New Helicopters Join Saudi Aramco's Fleet

The helipad at Ras Tanura Airport was busier than usual Nov. 15 as Saudi Aramco marked the arrival of its new fleet of Agusta Westland AW-139 helicopters, which will take up stations to serve the company's onshore and offshore transportation needs.

Representatives of Italy's Agusta Westland Co., joined by Italian ambassador HE Eugenio d'Auria, attended the event, which was hosted at the company's Ras Tanura Hangar by senior vice president of Operations Services Abdulrahman F. Wuhaib, executive director of Industrial Services Amer A. Sulaim and Aviation Department manager Ali A. Ashban.

On display was one of the new AW-139s set up for rescue use. The rotary-wing aircraft is capable of carrying 12-15 passengers and will replace Bell helicopters in the fleet. The AW-139s also join the smaller AW-109 'copters added to the fleet in 2005. Both models are twin-engine aircraft capable of remaining airborne with one engine. The AW-139 is capable of reaching speeds in excess of 300 kph and has a service ceiling of more than 5,000 meters.

The AW-139 is in government service in 18 nations and commercial service in 12 countries. Both models feature the latest advances in engineering and avionics.

Executives arrived in one of the new copters, which joined several others on the tarmac at Ras Tanura. "These aircraft incorporate modern technology that not only increases the safety margin by reducing pilot fatigue but also contributes to our customers' egress in emergency situations, as well as their comfort and satisfaction," Al-Sulaim said in his remarks to the gathering. He praised the large team of Aviation Department employees who took part in the selection process.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank the fleet replacement team for a job well-done and commend the team spirit that they have displayed over the years to make this happen," Sulaim said. "The replacement process started back in mid-2004 by searching the market for viable contenders to replace the Bell 214ST fleet, which has served the company for more than 20 years. As with any other fleet replacement, stringent selection criteria were considered to ensure that only the 'best-in-class' aircraft would be selected for the company."
Among factors considered were safety, performance endurance, multi-mission capability, customer comfort and product support.

Ambassador d'Auria said he was delighted to attend the event, which underscored Italy's technology and precision-engineering capability. He said Italy looks forward to strong ties with the Kingdom in the future, noting this was an important step for the two countries.

Agusta Westland officials presented the ambassador and Saudi Aramco executives with scale models of the AW-139 and pledged ongoing customer support to keep the fleet in service for years to come.

The Saudi Aramco pilots, several of whom flew the fleet into Saudi Arabia from Italy in a multi-leg, 20-hour flight, are enthusiastic about the new copters.

"Both helicopters are great aircraft," said senior helicopter pilot Shiban M. Shamrani. "The only difference is that the Bell helicopters were manufactured about 25 years ago. It's a very good helicopter and a strong, solid machine. The AW-139 is a state-of-the-art helicopter where you have all the avionics and FMS, the Flight Management System. You can program a whole flight plan so the helicopter will do everything after take off. It's fully automated."

He said the Saudi Aramco flight team had qualified on the new copters and was ready for service. "Whenever you start flying a new aircraft, every pilot has to go for initial training, followed by type rating," Shamrani said. "We spent five weeks out of Kingdom training in Italy learning to fly the new aircraft."

If the pilots are any indication, it appears that users will be pleased with the new aircraft. "I appreciate both helicopters. The Bell is very much hands-on flying, but I love the new one," Shamrani said. "I love it."