Going behind the scenes at Heliand

Spanning just 181 square miles (486 square kilometers) of the eastern Pyrenees mountains that separate Spain and France, the landlocked Principality of Andorra is one of the smallest countries in Europe, both in terms of land size and population. However, Andorra’s defining feature is not its size, but its elevation. At 3,360 feet (1,020 meters) above sea level, its capital city — Andorra-la-Vella — is the highest in the continent. The average elevation in the country is 6,549 feet (1,997 meters), with large slopes running down three major valleys that descend from 14 mountain summits exceeding 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). Because of this, it’s easy to see how helicopters have come to play an important role in the country, for local authorities, businesses and tourists. And for more than 30 years, those helicopters have been provided by Heliand.

Heliand's 429 flies alongside the operator's EC135 P2+. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Heliand’s 429 flies alongside the operator’s EC135 P2+. Anthony Pecchi Photo
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With a staff of 10, Heliand operates three helicopters in its fleet: an Airbus AS350 B3, an Airbus EC135 P2+, and a new Bell 429.

The aircraft are always crewed by two people: a pilot and a task specialist. The 429 is used for Heliand’s government service operations, which span search-and-rescue (SAR), helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), and firefighting, as well more specific public service operations — such as shelter support, snow condition control and layer measuring, and assistance to mountain trackers.

The company’s commercial activities include aerial lifts, construction, and heli-ski/heli-bike flights in the winter and summer, respectively. The AS350 B3 is generally used for these operations. Heli-ski and heli-bike flights are a potential area of growth for the company, according to pilot Jordi Duera, who has been with the company since its early days. “These activities really are developing,” he told Vertical. “Another Ecureuil [AS350/H125] will replace the 135, but it will be mainly used for VIP transport, sightseeing flights and airport shuttles to and back from Toulouse and Barcelona.”

Before the formation of Heliand, helicopter operations in the small principality were much more complicated, said Duera.

“When there was a need for a chopper, we were used to calling abroad, to Héli-Union for instance,” he said.

This changed in December 1987, when two Andorran partners decided to establish a home-grown helicopter company — Heliand. To start the business, they purchased an Airbus AS350 B2 and an Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama — aircraft well suited to Andorra’s mountainous environment.

“Both machines were flying all over the country —  the Ecureuil [AS350 B2] specializing in rescue, when the fire brigade called for support, for example,” Duera said. “After a few years, the government realized they actually needed their own helicopter because mountain rescue was becoming more demanding. That’s when they signed the first contract between Heliand and the government of Andorra to have a helicopter exclusively dedicated to state missions.”

A Bell 429 operated by Heliand flies over the Pyrenees mountains in the operator's homeland of Andorra, which lies between France and Spain. Anthony Pecchi Photo
A Bell 429 operated by Heliand flies over the Pyrenees mountains in the operator’s homeland of Andorra, which lies between France and Spain. Anthony Pecchi Photo

That contract was signed in the late 1990s, and due to aviation regulations introduced at the time, Andorra needed a twin-engine machine to be able to land on rooftop hospital helipads in Barcelona and Toulouse — the two nearest major cities.

The Lama was eventually replaced by a factory-new EC135 P2+, with the AS350 B2 kept for mountain jobs. (The B2 was itself replaced by an AS350 B3).

“They were very happy with the Lama, but it was a single-engine helicopter [that became] increasingly expensive to operate and quite noisy,” said Duera. “So the 135 was exclusively devoted to medical flights, but also to mountain SAR with the fire brigade’s intervention team.”

The arrival of the Bell 429 in Andorra opened new possibilities to Heliand, with the machine being well suited to mountain operations with a good safety margin. The operator's initial tests of the aircraft in Switzerland showed its promise. Anthony Pecchi Photo
The arrival of the Bell 429 in Andorra opened new possibilities to Heliand, with the machine being well suited to mountain operations with a good safety margin. The operator’s initial tests of the aircraft in Switzerland showed its promise. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Due to the evolution of flying rules applied to public service missions — particularly when the operator had to fly abroad — and the demanding nature of work unique to Andorra, Heliand recently decided it needed to further expand the fleet with a new type.

“[The EC135 P2+] was often limited when operating in high and hot conditions,” said Duera. “With more and more restrictive rules, we had to cut on fuel each time we had to go abroad and it became a serious limitation when flying to Barcelona in summer. We had to fill our tanks there, with all the local technical and administrative hassles it means.”

An expanding fleet

Three helicopters were shortlisted by Heliand for its new fleetmember: the H135, the H145, and the Bell 429.

Introducing a new machine requires new certifications for all personnel, including the rescue teams from the Andorran government. The size difference between the older EC135 P2+ and the new Bell 429 has made a big difference for rescue operations at altitude. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Introducing a new machine requires new certifications for all personnel, including the rescue teams from the Andorran government. The size difference between the older EC135 P2+ and the new Bell 429 has made a big difference for rescue operations at altitude. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“We are two full-time pilots here, and we decided that one of us would evaluate the Airbus machines and the other the Bell.,” said Duera. “Our job was to collect all the data and come back with a proposal.”

Duera travelled to Switzerland to try Air Zermatt’s Bell 429 in conditions that were as close as possible to Heliand’s requirements. “I was very positively surprised,” he said.

After a “very strict” selection process, Duera said the 429’s payload and gross performances helped tip the balance. The aircraft is certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms).

The controls commonalty between the Bell 429 and the Ecureuil B3 was a pleasant surprise for the Andorran pilots, who quickly mastered their new aircraft. Anthony Pecchi Photo
The controls commonalty between the Bell 429 and the Ecureuil B3 was a pleasant surprise for the Andorran pilots, who quickly mastered their new aircraft. Anthony Pecchi Photo

“This twin-engine helicopter replaces our EC 135P2+ for all missions encompassed in our contract with the Andorran government,” he said. “It is much more powerful, perfectly suited for mountain flying under strong winds, [and] it has a larger cabin and latest-generation avionics featuring autopilot.”

Duera praised the aircraft’s performance, even when fully loaded. “Once you have loaded the [medical] equipment, the patient, the medical team, the fuel… we almost reach the certified MTOW. On paper, the margin is narrow and we must count every kilogram. But then, the helicopter lifts like a feather and we feel very safe, even when flying on one engine.

“When we take-off from the Andorra hospital helipad, it flies like a jetplane, whether it’s hot or windy,” he added.

Taking charge of patients for emergency medical services flights is easier in the wider Bell 429. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Taking charge of patients for emergency medical services flights is easier in the wider Bell 429. Anthony Pecchi Photo

The pilots also really like the way the user-friendly interface was designed.

“The Swiss team at Zermatt helped us a lot,” said Duera. “They trained us and pointed at the features incorporated by Bell when they designed their helicopter. Bell listened carefully to what the mountain pilots wanted.”

Among these features are the “very efficient and reactive” tail rotor — the first four-bladed tail rotor on a Bell helicopter — and a “very intuitive” pilot interface.

Heliand's staff of 10 people is augmented by mountain rescue specialists from the Andorran government. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Heliand’s staff of 10 people is augmented by mountain rescue specialists from the Andorran government. Anthony Pecchi Photo
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“The avionics suite integrates a flight limitation Indicator, an all-in-one needle displaying the first data reaching the red zone between torque, engine temperature and measured gas temperature,” explained Duera. “It allows the pilot to read only one indicator for three hard limitations. On my first flight, the instructor told me, ‘Since you already know the B3, I [will] start your helo to save time and you’ll see, the 429 will come to you easily.’ I had never flown this model in my life, but he was right — I found everything naturally. It was very easy to take control.”

However, selecting the 429 did present some complications with regard to aerial regulations. “Andorra is not part of ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization], but we must comply with all [its] regulations,” said Duera. “So we had to partner with a company already fully certified in our range of operations. When changing the type, it is very complicated to update all the procedures: you need to get new manuals, adapt to a new machine, requalify the pilots and the maintenance crew. . . . As we had to get all the proper certifications, we selected the registration directly in regard to the operator we needed to partner with.”

The creature comfort and the endurance of the new 429 enhance Heliand's operations in the high altitude of the diminutive country. Anthony Pecchi Photo
The creature comfort and the endurance of the new 429 enhance Heliand’s operations in the high altitude of the diminutive country. Anthony Pecchi Photo

Heliand turned to a Swiss firm, Zurich-based Lions Air, which was fully certified for HEMS, hoist work, and night vision goggle operations. “Above all, they had a Bell [429] in their fleet,” said Duera. “It all went very smoothly, they are real pros and we got along very well. We purchased the helicopter and we registered it under their AOC certificate. Now we have this Swiss machine flying in Andorra.”

The diversity and complexity of Andorra’s mountainous environment is very demanding on helicopters, but Heliand believes it is well on the way to finding the perfect fleet balance for the requirements of its main contract (with the government) — as well as having a fleet that puts it in full compliance with the regulations of both neighboring countries. Despite working in one of the smallest countries in the continent, the quality of Heliand’s operation is more than making its mark in the European helicopter industry.

The Bell 429 is a mountain flying specialist, and many options are available to enhance its operations in the mountains, including a bubble-window, hoist, bear-paws and, now, a hand-held avalanche radar. Anthony Pecchi Photo
The Bell 429 is a mountain flying specialist, and many options are available to enhance its operations in the mountains, including a bubble-window, hoist, bear-paws and, now, a hand-held avalanche radar. Anthony Pecchi Photo

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