Flight Operations Director Ian Payne describes why helicopter maintenance and repair is often complex, and costly!

As you can imagine, emergency vehicles need to remain in top condition to operate a safe and reliable service to patients, and none more so than Devon Air Ambulance’s helicopters.

In addition to routine maintenance, the pilots carry out daily ‘in flight’ performance checks to make sure that the engines are operating safely and in accordance with the manufacturer's specifications. The engines are given an internal wash every day to counter the effects of flying in a salty, dusty or smoky atmosphere and, when that happens, engines are inspected to ensure no obvious damage has been caused, for example by ingesting Foreign Object Debris (FOD).

Over a period of time in 2018, it was noticed the performance on the engines of our Exeter-based helicopter, G-DAAN, had begun to deteriorate.

The helicopter was flown to the engineering base at Airbus Helicopters where an internal ‘borescope’ inspection revealed some ‘delamination’ and erosion of the internal turbine blades. This was almost certainly caused by ingestion of sand or dust. In time-critical situations, it is vital that our helicopters land as close to the patient as possible, so this might mean sandy beaches, or on dry and dusty farmland. 

The engines were removed at the Pratt and Whitney facility and ‘loaner’ engines installed – at a cost of £1,000 a day - while the damage engines went away for inspection and repair.

To meet the cost of paying for this type of damage, we could sign up to a warranty scheme called ‘Power by the Hour’ (PBH). Thankfully, however, major engine problems like this are extremely rare and it is therefore more cost effective to pay for the repair ourselves. Although this recent engine repair cost in the region of £400,000, if we paid into a warranty scheme it would cost about £204,000 every two years – per helicopter!  Helicopters are expensive to run so we always want to make sure our supporters' money goes as far as possible for the charity. 

The positive news is that the new helicopter, which we will take delivery of in 2020, will have engines that come pre-fitted with the 'Inlet Barrier Filters' to mitigate against the environmental impact problem. We could retrofit the existing aircraft but, not only is this prohibitive in terms of cost, possibly around £2,000,000, but would remove the aircraft from operational service over the many months it would take to complete the work.

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