The US Coast Guard had a problem. In the mid-nineties, smugglers in the Caribbean started using ‘go-fasts.’ These speed boats were bringing in two tons of drugs at a time and making 40 or 50 knots. Only one in ten were being stopped. The Coast Guard knew they need something faster. Much faster. So they deployed eight MH-68A “Stingray” helicopters at Jacksonville, Florida.
In a typical mission earlier this year, one Stingray, operating from the cutter Diligence, intercepted a 40-foot go-fast. It tracked the vessel in the dark and when it didn’t respond to orders to stop or shots across the bow, the helicopter’s gunner shot out the engines, bringing it rapidly to heal. The Coast Guard boarded, seized 4,200 pounds of pure cocaine and arrested the crew. “For all practical purposes, we have a 100% stop rate now,” said Commander Edward Cubanski, the squadron’s operations officer, “it’s an excellent aircraft for the mission.”
Why did the Coastguard choose the MH-68A? Although speed was important – its 154 knot maximum cruise is the fastest in its class – a generous power reserve was more important, especially when operating low over the water, with full loads at full speed. The aircraft’s stability, instrument-flying proficiency and load-carrying were added advantages. All these attributes would make the MH-68A an ideal VIP helicopter. Strip out the forward-looking infrared system, the head-up display, the M240G machine gun and the MH-68A becomes exactly that: the Agusta A109 Power.
Fisher Scientific bought one of the first VIP-configured A109 Power Elites in the US. Company pilot, Art Godjikian finds it more passenger-friendly than other models: “it’s noticeably quieter – people can talk and work without headsets.” The extra power means more flexibility because it is not weight or temperature limited, even in high summer and he loves the fully automatic engine management. “It’s all about convenience for our passengers, and the engines spool up and shut down really quickly. Some of our passengers are sensitive about boarding a helicopter with the rotors spinning.” Being able to fly in bad weather and use airport instrument landing systems adds to the flexibility – “we can’t fly in the ice which restricts us for a few months of the year, but the 109 is an excellent IFR platform and I’ve taken off in zero/zero and landed at minimums many times. Our home base airport is seven miles from our heliport so if we can’t get into our helipad we can easily divert to the airfield.” However, it’s the details that really make the difference for some passengers. The Elite model has a retractable step to help passengers climb in. “It’s very difficult to be ladylike getting in and out of a helicopter and the step is a small cosmetic thing but it makes getting in and out a lot more elegant.”
It’s also a pleasure to fly, believes Neil Parkinson. He is chief pilot for the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, a charity operating a brand-new A109 Power. “It has an EFIS cockpit so it’s all TV screens. That’s fantastic. It’s a stable platform for instrument operations. It’s more like airline flying than helicopter flying.” He loves the fully automatic digital engine control: “Our record is out the door and into the air in forty seconds. By the time you’ve done up the buckles, the engines are ready to go.” But he reserves his greatest praise for the helicopter’s performance: “in the air ambulance role, we have to land in tight spaces. When I used to do this in older helicopters I’d think ‘if an engine failed now, it’s going to bloody hurt.’ In the A109, you know if an engine fails it’s going to keep climbing on the other one.”
The Italian manufacturer announced the latest Power version of the A109 at the 2001 Paris Air Show and since then it has captured a large slice of the VIP and corporate market. In its $4m A109 Power Elite guise, the back is configured, not with guns or stretchers, but with five comfortable, leather-clad seats. There’s room in the tail for two golf bags and a set of luggage. The Elite’s double-glazed windows, sound-proofing and highly effective vibration dampers add a smooth, quiet ride to the standard model’s Ferrari-like performance. Like the cars made 125 miles down the road in Maranello, the A109 is not only fast but jaw-droppingly beautiful. In fact, the only way it could command more respect is if the Coast Guard’s machine guns were standard equipment.