EC725: Under Fire

Dust, heat, high altitudes and ground-to-air threats: The operating environment of the three EC725s flown by the French Air Force and based in Kabul is far from enviable. But the helicopters—and their flight crews— have proven that they’re up to the challenge.

© Frédéric Lert
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The three EC725s are on constant alert, and must be ready for takeoff in thirty minutes during the day and in less than an hour at night.

© Frédéric Lert
Since their arrival in Kabul in April, 2008, the EC725s have performed 24 medical evacuation missions.

The EC725 is unquestionably the most sophisticated helicopter currently operating in Kabul. It can perform a wide range of missions both day and night in all weather conditions, including personnel and equipment transport, medical evacuations, reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, and convoy escorts. Over the past six months(1), the EC725s have been used to save the lives of dozens of civilians and military personnel. The helicopter’s configuration can quickly be changed to transport seriously wounded patients (with a complete set of medical equipment such as an electrocardiogram, syringe pump, and a defibrillator) or five slightly-wounded patients lying down. For large-scale emergencies, the roomy cabin can also hold even greater numbers of wounded. It’s the battlefield that always has the final say in Afghanistan.
“Since our arrival in Kabul on April 28th, 2008, we’ve performed 24 medical evacuation missions,” stated Lt. Col. Olivier C., Battalion Leader in Kabul. “Many wounded can be evacuated over the course of a single mission: When French troops were ambushed and came under heavy fire on the night of August 18th in the Valley of Uzbin, we evacuated 23 wounded in a single mission in extremely difficult conditions.”
All three helicopters are on constant alert, and must be ready for takeoff in thirty minutes during the day and in less than an hour at night. In reality, the flight crews have always taken off in under fifteen minutes for daytime alerts, and within a half hour for night missions. To ensure safety, the missions are flown with at least two helicopters.
“Almost every single helicopter operating in Afghanistan is restricted to Level 3 light conditions for night flights,” explained Lt. Col. C. “Our EC725s and the HH-60s of the US Special Forces are the only aircraft that can fly in Level 4 and Level 5 conditions—which means flying with no residual light whatsoever. And in Afghanistan, nearly half of our flights are performed in these types of conditions.”
Another important factor the helicopters must deal with is high altitudes. Kabul is located in a high-mountain basin 5,880 feet above sea level, and the city is surrounded by mountain peaks of over 15,000 feet.
One of the pilots put it simply: “Flying at 5,880 feet would be considered a mountain flight in France, but out here, that’s about the lowest altitude we see.”
Despite these extremely difficult conditions, the availability levels of the EC725s have been exceptional—nearly 100%, even taking into account scheduled maintenance intervals. The reliability of the helicopters is the most important guarantee of safety for the flight crews, but it is not the only one: The helicopter pilots are systematically armed with self-defense weaponry for their missions. Side-mounted guns are manned from the time the engines are started until they are shut down at the end of the assignment, and decoy dispensers are armed prior to each takeoff. A team of commandos is always on board: Soldiers seated by the door survey the ground and signal an alert if they spot hostile fire.
And, as soon as the helicopters leave Kabul, they hug the ground and engage in breakneck nap-of-the-earth flights to avoid enemy threats. The flight crews are unanimous in their praise: “The EC725 is extraordinary! It combines the agility and power of an AS350 B3 Ecureuil with four times the carrying capacity!”

(1) Two EC725s were initially deployed from November 2006 to September 2007. They were then replaced by Cougars from the French Army Air Corps. The EC725s came back to Afghanistan in April 2008 to replace the Cougars. Since October 4th, 2008, a third EC725 Caracal has also been deployed in Kabul.

EC725: A First Rate Autopilot

The performances of the EC725 autopilot (AP) are on a par with the high standards set by the aircraft itself. Captain Franck Arnaudon, pilot in the EH 1/67 Pyrenees helicopter squadron, describes its main features.

The AP controls the helicopter not only via the latest-generation hydraulic system of the Super Puma family, but also via electric actuators. Located downstream of the hydraulic unit, these electric actuators ensure pitch and roll control, even if the hydraulic unit fails completely. Another importantfeature is the hover control, which is ensured by a solid-state gyrolaser that is correlated with GPS data. The EC725 can thus provide remarkable stability even in very strong cross winds.

The EC725 autopilot also offers the standard AP advanced modes, such as airspeed, heading, altitude, vertical speed and height control, as well as altitude capture. But what really sets this AP apart is the high level of safety that it ensures in these modes, and the even more advanced features that it offers, such as automatic hover capture and control.

The AP is so accurate in fact that the pilot has no need to adjust or correct the controls, and breakouts can be performed in extreme weather conditions with final hover capture precisely at the required spot. “The AP also gives us the capability to land in very tight and dusty spots,” Captain Arnaudon explains. “While the AP keeps the helicopter stable in the cloud of dust, the flight engineer uses the control stick in the hold to accurately position the aircraft directly over the landing spot.

The hold gives the flight engineer the best view of the ground beneath the aircraft. This really improves our operational capabilities.”

The flight crews in the Pyrenees squadron are unanimous in their praise for the AP, which they say is extremely user-friendly and perfectly suited to their operational requirements. The human-machine interface (HMI) is also singled out for praise.

Captain Arnaudon is equally forthcoming: “The EC725’s AP is first-rate. It not only provides an extremely reassuring level of safety, but also makes a major contribution to the success of our missions.”



© Frédéric Lert
Maintenance performed on EC725s in Kabul is largely preventive, and based on the same maintenance intervals for civil helicopters.

A 16-MAN TECHNICAL TEAM accompanied the EC725 detachment to Afghanistan, along with two logistical experts. Only three additional technicians came to Kabul with the third helicopter that arrived on October 4th. “We’ve had no problems at all with the EC725,” said Major B. quite matter-offactly. “The majority of the work is preventive maintenance, based on the same maintenance intervals for civil helicopters. This makes it easy to spread out the work and avoid aircraft downtime.” There is, however, one job that can never be overlooked: The helicopters must be thoroughly cleaned once a week with water and compressed air to get rid of the inevitable dust that works its way into everything.