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Leonardo Helicopters

Agusta A109

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MSV enjoys speed and space benefits of Grand upgrade for circuit travel
MotorSport Vision (MSV), which owns and operates five motor racing circuits in the UK, reports that it is delighted with its Agusta A109 Grand helicopter, which replaced its AS355N twin Squirrel at the start of the year.

MotorSport Vision (MSV), which owns and operates five motor racing circuits in the UK, reports that it is delighted with its Agusta A109 Grand helicopter, which replaced its AS355N twin Squirrel at the start of the year.

The aircraft enables company ceo and former Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer, who is a pilot, to regularly visit each of the circuits which span the country: Brands Hatch in Kent, Snetterton in Norfolk, Cadwell Park in Lincolnshire, Oulton Park in Cheshire and central Bedford Autodrome. MSV also owns a King Air B200GT for international travel, although this is not flown by Palmer, who has a rotary background.

“I had the Twin Squirrel for 12 years from new and it's done a very good job, but I did fancy some extra speed and I had always hankered after a 109,” he says. “I'm absolutely delighted with the 109 Grand, it's a fantastic aircraft. The speed is outstanding and it will genuinely cruise at 160 knots compared to 125 or 130 on a good day with the Squirrel, which means that I can be at Oulton Park in an hour from my Horsham head office, saving 40 minutes on a round trip compared with the 355.

“It has a very solid feel with heavier and longer control movements than the more delicate Squirrel and feels like a TGV train pounding along through the skies. To start with I was concerned about losing the big open cabin of the Squirrel, because of reduced cockpit space and not being able to talk to passengers as easily – you're more isolated in the more business-like 109 cockpit. But actually it suits the aircraft better and I now prefer it that way. “When you are doing nearly three miles a minute, particularly around southern England with several London CTAs and CTRs to transit, timely radio transmissions are crucial and you don't want to be too involved in conversation with the passengers because you'll inevitably miss a transmission, to everyone's frustration. So actually it's quite nice to be separated and just get on with the business end of flying.”

Palmer explains that the fuel economy of the new aircraft is comparable with the previous one: “The 109 Grand, in terms of miles per litre, actually burns about the same as the Squirrel. With another 70kg of usable fuel that means about 365nm VFR range – about 35nm more than the 355N. Payload with full fuel is slightly less, though the power margin at max weight is much more, so MTOW helipad departures are more relaxing.

“The longer cabin of the 109 Grand makes for a much more spacious passenger environment and I occasionally have some very vip passengers so I can be comfortable they will be too. It's also nice never having to wonder how I'm going to fit baggage in – the bay is huge.

“I've done about 200 hours in the last six months so it's working fairly hard, but it has run like clockwork so far and I've had nothing let me down – yet!”

The Agusta allows Palmer to spread his time efficiently between his multiple business locations: “The ability to travel circuit to circuit quickly and effortlessly means I can visit more. Over a weekend I'll usually visit two or three circuits and even just an hour at one is enough to get a pretty good idea of how it's going. I'll gauge the crowd from the parked cars as I'm flying in, then I'll have a wander round and see what's happening on the ground. I'll meet some of the competitors, the organisers, see if our restaurant food is up to scratch and get a feeling for how the event is going. I can then, for example, leave a car race meeting at Oulton Park and in 35 minutes be across to Cadwell Park near Humberside to check on a British superbike event.”

It is not only the time saving that Palmer values: “Apart from being about four times faster than driving, the great thing about the helicopter is that journey times are so predictable – within a couple of minutes in the hour. And it's enjoyable; flying transforms one of the most tedious times of life – driving on the public road – into one of the most pleasurable!”

For European travel MSV's King Air is usually used. “We've got some overseas projects on and I usually use our B200GT for those, though it's surprising how far you can go into Europe and the 109 be faster overall – about 400 miles I reckon.

“General aviation is to my mind an essential part of running a business like ours. We are also very fortunate in the UK to have very practical regulations regarding landing. Outside a built-up area you can land a helicopter pretty much anywhere if you've got the land owner's permission, which isn't the case in Holland or Germany at all.”

The MSV chief executive began flying in his motor racing days, despite being frightened of flying as a child and avoiding planes – a trip to Paul Ricard in France to test an F1 Lotus cured that. “On my return I thought flying was great, popped down to my local airfield at Shoreham and helicopters really caught my eye. A lovely guy called Dennis Kenyon spotted me looking wistful, took me up for a flight and a year later in 1983 I became his new Skyline company's first pupil at High Wycombe.”

The Agusta 109S is the sixth helicopter Palmer has owned, after an Enstrom F28A, a couple of JetRangers, a single Squirrel and then the twin. He believes that there is a link between racing driving and operating aircraft and that this comes down to more than simply a love of machines: “It is a great challenge – as my mate Mark Webber is enjoying now, learning with Al Gwilt in an AS350B2. Helicopters are wonderful and fascinating machines and I've always loved controlling anything with an engine, whether it's cars, motorcycles, boats or aircraft.

“I enjoy the multi-dimensional challenge of flying helicopters, from the control co-ordination to the navigation and radio work too. I find that, by and large, air traffic controllers are a great bunch. They have a highly pressurised job much of the time, particularly around the London airports, but are very helpful if they have confidence in you.

“There are continual challenges - every time you take off, climb, cruise, descend and land, there is a pride in trying to make it as smooth as possible. There is also considerable grace and elegance about a well-flown helicopter. They are still to my mind the most amazing machines – the ability to go straight up and then go precisely from A to B and drop down again is still a wonderful thing.”

Palmer's major foray into rotary came when he purchased a Bell JetRanger in 1987 while he was racing with Tyrrell in Formula One. He has been flying ever since, obtaining his CPL and IR in 2001 to make best use of his new IFR AS355N and now has around 7,000 hours, usually flying at least five days a week in the 109 Grand.

He is keen to praise fellow operators and his maintenance team at Sloane in Northampton: “There are some terrific people in the helicopter world I deal with. Starspeed at Fairoaks are a great bunch and I've known the team there for a long time – Ian Field used to do all my 355 LPCs. Pete Barnes did some flying with me about a week before he tragically died – Al Gwilt was scheduled to do my 109 rating flight test that day. Pete was a good friend – he actually flew the air ambulance that took my son Jolyon to The London hospital six years ago, with major internal injuries. His death was a massive shock to those in the close IFR twin heli charter business.”

Palmer loves his new aircraft. “Agusta 109s in general are good looking helicopters and while I am biased of course, I think G-MSVI looks great after Edmonson at Thruxton did a fabulous job with my traditional blue livery. I maintain it on the most intensive programme and check every 30 days or 50 hours. I have another engineer, Jack Shram from EBG, to check every week or two at my hangar in West Sussex.

“I am always fastidious about maintenance, mainly for safety reasons, but partly too because I know from experience that if you can have an engineer look at an aircraft every couple of weeks, at least if anything is starting to wear they can flag it up and parts can be ordered ahead, to minimise time out of service – time out which just paralyses my lifestyle.”

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