DELIVERY OF LIFEFLIGHT OF MAINE'S NEW A109SP HELICOPTER, N901WM
Saturday, April 1, 2017, I arrived at the Leonardo Helicopter Factory in Philadelphia, PA, where the Agusta technicians and the SevenBar Aviation maintenance team were putting the finishing touches on LifeFlight's new helicopter. This Agusta 109 GrandNew arrived from Italy late last year for completion here in the USA. All the major parts are assembled in Leonardo's factory, just outside of Milan, Italy. It was then shipped to the US for its medical interior, avionic installation, and its beautiful paint job.
After Kenny Mize, SevenBar Rotor Wing Maintenance Manager and Wade Neiswender, SevenBar Director of Quality Assurance, finished inspecting the paperwork and mechanical components, a factory pilot and I took it out for the acceptance flight. The purpose of the acceptance flight is to put the aircraft through all of its normal flight parameters to ensure everything is perfect and ready for delivery. After this was completed I returned home and waited for the green light to pick up this amazing new aircraft and bring it to Dallas, TX for FAA conformity.
April 5th 2017: GO DAY!
Early Wednesday morning I took a look at the weather and saw that I would have a short window to leave Philly that evening before several storm systems approached. I spoke with Tom Judge, LifeFlight's Executive Director, who was deplaning in Philly at that moment, on his way to Leonardo to finish the paperwork. I got the green light to head that way, booked a ticket, packed my bag, and headed to DFW airport.
I arrived in Philadelphia at 14:20 EST and took a cab 45 mins north to the North East Philadelphia airport (KPNE) where the helicopter was sitting out on the ramp, topped off with full fuel and packed with all of her supplies and accessories. With IFR weather on its way and my route taking me through Washington DC's sensitive airspace, I filed an IFR flight plan for safety and peace of mind. After a quick preflight, I waved goodbye to the great people at Leonardo and headed toward Charlottesville, VA.
Click on the Orange Dots to view photos from along the route
Whiskey Mike has new technology that exceeds the capabilities of previous models of the A109. It has a fully glass cockpit which means that the entire instrument panel is comprised of computer screens instead of the round 'steam gauges' used in aircraft for the past 100 years. These screens allow for the pilot to view a multitude of information with just one glance. Aside from the traditional information like airspeed, altitude, and heading, these screens also display features such as: other aircraft in the area, weather, terrain, obstacles such as radio towers, fuel remaining, outside air temperature, wind direction, and a comprehensive moving map. And that’s just to name a few items.
LifeFlight’s new helicopter also is equipped with a 4-axis digital autopilot. This means that it can hold an airspeed, altitude, and heading simultaneously, whereas before the pilot had to choose between holding only an altitude or an airspeed. This greatly improves the safety for a single pilot to fly in the clouds with only reference to the cockpit instruments (IFR). The autopilot is also capable of fully coupling to the most advanced GPS-driven instrument approaches. This allows the helicopter to safely descend out of the clouds to an airport, or even to a hospital helipad. LifeFlight of Maine has built more than 30 such approaches, which allows all of their helicopters to access remote hospitals and islands in weather that would prevent a typical helicopter from landing or taking off.
I arrived in Charlottesville, VA just before sunset, and about an hour before the approaching storm. On landing, I taxied to the Pegasus ramp where the University of Virginia aeromedical team keeps their A109E. This is another helicopter EMS program operated by SevenBar Aviation, and the pilot, Bob Pugh and mechanic, Jim Heller came out to greet me and admire the beautiful new helicopter. After filling up with fuel in anticipation of tomorrow's journey, they pushed N901WM into the hangar where she could safely weather the upcoming storm.