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Experimental copter tested at Tahoe

Patrick McCartney

Seeking a place that was cold and snowy enough, a French manufacturing company chose to test its newest helicopter this week at the Lake Tahoe Airport.

Over and over again, Didier Guerin piloted the turbine-powered Eurocopter EC-120 several feet above the snowbound median between the airport’s two runways, the blades stirring up graceful arcs of snow.

“This is the kind of snow you encounter if you land in an unprepared site,” said company representative Gaspar de Queiroz. “It can create problems for engines by ingesting snow in the air intake.”

The testing at Lake Tahoe Airport will help the EC-120 helicopter meet U.S. and European regulations. The newest 5-seater on the market, the 32-foot-long helicopter has several technical improvements that the company hopes will make customers snatch them up at $770,000 each, de Queiroz said.

Most is the shrouded tail rotor, which makes the helicopter noticeably quieter than its competitors, coming in at 10 decibels less than the Federal Aviation Authority requires. An added benefit to the shrouded tail rotor, de Queiroz said, is its greater safety.

“You would have to be a complete twit to accidentally stick your hand in,” he said.

Also, the EC-120’s landing struts are rounded in front, reducing the chance that the struts can catch on an obstacle like a power line.

But the feature that prompted the cold-weather tests at Lake Tahoe is the EC-120’s air intake, which is sheltered inside a cowling. Eurocopter wanted to see how well the intake could handle large amounts of air-blown snow.

“Unlike with airplanes, we don’t have problems with ingesting birds in the engines, but we do have problems ingesting leaves, sticks and other debris,” de Queiroz said.

But the nine-person team involved in the testing had one problem on Sunday: there was snow, but it wasn’t cold enough, de Queiroz said. By the time the snow reached the air intake, it had melted.

As a consequence, the team was considering moving the operation to Truckee, where residents boasted that the French company would find plenty of cold temperatures.


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