AW169 in Italy


Dino Marcellino reports from Airgreen on the company’s SAR operations with the Leonardo AW169

Airgreen AW169 I-ROBS flying in the high mountains of its typical daily operating environment.
All photos Dino Marcellino

Airgreen is an Italian helicopter company, well known in Italy and around the world, that started its activities in 1986 with a single Aerospatiale Alouette II, joined one year later by an Aerospatiale Lama. The helicopters were used mainly for materials transport, fire-fighting and supporting farming in alpine environments.

The acquisition in 1995 of the more powerful Agusta-Bell AB412 enabled Airgreen to start helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) operations in mountainous areas such as the Aosta Valley, one of the most demanding environments in Europe, which includes the continent’s highest mountain, the 15,774ft (4,808m) Mont Blanc.

Since then, Airgreen has continuously performed HEMS and search and rescue (SAR) operations in that region, and subsequently also in the nearby Piedmont region.

The great experience acquired thanks to its well-established HEMS service, performed 365 days per year at three helicopter rescue bases (the Aosta Valley, Piedmont Region and, from July 2018, in Sardinia Island), enabled Airgreen to be the first helicopter company in the world to introduce into service the new-generation Leonardo AW139, used for HEMS service during the Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006.

Now, Airgreen is one of the first companies to introduce another Leonardo helicopter, the latest-generation AW169.


At present, the Airgreen fleet is made up of 23 helicopters: four Aerospatiale SA315B Lamas, five Eurocopter AS350 Ecureuils, a single Robinson R22, four Agusta-Bell AB412s, six Leonardo AW139s, two Airbus H145T2s and one Leonardo AW169.

Due to the large fleet and the various models, Airgreen is engaged in many activities (aerial work, passenger transport, fire-fighting, oil and gas platform transport, maintenance), but HEMS is the core business. Five of the AW139s and the two H145T2s are stationed at the HEMS bases.

Ivo Airaudi, owner of Airgreen and a pilot/ instructor pilot himself, explained to AIR International: “The AW139 and H145T2 have been bought [for] HEMS operations, and we use them extensively in this work.

“We are very satisfied by them, but we are always looking to new technologies and searching [for] the best solutions in terms of raising up the quality of service, safety and cost. Those are the reasons to buy the new AW169.”

AW169 innovations

The new AW169 is an innovative, state-ofthe- art machine. It has a fully digital glass cockpit with three main large displays, and below them two touchscreen displays. The traditional large quantity of switches and breakers normally on the roof of the cabin have been removed; their operation is now controlled digitally in the touchscreen display. It is possible do a large quantity of tasks intuitively and with very easy access.

The system is named the integrated display control unit (IDCU). The three main displays show all flight information and management of systems: for example, the radar, engine, fuel, transmission, maps, the helicopter terrain awareness warning system (HTAWS) and the synthetic-vision system.

A great advantage of the IDCU is that the displays can be managed by using a pushbutton placed on the cyclic pitch control, allowing the pilot to maintain his or her hands on both the cyclic and collective controls, important when flying in poor conditions.

The synthetic vision system is another very important and innovative system enhancing the safety of operations. A traditional artificial horizon instrument simply divides the display into two parts, showing the sky in light blue and the ground in black.

By contrast, the synthetic vision system depicts the environment around the helicopter. For example, if the helicopter is flying in a valley, the system gives light blue for the sky and also shows the profile of the mountains ahead, giving the pilot better awareness of the surrounding terrain.

In the same display, just below the synthetic vision system, there is also the HTAWS, which shows the obstacles around the helicopter and the ground from high to low altitude. With both the synthetic vision and HTAWS combined, the pilot has full situational awareness, which increases safety.

If the pilot is inadvertently flying in instrumented meteorological conditions, for example, this undesirable situation can be exited with increased safety compared to using conventional instruments.

APU mode

Another important innovation is the auxiliary power unit (APU) mode, very appreciated by crews (usually, Airgreen’s HEMS crew consists of five people: pilot, helicopter technician/winchman, a rescuer from CNSAS, the voluntary mountain and cave rescue organisation in the Alps, and a doctor and paramedic from the regional health service).

The APU mode ensures the continued operation of hydraulic and electrical systems even while the main and rear rotors are stopped, enabling better use of onboard equipment, medical equipment and easing operations in and around the helicopter.

Winching a rescuer and stretcher. Note the large sliding door that allows the stretcher to be brought into the cabin while the helicopter flies away, and the seated position of the helicopter technician, with his feet on the footboard.
In winching operations at high altitude in very cold temperatures, the AW169 gives the pilot plenty of confidence in maintaining its position even when operating with a single engine at heavy weight.
A view of the passenger cabin in fully equipped HEMS configuration. On the left are the two front seats, at centre the stretcher, and the on right the two rear seats, with the stretcher in between.
The cockpit features three large displays and, below, the two touchscreen displays, designed to provide an intuitive working environment for pilots.

Imagine a HEMS mission. You reach the rescue area and land in proximity to the patient. You stop the rotors, but thanks to the APU you continue to have power to all apparatus, the medical systems and the air conditioning for the cabin. Also, with the rotors stopped there is no downwash, noise or dust, easing the work of the doctor and the paramedic. When all the crew and patient are onboard, it is possible to take of immediately, because the APU system manages and optimises the engine temperature.

The engineers have developed a new method to start the helicopter. With the AW169, the pilot and technician do a full checklist once a day, early in the morning before starting HEMS operations. This check is long and complex, but the advantage is that in the next 24 hours every subsequent start is very quick and simple, with a brief check named ‘quick start status’ carried out.

The AW169 features an advanced variable speed main rotor to improve eiciency, helicopter performance and reduce the noise footprint. Fuel consumption is about 270kg (595lb) per hour and for the AW139 it is more or less 420kg (925lb) per hour, so it is possible to reduce the operating cost.

Demanding missions

Ivo Airaudi said: “We have used the helicopter in highly demanding missions at high altitude 3,700m [12,139ft] in extreme mountainous environments, and the AW169 gives us great confidence. The helicopter ofers a good margin with pedal controls, very appreciated by pilots when winching in front of vertical faces with typical mountain draughts.

“The AW169 configured for HEMS operations lies at the limit of its payload, so the only marginal limitation is in managing the equipment and unloading what is not essential for the mission.

“Another great quality is the high-speed winching, so appreciated in reducing the time hovering in a hostile environment.”

Leonardo has a ‘family’ concept with its AW139, AW169 and AW189, and Airaudi said this was efective: “The Airgreen pilots licensed on the AW139 have familiarity with many AW169 apparatus, so the type-rating is easy and not expensive. The same [goes] for the medical and rescue members of HEMS crew. The layout of medical kit is very similar; two stretchers can be accommodated longitudinally and transversally, the seat layout, the landing gear and footboard are similar, so it is easy ind immediate confidence with the machine.

“Before [we gain] a deinitive evaluation of the new machine we have to ly it in all seasonal and environmental conditions. Our operating area includes various environments, from countryside to 4,800m [15,748ft] altitude, large city and lakes, with a temperature range +40°C to -30°C, but the first reaction is very positive.”

Airgreen put its AW169, I-ROBS (c/n 69019), into service at its Cuneo base on August 1, 2017, replacing an AW139. Airaudi said: “In the first ive months we lew an average of two missions per day, all them primary missions. During the first two months we lew with two pilots, an experienced/instructor pilot and a pilot in training. From the third month the crew has been the typical HEMS crew of the pilot, winchman, rescuer, doctor and nurse.”

A close-up on a display showing an image in synthetic vision, which in conjunction with the helicopter terrain awareness warning system aids the pilot’s situational awareness.
The pilot can manage the touchscreen displays on the integrated display control unit by using a button on the cyclic pitch control.
A HEMS crew. From left to right: a doctor from 118 Piedmont Health Service, a rescuer from CNSAS, a pilot from Airgreen, a helicopter technician from Airgreen and a paramedic from 118 Piedmont.

‘Stone King’ rescue

AIR International spoke with some of the pilots lying the AW169. Pilot Commander Simone Montini said: “Here, from Cuneo, the greater part of the missions are in mountainous areas and a lot of them are performed with the use of the winch. Just in the first two months [with the AW169] we lew some critical missions in high altitude, at 3,700m [12,139ft] above sea level, and the machine showed very good performance.

“The engines’ power is very progressive. During hovering in altitude performed by winching you have a good reserve in pedals, so you also have good confidence in keeping the position for a long time in adverse weather conditions.”

One example of where this capability came into good use was a rescue mission lown just below the top of the 3,841m (12,602ft) Monte Viso, also known as ‘Re di Pietra’ or ‘The Stone King’ due its pyramid-like shape.

Montini said: “Four French climbers lost the right way to do the descent and found themselves in a dangerous vertical face, incapable of moving from there. In the meantime, the weather was changing, with a storm in approaching. They were intelligent in not wasting time, launching the SOS immediately, so in few minutes we were in light.

“Knowing they were in good condition and so didn’t need medical support, we did a stop at a mountain village, where we embarked two more alpine rescuers from a local rescue station, and then a second stop near the Quintino Sella Refuge, at 2,650m [8,694ft], where we disembarked the doctor, the nurse and a rescuer.

“Then we lew 1,100m [3,608ft] higher to reach the climbers. Onboard we had two pilots, two rescuers and the winchman. When we were on the vertical point near the climbers we realised that it was not possible to winch them. Due to the high level of humidity and electricity in the air, the helicopter was charged with electrostatic energy produced by the rotor blades, so the winchman tried to discharge it by touching the rock with the hook, but it was not enough.

“We decided to reach a ledge some metres higher, where we put a wheel on the rock and we disembarked the two rescuers there. They descended on foot with ropes to reach the climbers. One rescuer stayed with two climbers; the second rescuer brought the other two climbers, one at a time, to the helicopter.

“We lew to a base camp to unload the two climbers and then lew again to the ledge. Now the weather was worse, a mix of snow and hail all around us, the first hint of the storm. We put the wheel on the rock while the rescuer and climbers were already positioned near the ledge. In a matter of minutes, we escaped from that dangerous situation. This time we had seven on board, two pilots, two rescuers, two French climbers and winchman.

“Despite the altitude, the weather and the weight, I always had a good margin of power, and I had a great feeling with the AW169. During operations I appreciate so much two other qualities of this machine: the good visibility due the large windows and the height of the landing gear, which helps in landing/ hovering on hostile ground.”

Operational feedback

A doctor and a rescuer made similarly positive remarks. At the beginning of operations with the AW169, both admitted they had some problems in managing their respective equipment. Being accustomed to the larger cabin of the AW139 they had to reduce slightly the amount of equipment used, loading in the cabin only the essential and more utilised equipment and putting the rest in the tail, where it can only be accessed externally.

However, they emphasised how they appreciate some other characteristics of the AW169. They stressed the advantage of the APU mode on the scene of a rescue in allowing them to work on a patient before safely embarking them on the helicopter without downwash, dust or snow in the air and without noise.

The rescuer noted: “I’m the person in charge of the safety on ground around the helicopter, so I’m always worried by the people moving on the scene, relatives and friends of the patient, or often onlookers, all people not accustomed to moving around a helicopter.”

Now, with rotors stopped thanks to the APU mode, the rescuer said he was much more relaxed, and thanks to the APU the cabin is warmed up, which is a great beneit for the patient and medical staf. Furthermore, the radio remains on, so it is possible be in continuous contact with the hospital and emergency room.

A winchman said: “Performing the daily checks, morning and evening, is easy thanks to the accessibility to the helicopter components and the large space around the engines.

“The AW169 has the same maintenance steps as the AW139, but for each step there are fewer tasks to do. The structure of the helicopter is almost all carbon ibre, so it needs less maintenance compared to traditional construction.

“Personally, I had immediate confidence in winching operations: the winch is very speedy. I can do all operations seated, and at the same time I have a good visibility. Another important factor is that I have a good sight of the cockpit, so I can support the pilot in checking light parameters.”

Compared to the AW139 the AW169 is a bit slower. With landing gear extended, the top speed is 135kts (250km/h) compared to the AW139’s top speed in the same configuration of 150kts (277km/h), but with the large part of Airgreen’s mission within 15 minutes’ light time speed is not a key requirement. As the Mount Viso rescue showed, for speciic complex missions it could sometimes be necessary to split rescue activity into steps, so the machine’s good endurance due to its lower fuel consumption is important.

The next step for Airgreen is to use the AW169 in higher-altitude and more demanding scenarios.