By Korie Marshall

There will be one more locally based helicopter serving heliski operations in Blue River this winter – a brand new AS350 B3e.

Eurocopter Canada announced at the Helicopter Association of Canada meeting in Vancouver last week that Yellowhead Helicopters has ordered the craft. Scheduled to be delivered in December 2013, it will be based in Valemount, and add to Yellowhead Helicopter’s existing fleet serving Mike Wiegele’s heli-skiing operations in Blue River.

The AS350 Ecureuil (also referred to as AStar) is a single-engine light helicopter. Eurocopter says the new B3e is a high-performance member of the Ecureuil family that excels in harsh conditions and high altitudes, offering good performance, versatility, safety and low purchase and maintenance costs.

Jacob Forman, General and Operations Manager for Yellowhead Helicopters says this latest generation of AStar has a bigger engine and more technology onboard than their current fleet of AStars. Forman says the B3e is “designed to do more in the mountains.” He explains one of its features is computer regulated fuel control which means more power and less fuel consumption – like comparing a carburetor engine to a fuel injected one. He says it also records engine status, and using what is called a “glass cockpit,” the computers will highlight on a view screen the most relevant gauges to the pilot, lessening the pilot’s workload in making decisions about critical issues in any given situation. He says the computer will also bring better information back to the engineers on the ground.

Forman says that their engineers have already completed training on the new machine, and one or two pilots will go to Ontario for about a week’s training in December. They will bring the new AS350 back to BC, and then other pilots will be certified on it here.

The purchase was partly driven by a request from Mike Wiegele, says Forman, to see if there could be efficiencies and safety enhancements gained with the new machine. He says the AStar is “popular with clients; it fills a niche that Bell may not accommodate.”

This winter, Forman says their fleet will consist of 10 Eurocopters including this new one (the other nine having been acquired with the recent VIH purchase) and 25 Bell helicopters. The Bell Jet Ranger is still their smallest, with room for four passengers plus the pilot. The AStars hold five passengers plus the pilot, the same as Bell’s Long Rangers do, but they all face forward, which is preferable in some situations. In others, Forman says, Bell’s additional windows are an advantage. He notes the AStar can hold a 1,500 – 1,800 lb payload, which fills the gap between what Bell’s L4 and 407 can carry, so he feels it fits a niche well.

Forman says the Eurocopters are also popular with oil and gas clients, and are the primary choice in the seismic market, which Yellowhead Helicopters is getting into.

Eurocopter says Yellowhead Helicopters has chosen a variety of optional equipment for the B3e, including a longline window, litter kit and dual hydraulics for enhanced safety.

Yellowhead Helicopters is a privately held Canadian company based in Valemount that has been supporting public, industry and government missions since 1975. Forman expects they will have as many as 10 – 11 aircraft supporting Mike Wiegele heli-ski operations in Blue River and Albreda throughout the peak of the heli-ski season, from January to mid March.