I am also doing some research, trying to decide if an EC120 would be a good replacement for the R44 Raven 2 that I am flying for a company currently. I hope some of you with EC120 experience can help me out a little. Sorry the post is a little long winded, I'm just weighing some different options and pros/cons, as well as seeking some EC120 specific information. My thoughts and questions regarding the EC120 are at the bottom of my post if you want to skip down there.
Typically I am flying with 1 or 2 passengers. Primary use is moving people, aerial survey and lots of off-airport landings. Flight time is 250-300 hours per year. Often times we are flying engineers and equipment operators, and they all need to be able to see outside well and look at/pass around aerial maps. Generally this means the boss is up front with me, pointing at what he wants to see while the rear seat passengers are trying to see the same thing. Landing elevations are from 900ft MSL to 3000ft MSL, nothing high altitude but the summers are very hot and humid. Most days we cover at least 250NM. 200NM or more straight line flying with lots of low and slow surveying. Anywhere from 3 - 6 hours of flight time. The terrain in the coal fields is steep and rugged, creating loads of turbulence when the wind picks up.
Our Raven 2 has worked well most of the time, but it has it's downfalls.
- While it is generally quicker than a 206 b series, an extra 20-30 knots would be very welcome on the 100NM+ flights to/from home.
- Good visibility, but the seats are uncomfortable for longer periods, and the rear seats are terrible for most grown men with boots on.
- Does not handle turbulence well. Stronger winds over flatter area is no problem, but in rugged terrain it is a miserable ride. The R44 itself is not the smoothest ride anyway, no matter how well the last track and balance session was.
- Our maintenance shop is 130NM away and bringing it in for things such as a 50 hour oil change can be a pain. The helicopter is stored inside but without climate control, and the belts always expand/contract with the weather and seem to need adjusting frequently.
- When landing on uneven surfaces, the cabin often distorts enough the some of the doors are difficult to latch unless you push in from the outside while turning the latch.
- We almost always top off the fuel tanks as it is common to be in the air for 2 - 2.5 hours. With full fuel it is a great 2 person aircraft, and does 'okay' with three. There are several times when we have 4 people in the helicopter and about 1.5 hours of fuel, and room for another passenger under similar conditions would be very ideal.
So I have looked at numbers for other comparable aircraft. R66, MD 500, 206 B and L series, 407, etc.
I really don't have a lot of interest in the R66. It looks to have the same uncomfortable seats, off-center t/r pedals, lack of rear leg room, only 5-10 knot cruise speed increase. The ride will be about the same if not worse due to the taller m/r mast. I suspect it will handle equally poor in high wind and rugger terrain. Hover performance is suppose to be pretty good, but that is the only real good thing I see about it. It is probably a solid four seater, although not so comfortably. While the main design is very much "R44", it is too new for me to have a lot of interest in. A lot of the VIPs in the company don't like the R44 as it is, because they say it just doesn't feel "significant enough".
The MD500 is quick, maneuverable, and handles turbulence well. But no luggage, shorter range, only four people in the aircraft in a reasonable setup. The back seat is terrible, and visibility from the back is not good either.
A 206 b series equipped with a/c (a must for us) looks like it would have less usable load than the R44 with full fuel. Back seat visibility is not good with the bulk head, and rear seat head room is not ideal. Cruise speed is equal to the R44 if not slower. The ride is a little smoother, but generally all you seem to be gaining is cost. The L series might be a little quicker, but even more expensive, and the rear seat would be very disconnected from the front for what we do. I haven't flown the L series but I'm thinking that it still isn't going to handle turbulence as well as a fully articulated system does.
The 407 would be my ideal helicopter for them, with a few exceptions. Fast, comfortable, loads of power, good parts/service availability. The negative is of course the disconnect of the rear passengers from the front and lack for forward visibility from the rear. If my boss had a desire to frequently haul around 5-6 people this would probably be an easy sale, but due to the way we normally use the helicopter it probably doesn't make sense.
Based on the information I have gathered so far, the EC120
looks like a pretty good fit for most of what we do. With better hover performance it would be great (at least on paper). Price on a fairly low time used ship is very reasonable, operating cost is very reasonable as well (roughly twice of the R44 according to some surveys). I am told that the ship will cruise at 120 knots with a night sun and flir unit, and should cruise at 125-135 knots clean with a couple of occupants. Does that sound accurate?
That would shave 12-15 minutes off of the first and last leg of our typical day. It should also help to bridge the gap between a long trip in the helicopter and a ridiculously short trip in their Premier jet, which requires a lot more planning. The aircraft has a good range and good loiter time. Visibility looks to be great from front and the elevated rear seats. The fenestron should provide a little extra security when passengers load/unload with the rotors turning, and be a little less prone to damage from brush in unprepared landing sites. Typical useful load with full fuel seems to be about 100 lbs over our R44. What that looks like to me is a good three seater, an okay four seater and the occasional five seater if you leave some fuel behind.
So on to the concerns about the EC120...
Hover performance doesn't look so good, it isn't a hot/high/heavy machine. At gross weight on a warm day it isn't going to be impressive. The R44 numbers are a little better, but there is no reason I need to have four people and a lot of fuel on board when I'm landing in a confined area above 3000ft on a hot/humid day. There are times and conditions when I have to say no to landing in the R44 due to the nature of an LZ, and it looks like the EC120 would put us in that same boat. The higher fuel burn is an advantage as it would shed weight quicker though.
Service and parts availability could be problematic. I have heard from various mechanics that Eurocopter support is less than ideal and it can be difficult to get your hands on parts. Have others in the US found this to be a problem? Our helicopter is not a revenue machine, but my boss (like anyone) does not like a lot of down time.
I haven't found much information inspection times, overhauls or life limited parts. The most I have seen is 100/500/1500 hr and a 12 year inspection. An aircraft that we may look at is a 2001 with roughly 2000 hours. Can anyone tell me what the upcoming maintenance on a 2000 hour ship is going to look like?
I appreciate any more insight you guys may have to offer.