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Mercy Air converts Squirrel for humanitarian work
South African humanitarian mission operator Mercy Air has chosen Vector Aerospace to perform a BA to B2 conversion on one of its AS350 rotorcraft.

South African humanitarian mission operator Mercy Air has chosen Vector Aerospace to perform a BA to B2 conversion on one of its AS350 rotorcraft. “Upgrading our AS350 BA to a B2 provides us with a much needed safety and performance margin,” explains helicopter programme manager Matthias Reuter. “In Africa we face a harsh operating environment of high density altitudes and long distances between bases. We partner with a host of organisations that bring social, medical and spiritual help to people in remote areas of South Africa.”

Benefits of the conversion programme include improved power margins through the installation of a Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 engine, increased max take-off weight, payload and sling load, enhanced climb rates, reduced pilot workload and a higher resale value.

Mercy Air is 25 years old and, based in northeastern South Africa near Nelspruit, operates throughout southern Africa. In addition to the two Squirrels it has two fixed wing aircraft, a Cessna 310 and a Quest Kodiak, and employs 30 staff.

Reuter says that it made much more sense to upgrade his existing helicopter than to invest in a new one: “We know the history of this aircraft. It is equipped and configured exactly the way we need it. The module three, which is the most expensive module on the 1B engine, was time expired. Investing in an engine that is no longer in production didn't seem to make sense to us. So we tried to move forward logically. We already have a B2, so now we have fleet conformity, which will be a big advantage. We also started out with a brand new engine, which is great.

“Turbomeca have been really great; they made us a very good trade-in offer, and working with them throughout this whole deal was excellent. They delivered on time and kept their promises.”

He says that for his purposes the Squirrel is the right machine, with its flat floor, versatility, open cabin and straightforward maintenance. All Mercy Air flying is humanitarian non-profit, and the operator works with NGOs during disaster relief. “That is seasonal, but we have ongoing regular programmes that we work with, including small local organisations and NGOs,” Reuter continues. “We support small local health departments who have a lack of transport and accessibility. We work with agricultural projects, education, and also some small mission and church work organisations that do a lot of good grass roots-level work with people in isolated areas. We don't do those ministries ourselves in terms of providing water or sanitation, but rather we partner with organisations who do that and help them with their transport.”

He adds that the speed of the helicopter is crucial in providing regional coverage. “One of the things we discover over and over when we go to these isolated villages areas (and some areas are so remote that they have never seen a white person or a car, never mind a helicopter) is that one hour trekking on the ground is equal to one minute in flight. If you have a health worker who has to go out to do inoculations for babies for example, the vaccines have to be kept cool so they do not spoil.

“They wouldn't hike 12 hours out to a village, spend the night there and work the next day. For us a 12-minute flight is nothing, so we can cover many locations this way. It is all about providing support and basic services to the poorest people in remote areas of southern Africa that otherwise would not have access, improving their conditions so that they can stay at home and do not have to become refugees.”

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