Warm winter keeps cold-weather tests from getting off the ground

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
Thawing temperatures are dousing plans by Europeans who traveled to Interior Alaska to cold weather test aircraft in Fairbanks this winter.

Flight test teams from Italy’s Agusta Helicopters and Germany’s Eurocopter Deutschland GmbH may be forced to cold weather test on the North Slope if Fairbanks’ unseasonably warm temperatures persist.

"This is definitely not what we expected," said Dave Carlstrom, marketing director for Fairbanks International Airport. "The Italians were told by their boss, ’Don’t come back until you finish the cold weather testing.’ "

In November 1999 Agusta Helicopters chartered an Airbus "Beluga" to transport the military type high-speed helicopter to Fairbanks for cold soak testing.

The Italians missed the coldest weather in December when they returned to Italy for the Christmas holiday. They came back to Fairbanks this year to complete the tests.

Normally, January has the coldest average temperatures in the Interior city, with an average of 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit below zero for the month, although spikes as low as 20 below zero have been known to happen, according to National Weather Service officials in Fairbanks.

The Italians, according to Carlstrom, need a 35 below zero temperature to flight test the EH-101 helicopter.

"Normally for January the average high is 2.6 degrees below zero, the coldest temperature spikes are normally in late December and early February," said Scott Berg, a hydrometeorological technician for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.

"We are only 80 degrees off the mark today," quipped Carlstrom. "And 40 degrees warmer than normal."

On Jan. 15 Fairbanks saw temperatures as high as 40, but Berg said that’s not unprecedented. "This happened seven years ago when we had warm temperatures like this."

"Plans were being discussed ... to try Coldfoot or even Deadhorse, but now everyone is sitting and waiting for the mercury to drop," added Carlstrom. He said officials with Agusta do not want to test at Deadhorse due to high winds.

"This is not a good year to do this job," said Giovanni Puricelli, project engineer for the EH101 Agusta helicopter. "No matter where we look the temperatures are not good this year."

Puricelli said the Agusta team of 11 people from Italy needs 49 degrees Fahrenheit below zero temperatures to get the helicopter certified for cold weather flights.

Puricelli and his team are in Fairbanks to honor a contract with the Canadian government for an order for 15 of the helicopters headed to the military in Canada.

"This is a good place for logistical support. Alaska Aerofuel offers precise service and has everything we need," Puricelli added. "My two daughters and my wife came here for Christmas. Now they have asked me to move here."

Asked if the Agusta group will return, Puricelli says the decision to come back, or to go to the North Pole or the South Pole will be up to someone else in Agusta management.

Meantime, the 15-member German team is testing with two helicopters that are painted with German Police markings.

"This is a hoot. The Poletzi is flying around Fairbanks," Carlstrom said. The Eurocopter team actually rented the helicopter from the German government for the tests, thus the official paint scheme.

"This appears to be a global condition, not a local condition, and perhaps an environmental problem," said Elmar Kreutzer, flight test manager for Eurocopter of Germany.

"Although we don’t have cold weather, we are not wasting time. We are doing other standard tests here that would be done in Germany," Kreutzer said.

Eurocopter is testing two models, the BK-117 and the EC-135, and needs at least five days of 30 below zero weather for a basic test program, and for a more extensive program needs seven to eight days of 40 below zero weather.

Eurocopter spent nearly $500,000 to get the two aircraft to Fairbanks for testing. The aircraft came to Alaska in a Lufthansa Boeing 747-200 freighter along with the extra gear.

Both the German team and Italian group have data telemetry in their hangars to receive digital information transmitted from the helicopters to the test computers.

Despite the lack of cold weather, this has been a break-even year so far, said Bob Hawkins of Alaska Aerofuel. "We still have the hotel rooms, meals, transportation, and the extras like snowmachines and dog tours," he said.

Alaska Aerofuel has also seen an increase in its fuel oil business locally in Fairbanks, which is helping to add revenue to the mix, according to Hawkins.

Though the upturn in temperatures has the aerospace testing groups disturbed, Fairbanks residents seem to be enjoying the warming trend. In fact, local businesses are creating sales and promotions that are boosting the retail economy in Fairbanks.

"I think that this is just a bad year. The jet stream has changed and temperatures are warming all over," said Kreutzer. "Besides the temperatures we have great support from the locals. Everyone is friendly and helpful. Here you can get what you need to do the job."

Fairbanks International Airport has marketed itself as a good spot for cold weather testing and has had success with numerous companies including Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Lear, Allied Signal, MD Helicopters, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other aerospace giants.

Support for the testing, lodging and meals adds to the economy at a time when other tourism and service industries are virtually at a standstill.

"We’re not sure exactly how much it adds to the economy, but it’s better than a poke in the eye at this time of the year," Carlstrom said.

Perhaps one of the more positive things to come out of the testing has been an influx of business for Alaska Aerofuel, which offers logistics and airport services.

"This is a fantastic program for Fairbanks, and we feel it’s good for the aerospace industry, too," said Tom Murray, president and owner of Alaska Aerofuel.

Murray said that the warm weather is a touchy subject to the two teams and to Fairbanks locals involved in the testing promotion. "When you have two teams of 15 people each, planning a stay for three months, that can run into some serious money."

Alaska Aerofuel recently added features to the logistics aspects of the cold testing projects by building special freezers for cold soaking batteries used on the aircraft. They also purchased a hangar formerly owned by United Parcel Service at Fairbanks International Airport for use by the test groups.

"Well, all our ducks are in order. All we are waiting for is something cold to happen," Carlstrom added.

02/03/2001 - 8:00pm