The Agusta A109 is highly popular, as you might expect, in its home country of Italy, but has achieved its greatest acceptance in the UK, where dozens have found a home in corporate service, as well as for ambulance and air charter operations. No fewer than 23 countries from Ukraine to Portugal, Norway to Turkey, have resident A109s. Most of these are operated singly or as a pair, but the largest individual fleets include those of Helicopteros del Sureste in Spain, Proteus Helicopters in France, Elilario Italia in Italy, Swiss Air Ambulance and the UK's Castle Air Charters.
Philip Louis Amadeus, who recently filmed the 608 nautical mile 2009 Rolex Fastnet Race from the air, is well-qualified to compare the merits of the Grand and Power helicopters. His Redhill, UK-based RotorMotion has operated a fleet of A109s for 13 years. "We now have two older 'classic' 109s and one Power to which we've added a brand new Grand collected from the factory and we have hopes of bringing another nearly new Grand into operation."
The fleet's strength in depth helps in ensuring aircraft availability for events including the Cowes to Plymouth race via the Fastnet Rock off southwest Ireland which attracted 300 entries from around the world. Amadeus says: "The Fastnet coverage was for TWI, producing film and stills to cover the race. We have done it every two years for 12 years now. A strange aspect of this is that despite JAR and now EASA, we have to apply to the Irish CAA for a temporary AOC, as, although we can fly charter in Eire, the agreement doesn't cover aerial work."
He adds: "We can almost guarantee aircraft availability even in the busy summer months and we are just an eight minute flight time from London's Battersea heliport where we have established the top end of vip IFR helicopter charter as our niche."
Amadeus says that, for the pilot, the advantages of the Grand over the Power is that it is 10 knots faster and MTOW and avionics are superior. "There is also a bigger door window for taller pilots," he adds. "For passengers there is more legroom, the trip is smoother and quieter and there is a better view out of two big windows."
The drawbacks, Amadeus points out, are that the Grand has less spare power in hand at MTOW, a smaller boot as it has to incorporate the battery, and problems with sliding door track wheels. "There is also an annoying speed warning over 160 knots before VNE 168."
Amadeus says: "With reference to our Power, the Nav fit of the Trimble 2101 is terrible. Compared to the Garmin 430 530 option that we have in the Grand it is stone age. The way you have to enter information with lots of pushing and twisting of knobs is very clunky. Also it can only store 200 User Waypoints, so we constantly have to delete useful old ones. It has limited knowledge of smaller airfields, so we have to save Redhill, Elstree aerodrome etc into the User Waypoint list. When you do a simple GoTo, neither the destination nor a track line appears on the KMD 550, so in remote areas all you see on the moving map might be a lot of green. Lastly and more scarily, our Power had the wrong co-ax cable fitted to the GPS antennae, so it struggled to get reception.
"Instead of the GPS going off, it went into a subtle DR Dead Reckoning mode. The position on the KMD 550 looked sort of OK, but after the odd turn or change of speed, the displayed position was some miles off the helicopter's actual position. This could be distracting at best."
In July Amadeus and Capt Peter Barnes ferried a brand new A109S Grand from Agusta's Milan factory to RotorMotion's base near London. "This superb machine complements the current AOC fleet of a 2006 three tonne Power and a A109 Mk II Plus," he says. "We also have on call three further Agusta 109s. The Grand is a real step up from the Power. It is 10 knots faster with a cruise speed of 160. Max endurance is 2.5 hours and amazingly with six passengers it can still fly Performance A for one hour 40 minutes. This is convenient as Paris is only just over an hour from London. The stretched cabin gives excellent legroom for up to five adults."
There are concerns among some operators about Agusta's maintenance and spare parts service. One European operator, which asked to remain anonymous, says that it is very unhappy with the maintenance support for the A109, stating that AOG parts delivery from the manufacturer may take more than two months. However, the operator was very satisfied with the dispatch reliability and satisfied with the operating capability and value. "The best aspect is the performance and cruising speed and the worst thing the uncorrectable vibrations. It needs a better anti-vibration system," the operator added.
Another operator disagrees. It says the standard of maintenance service for its A109E Power EMS can vary. But it was generally satisfied with the maintenance support, dispatch reliability, operating capability and performance. "The best aspects are the speed and low vibrations. One of the most difficult aspects is changing the documentation each time to match the different individual client requirements." The most desirably upgrade, it says, would bring in composite tail rotor blades. The operator explains: "Sometimes support is excellent but sometimes it is very heavy although the problems are not with standard components maintenance or repair. The number of maintenance facilities are small."
Ersan Buyukakcam says Uray Air AS is very satisfied with the maintenance support, dispatch reliability, operating capability and value of the company's Agusta 109A. Francesco Za reports he is very satisfied with the maintenance support and operating capability of the A109E Elite and satisfied with the dispatch reliability and value. "The best aspects are the comfort and performance and the most desirable upgrade would bring ice protection," he adds.
AgustaWestland says it has been investing heavily in its customer support activities in recent years and continues to do so, increasing spares stocks, reducing lead times and overhaul times, increasing the number of authorised service centres and the range of training services. "As an example we have recently doubled the size of our new logistics centre at Lonate Pozzolo in Italy," the company says. "We are making significant improvements across the board although we appreciate there is room for further improvement."