A group of engineers and test pilots has been coming to Buena Vista from northern Italy since 2004 to run performance tests to receive certification for their company’s portfolio of helicopters.
Bernardino Paggi, a flight test engineer with Leonardo Company Helicopters, said that the manufacturer has brought six aircraft to Buena Vista for testing over the past 12 years.
This summer and fall, the group has been testing two helicopters – the 8.6-ton AW189 and the 7-ton AW139.
In 2017, Leonardo announced that in collaboration with American aerospace company Boeing, the company would be providing a military-spec variant of the AW139 as a replacement for the U.S. Air Force’s long-lived Huey helicopters.
You may have seen these aircraft hovering over the tarmac of the Central Colorado Regional Airport – the AW189 is white and the AW139 is yellow and red.
Headquartered in Italy with a manufacturing facility in Philadelphia, the company comes to Buena Vista for testing because the low density of its dry, high-altitude air is perfect for “hot-and-high” testing, said program manager Andrea Molla.
“It’s an ideal place where we can find the conditions we need for our hot-and-high testing. What we are looking for here is a low density of the air with a field and Buena Vista, Leadville, Cañon City are exactly what we require to test,” Molla said. “Another reason for coming here is that there is an airport, so we have the support we need. We have a hangar, we have offices, the team here at the airport is very helpful, from the manager Jack (Wyles) to the rest of the team. They support us. When we need something, they help us. So there is the Leonardo Team, but there is also the wider team that includes the airport guys.”
Air density affects the aerodynamic forces acting on an aircraft, as well as the amount of power a combustion engine can generate due to how much oxygen the engine can take in, Paggi said.
In short, the higher the aircraft is, the harder it has to work.
“Like a human being, you have difficulty breathing at a higher altitude. It’s the same for the engines and the same for the aerodynamics of the aircraft,” Paggi said.
“When we come here, we push them to the limit,” Molla said.
The 15-person team is multinational, with pilots, engineers and analysts from Italy, Scotland and Belgium working on the aircraft.
The prototype helicopters are wired with sensors that feed into a tower of electronics, collecting data on a wide number of parameters indicating performance.
Back in the airport hangar, a team of analysts examine the data from each test flight – usually consisting of hovering in place for several minutes.
“Generally the best conditions for us is no wind, so the team is waking up early,” Molla said. “The team is here at the airport at 7:30 or 8 a.m., so we have an early start.”
These tests allow the manufacturer to demonstrate that its helicopters are in compliance with European Union Aviation Safety Agency regulations, which are accepted by its American counterpart, the Federal Aviation Administration.
While the team’s time in Buena Vista is usually early-to-bed, early-to-rise, they do get to enjoy what the area has to offer in fun.
“When we come here,” Molla said, “it’s like a second home for people like Dino, who has been here…”
“Several times,” said Paggi with a laugh.
“We are happy when we come back. Most of the people in town, they know us,” Molla said. “When I go to a shop they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re with the team of Italians.’ We feel like we are getting to be part of the community now.”
According to Paggi, “The place most visited by our team is The Lariat.”
“Some of us are cyclists, so we are cycling or just hiking. There are several things to do,” Paggi said.