PUBLISHED: 10:47 28 March 2012 | UPDATED: 14:12 10 October 2012
I'd always wanted to own a Lama. It's the ultimate flying machine. It's a workhorse and really should be going to work - but mine's done around 10,000 hours, so it's time for it to have an easy life and just fly once a month. But it's a great machine...
I’d always wanted to own a Lama. It’s the ultimate flying machine. It’s a workhorse and really should be going to work – but mine’s done around 10,000 hours, so it’s time for it to have an easy life and just fly once a month. But it’s a great machine The speaker is Graham Snook, and we are at Breighton Airfield, a few miles north east of Selby in the wilds of East Yorkshire. Breighton is best known as the home of the Real Aeroplane Company, which specialises in classic, unusual, and ex-military aircraft. It may just be coincidence, but there are a fair number of helicopter pilots flying from here who own old and unusual aircraft too. One of them is Graham, who owns and flies Lama N316DJ: he also has a couple of Alouette IIIs, one of which I test flew in 2010. Another is Nigel Feetham, who has offered his Alouette II (which I’ve also flown) to be our cameraship for the day. But let’s get back to Graham’s Lama…
The SA315B, built by French company Aerospatiale back in the 1970s, really is a rather unusual helicopter, as it is an amalgamation of two other types. At that time there was a real need for a helicopter which could be an efficient workhorse in the high altitudes of the Himalayas. So Aerospatiale came up with the idea of combining the light and stripped-away fuselage of the successful Alouette II with the powerful engine and rotors of the later Alouette III. The result was a helicopter which they called the ‘Lama’. Now, I’ve read that it owes its name to the fact that it was designed for operation at high altitude. I don’t know whether the name inventors had a Tibetan high priest in mind, or they simply misspelled the woolly Andean animal called a llama… but that’s what I heard anyway. Whatever it was called, Aerospatiale found that they had a helicopter which could do almost anything, and that is still the case around forty years later. The Lama can lift external loads of over a ton. Its climb rate is said to be almost astronomical. And, despite being a relatively old machine, it still holds the world altitude record for helicopters. Furthermore, people say that it is a real pilots’ machine. One Lama pilot wrote on the internet, ‘I have flown the Lama in the Ladakh region up to 25,000ft density altitude, and there is no other machine which can match its performance or give the same confidence to the pilot’. Others have said, ‘She’s the Ferrari of helicopters’, and ‘She’s so beautiful to fly: an absolute high-altitude wonder’.
I’d never actually seen a Lama before. This is hardly surprising, since Graham’s is the only one in the UK. “PDG Helicopters had the last one here”, he told me. “But they sold it to France”. Lamas are known to be few and far between now, at least in this part of the world. So how did Graham manage to get hold of his aircraft? Apparently, N316DJ was built in 1974 by Aerospatiale, and sold to the USA for seismic surveying. At some point it was bought by a company in Germany, then it went to Switzerland for a while, and then was sold to someone in Italy. Graham finally tracked it down around three years ago. It was available at a price he could afford− “Lamas can be expensive; some go for about half a million pounds!”−so he bought it, fixed it up over the next couple of years, and got it certified and put back on the American register this year. Why the US register? “There’s only ever been one on the British register”, he tells me. “It had been on the N register before, so that made things easier and there was a lot less paperwork”.
It is now time to go and see this rather special helicopter for myself. At first glance ’DJ looks exactly like an Alouette II, which is hardly surprising given its history. But…wait a minute. On reflection, this helicopter is considerably bigger, and much beefier. As Nigel’s Alouette II flies into Breighton, I can compare the two types almost side by side. ’DJ has much larger rotor blades− in fact, they look almost too big for her fuselage. Her tail rotor is enormous compared to that of the earlier model too. It is not that the Alouette II is small; indeed, in my article on that type I described it as being ‘like a Bell 47 on steroids’. Yet it looks almost spindly and insubstantial in comparison to the imposing Lama. Graham now walks around ’DJ with me, pointing out some other differences between the two types. Like the Alouette II, everything on the Lama is uncovered and easy to see and check. But unlike the Alouette II, the Lama has very high skids, which is imperative since the type is predominantly used for load lifting. There are also extra dampers on the airframe, which are necessary due to the weight of the larger main rotor blades. Those blades and the fully-articulated rotor head look even more massive close to. Apparently, Graham tells me, Eurocopter – who took over Aerospatiale in the 1990s − no longer make them, nor the Lama’s tail rotor blades (although they still generally provide support for the type). The stated reason is that they cannot obtain the required glue! Go figure… Anyway, carbon fibre replacement blades are available from the USA, so this is not the major problem it might otherwise seem to be. Continuing the walkaround, Graham points out that the airframe has been beefed up substantially to cope with the larger rotors and more powerful engine. The tailboom is longer and stronger, to support the larger tail rotor blades. The stabilisers are also larger, and there are weights on them to cope with potential resonance excited by the larger blades. On the tail boom and in front of the tail rotor is a ‘skid plate’. This is a safety feature designed to prevent the main rotor blades hitting the tail rotor and chopping it off in the event of mishandling − a good idea, since with such a massive main rotor system and the helicopter often being used in challenging situations, blade ‘sail’ could be a real problem. Coming round to the other side, I note the huge fuel tank, which has a label saying it can hold 149 US gallons of usable fuel. It sounds like a lot, but this machine burns around 50 gallons an hour – the same as the Alouette II – so it only provides endurance of around two and a half hours.
The Lama is usually flown from the right seat, and I now prepare to climb into it. This is a bit of a performance due to the high skids and the fact that I am quite short, but it is not as difficult as I would have expected. There is a step halfway up the skids; then you climb on to the top of them, and then take a huge step into the cabin. It’s inelegant, but this helicopter is not really designed for comfortable passenger flying−it doesn’t even possess a luggage compartment. Once aboard, the seats are comfortable and there is plenty of room. The pedals move forward and aft; the seats are supposed to as well, but these refuse to go any further forward. However, I can still get full pedal control and reach all the other controls comfortably. I fasten my conventional four-point harness while Graham clambers into the left hand seat; then I study the instrument panel. This doesn’t take long, as all it has is an ASI, altimeter, compass, VSI, and the necessary engine instruments. There are spaces for more dials if you need them, but Graham likes basic flying, and I’m quite happy with that. One slight problem is that everything is metric−altimeter in metres, ASI in km/h etc−but Graham is used to this, and I think I’ll manage. The start-up is the same as for the Alouette III, which you would expect since the two types share the same Turbomeca Artouste IIIB turbine engine. It’s fairly straightforward−you check throttle off, handbrake on, collective down. Then battery on, generator on, fuel pump on and press the starter. After all that, pretty much everything is automatic. I wonder, why can’t all turbine helicopters be this simple to start? Photographer Neil is now with Nigel in the Alouette II, so we start off by leaving the airfield for some formation flying. We want to make sure that they manage to get some good photos before the weather closes in, as the low cloudbase is looking a little ominous. I lift into the hover, remembering that as with all French helicopters, the rotors turn clockwise so the right pedal is the power pedal. Graham also warns me that the pedals are fairly heavy since the tail rotor is so large, and I’m glad of the warning. I also notice immediately that ’DJ hovers markedly right skid-low, but again, this is to be expected in a helicopter with clockwise turning rotors. Other than that there are no initial surprises, but the type is of course not totally new for me, as I have flown the Alouette II and III. We take off and transition away from the airfield, and the first thing I notice is the absolutely incredible rate of climb. Without even making an effort or raising the collective to any extent at all, we are going up at 1000ft/minute. I can see that Graham’s earlier statement to me that ’DJ can climb at 3,000ft/min is probably true, and I’d love to try it out for myself. However, with a low cloudbase we’re unlikely to be able to put this to the test safely. This is especially true for the Lama, as stopping the climb can present a problem; Graham has told me that the amount of inertia in the enormous rotor blades means that even after lowering the collective you still carry on climbing! I don’t want to do that with a low overcast and only minimal instruments. We start off by doing the necessary formation flying with the Alouette II, but I’m finding it hard to keep low and slow enough to keep the camera man happy. This machine really wants to fly, and it’s faster and more powerful than the Alouette. However, I do get a chance to find out that the Lama is responsive and great fun. After five minutes I can see why people like this machine so much: it’s manoeuvrable, powerful, and seems to have no real vices. All too soon Neil tells us that he has the shots he needs, so we return to the field. Making an approach is straightforward, except that the large amount of inertia in the rotor blades means that you have to allow plenty of time to slow down and descend. I inadvertently end up too high and too fast, and I’m reminded of an earlier test flight in the Gazelle, where the same thing happened for the same reason. The Gazelle is a grandchild (or possibly great-grandchild) of the Lama, so this is perhaps not surprising. But it reminds me of the dangers of becoming too confident in a powerful helicopter, however well-behaved it seems to be. I remember now that the Alouette II was a bit more instantly responsive to control inputs, and therefore easier to fly without getting into trouble. For that reason, it would be a better choice for inexperienced pilots. However, all helicopters are different, even ones which come from the same stable, and this is not a criticism of a machine which I am already coming to like almost as much as its owner does−it’s just that the Lama is clearly not for beginners, and like the Gazelle it can bite back if mishandled. We land, but there is more to come. Our second flight is to be somewhat different. Graham has decided to take me and his helicopter to nearly Sandtoft Airfield, with a full complement of five occupants. This is partly so that I can see what ’DJ is like to fly when fully loaded, as two small people in a powerful helicopter is hardly realistic. He also wants to visit TLC Handling Ltd, who are based at Sandtoft and make the famous ‘Helilift’ helicopter handling system. I saw Helilift displayed at the Helitech trade show, but have never viewed it in action. It sounds fascinating. For this flight, Nigel climbs into the back of the helicopter, along with Neil and Graham’s friend Richard. There should be room, since officially this helicopter is a five-seater, but I can see they are pretty cramped. However, no-one has ever suggested that passenger comfort is a priority in the Lama. This time we have to depart in a hurry owing to other traffic. Nevertheless, ’DJ again climbs at over 1,000ft/minute without even trying, and apparently pulling hardly any power. I’m pretty certain that if I pulled on that collective we’d triple that climb rate! Over the longer flight, I find that the Lama is actually a piece of cake to fly, once you’re used to her. Visibility from the cockpit is excellent, and the helicopter is easy to handle in turns, climbs, and descents. She does tend to climb and speed up in the cruise even though she’s fully laden; this is clearly a helicopter that likes to get going. I learn from experience, so this time I allow plenty of time for the approach at Sandtoft, and find that descending, hovering, and landing is not really a problem, though you do have to put the helicopter down quite smartly in order to avoid the ground resonance from which all these types of helicopter can suffer. Shutdown is straightforward, and you don’t need the two-minute cool-down period which some turbine helicopters require. We meet Tony Hancock, Managing Director of TLC Handling Ltd, and drink coffee while we watch his Helilift move the Lama. Moving helicopters of this size and weight is usually a job for ground handling wheels and several people, but Helilift makes it look easy. Then it’s time for the final flight of the day, and for me to try the manoeuvres we haven’t had time for yet. The flight back is equally straightforward, but it is now beginning to rain and we can’t waste too much time. However, the only thing I really need to try is an autorotation, and we do one of these into Breighton Airfield. As I would expect in a helicopter of this size and weight, ‘autos’ are benign to the point of being a non-event. You lower the lever and the machine settles into a steady descent at around 1,000ft/min. The inertia in the gargantuan rotor blades means that you have all the time in the world to flare, level, and raise the lever. As an R22 pilot most of the time, I really appreciate the safety inherent in larger helicopters. Just to complete all normal manoeuvres I try some spot turns and some sideways hovering, and another takeoff and landing. However, there really isn’t much new to say about these. Overall, the Lama does what it says on the tin: it is a powerful, easy-to-fly helicopter which deserves its reputation as the ‘Ferrari of the skies’. Apparently maintenance can be expensive, but most of its parts have long lives and according to Graham not much tends to go wrong. Still, that’s the only criticism I can think of. In summary, I like the Lama as much as many other pilots have in the past and still do today. If I had the money and could find one, I might well become the second owner of the type in the UK. Thank you, Graham, for allowing me to fly her.