Posted 28 days ago ago by jhadmin
Solving two problems at once is bound to generate feelings of accomplishment, and Air Evac Lifeteam found a way to accomplish this on a large scale with the able assistance of DART Aerospace.
Air Evac Lifeteam, which operates more than 140 air medical bases in 15 states, needed to find some weight savings after retrofit enhancements to its Bell 206 fleet. So Air Evac came up with the perfect idea to reduce the weight of its 206 Series rotorcraft. Cutting the skid landing gear height not only reduced the total weight by 20-30 pounds, but also reduced aircrew back strains and injuries by making it easier for crew members to load patients. Another bonus was the removal of the foot-high step bar so crew members no longer had to step over it while loading patients.
While Air Evac’s fleet is dominated by the 206 Series, it also includes 16 Bell 407s, six Airbus AS350B2s, and two Eurocopter EC130s, said Jason Althoff, Air Evac Lifeteam director of maintenance support services. Air Evac didn’t retrofit the others because the 407 is heavier and sits lower, the 130 has no height issues, and the 350 has a larger floor space, he said. The 130 and 350 both load on the floor, too.
Air Evac went to DART, one of the world’s largest rotorcraft accessories providers with more than 850 supplemental type certificates (STCs), to help turn the idea for the 206L mid-sized skids into reality. While Air Evac had previously purchased replacement parts from DART, the mid-height landing gear project was their first real joint partnership, said David Shepherd, DART’s VP of certifications who has been with the company for 23 years. “We’ve always been a fan of DART landing gear for 206Ls,” Althoff said. “And DART has always been open to the development of new things.”
The Air Evac 206L skid gear partnership began in October 2010, and it was by far DART’s largest landing gear contract at the time. “That was a big opportunity for us,” Shepherd recalled. “It was definitely a game changer.” With a shared R&D cost plan and minimum purchase commitment from Air Evac, the first task was to define the new skid gear height. VIP transports tend to be low, while most utility rotorcraft sit high so they can land in unimproved areas. Air Evac wanted something in between. Air Evac maintenance crews placed a 206L on jacks and lifted it up and down so various Air Evac experts could analyze different heights, then handed a recommendation to DART, Shepherd said. “Once we determined that mid-skids were the direction we wanted to go, DART enthusiastically took on the project and worked to create a solution customized for us,” said Shelly Schneider, Air Evac Lifeteam public relations manager.
DART’s team then created a prototype design, taking into account the need for 2-4 inches of deflection in the landing gear under load, and the need to retain height for undeveloped landing sites. Skid heights for the 206L range from 19 to 28 inches from the ground to the top of the cross tubes, and DART’s design went with the mid-range height of 23 inches, Shepherd said. Air Evac maintenance and aircrews evaluated the prototype with weight on the gear and confirmed it was what they were looking for. That part of the process took about 3-4 months.
Mother Nature produced the only blip in the process with a snowstorm on the February 2011 prototype demonstration day in West Plains, Missouri, Shepherd recalled. Air Evac sent its employees home but those involved in the demo decided to stay. Then when DART officials couldn’t fly home out of Springfield, Mo., Air Evac folks lent them an Air Evac car to drive to Memphis to catch another flight. “It was a miracle we got the demo done,” Shepherd said.
Then came the STC process with comparative deflection, drop and structural tests. DART submitted the required reports and the request to amend an existing STC to Transport Canada for its approval, which also covered the FAA through a bilateral agreement. The STC update process took 3-4 months after the prototype had been accepted by Air Evac, Shepherd said. So from start to finish, this project was successfully completed in just 7-8 months. DART then started delivering skids to Air Evac.
“DART is willing to customize orders for us,” Schneider said. “They even painted it in a matte blue, so we didn’t have to repaint it. That is a huge help for us.” Air Evac maintenance crews then spent about six years retrofitting Air Evac’s 206L Series fleet of 124 rotorcraft with air conditioning and DART’s mid-skids, saving down time with simultaneous upgrades. The work was completed about a year ago, Althoff said.
“DART played a significant role in every aspect of the project – from creation through production,” Schneider said.
“It was a great team effort,” Shepherd added. “Everybody was focused.”
The air conditioning makes patients more comfortable and also makes it easier to keep certain medications at a more constant temperature, while the mid-sized skids already have significantly reduced crewmembers’ back strains and worker’s comp claims, Air Evac officials said. In 2013, back strains/injuries accounted for 33 percent of all Air Evac injuries; by 2018, they added up to just 28 percent. “Air Evac Lifeteam has seen a reduction in back injuries and slips/trips/falls because the step is no longer in the way of loading/unloading patients, and because crews do not have to lift/lower the patient as high,” Schneider confirmed.
Perhaps the best news comes from the crewmembers themselves. “For me, the mid-height skids really reduce the challenges we have with loading people,” said Jon Fannin, Air Evac Lifeteam 118 base clinical lead in Morgan County, Kentucky. “With the full-height skids we had to lift the patient significantly above our waist and off of the stretcher in order to put them in the aircraft. With the change in height of our helicopter, loading became a much more efficient process, which helps us get our patients to the care they need quicker.”
Another partnership project on the way
After the Air Evac partnership started, DART took on an even larger skid replacement project for the U.S. military’s fleet of about 160 TH-67s at Fort Rucker, Alabama, adding better run-on landing wear plates. DART was able to include new skid tubes for a turnkey solution, Shepherd said.
DART also has developed numerous ways to help operators reduce helicopter weight. On the AW139, for example, DART can replace all the overhead panels to cut about 40 pounds. And DART’s emergency float bags use helium, which is lighter than the nitrogen used by some others. Also, DART often integrates the life raft into the float, which saves weight and space over a typical cabin-mounted life raft. Such solutions are likely to be even more important in the future as patient weights continue to expand; men weighed an average of 166 in the 1960s compared to 196 today. Althoff said increasing load capacity to deal with this issue is important, too. Air Evac and DART now are working together on a new project that’s yet to be revealed to the public. Judging by the results of their skid project, it’s sure to be a successful team effort.