov engineers here for these two inspections and we went through the aircraft with a fine tooth comb,” Junker says. “There was very little corrosion, very few structural cracks or structural problems that we would expect to see in other heavy helicopters. Here we are [in the KA-32] at over 16,000 hours and we’re not seeing those kinds of problems.”

The VIH-Kamov relationship remains strong and VIH is quite pleased to have machines that can outperform any helicopter in its class and deliver larger payloads at lower costs for clients. For the Russians, it has been an opportunity to prove that their aircraft can operate literally anywhere in the world at a rate their designers never considered. From Russia with love – it truly is a warm relationship.


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