High flying sevillanas

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The Spanish Air Force’s ASPA aerobatic team is the only one in Europe with five identical helicopters. Rotor Journal finds out how these magicians of the air draw the very best from the EC120 B Colibri.


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Loads of 480 kg were transported by the Ecureuil AS350 B3, involving impressive drops of almost 3,000m.

In the autumn of 2003, the pilots of 78 Wing of the Armilla Air Base in Granada, Andalusia, presented an innovative project to their senior officers: they wanted to form the first helicopter aerobatic team in Spain to show off their skills and the capabilities of their aircraft (78 Wing has 15 EC120 B Colibris). The Air Force gave them its blessing and, a few months later, on 16 May 2004, the team gave its first aerobatic performance in Seville. The ASPA display pilots and helicopters have been thrilling people all over Europe with their daring manoeuvres to flamenco rhythms ever since. “We had to wait until we had a helicopter like the Colibri, which allowed us to do so many things, and which we were already using in our training programmes,” recalls Squadron Leader Jaime, the head of the ASPA team. “The pilots and maintenance technicians had the necessary experience and we felt ready to put on spectacular shows with these helicopters. We worked out the manoeuvres by looking at what other aerobatic teams were doing – most of these consisted of planes – and by doing research on the Internet. Then, we had to work very hard to get things absolutely right.”
At the time, there were already a few helicopter display teams in Europe, but none had five identical helicopters like ASPA. “Through these shows, our team not only demonstrates the full potential of this helicopter in terms of reliability and functionalities, but also the know-how, experience and the level of training of our pilots. We are talking about flights performed at the limits, a world away from a routine flight. We fly very close to the boundaries of the flight envelope and carry out manoeuvres that have been planned in detail, rehearsed and fine-tuned before we go ahead with the show. I could almost say that we run less risk than pilots performing a routine mission, because we reduce the chance variables to an absolute minimum. Everything is under perfect control,” Squadron Leader Jaime insists.

The EC120: the perfect aircraft
During each event, 10 pilots from Armilla are required for the manoeuvres: five pilots take the controls and five take the co-pilot seat. Normally, an eleventh pilot remains on the ground to comment on the display and provide overall control. Every one of these pilots is also an instructor at the Escuela de Helicópteros del Ejército del Aire del Ala 78 (the 78 Wing Air Force Helicopter School), and therefore has to combine the shows with their teaching obligations. The team has worked tirelessly to perfect its range of manoeuvres, which consists of formation stall turns and evasive action away from the public; manoeuvres in hover, simulated plunges and many other breathtaking moves.
“Fixed-wing aerobatic teams are now as common as their helicopter counterparts are rare. Many things have to fall into place to create a team like ASPA, and this is not easy because air units are required with a sufficient number of qualified pilots. Then, these pilots must be able to get together regularly to rehearse and take part in shows. What is more, an aircraft like the Colibri is needed because it responds perfectly to the controls and is capable of flying at speeds of over 100 knots. This is very unusual for helicopters, as they are generally operated at low speed. The crucial factors are power, design, aerodynamics and the configuration of the flight controls. This is a light helicopter with excellent manoeuvrability and very reasonable hourly operating costs. And, I haven’t even mentioned maintenance, which is especially simple and economical.” ASPA strives to create ever more astonishing manoeuvres and its most recent challenge was to perform aerobatics over the sea, where there are no visual altitude and direction references. They did this to perfection during the Red Bull Air Race off the beaches of Barcelona. “One thing we really want to do now is equip our aircraft with a smoke system, just like many fixed-wing display teams. This would improve the public’s appreciation of our work and allow them to see us from further away. It would also add something extra to our shows.” Squadron Leader Jaime remains upbeat: “The Spanish Air Force is looking into our request and we hope they will give us the go-ahead.”




_AUTHOR: BELÉN MORANT




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During each event, 10 pilots from Armilla are required for the manoeuvres: five pilots take the controls and five take the co-pilot seat. Normally, an eleventh pilot remains on the ground to comment on the display and provide overall control.


© Eurocopter / E.Raz
Cliquer pour agrandir