February/March 2013

flying russian
we fly The Kamov Ka-32
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VIH Group, based in Victoria, B.C., operates three
Kamov Ka-32A11BCs. The aircraft have proven a
huge success, with the operator putting more hours
on the aircraft than any other operator in the world.

Certified by Transport Canada, but snubbed by the FAA , the striking Ka-32 is a rare sight on this continent. Vertical contributing editor Graham Lavery joined operator VIH to explore its capabilities.

by Graham Lavery February/March 2013 3 4 flight evaluation kamov ka-32 PPreconceived notions…we all have them. The problem is, they are most often informed by little firsthand experience with the subject, assumptions, rumors, or snippets of information that frequently fail to represent the subject accurately.
And so it was with me in regards to VIH Aviation Group’s Russian Kamov Ka-32A11BC heavy- lift helicopter. Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to fly alongside the Ka-32 while working on various forest fires, talked to the pilots, even walked
around it and literally kicked the tires. Like most aviators, it piqued my interest mainly because it is such a unique platform, exotic in design, and with only three currently operating in North America (all with Victoria, B.C.-based VIH ), it’s rare. To me, the Ka-32 represented an age now long-passed — the Cold War years and their inherent mystery, certain levels of cynicism, and a dose of suspicion for those of us old enough to remember them. Those pre-conceived notions of mine, aided by days spent bombing around in roughly-built vintage Ladas overseas, or staying in austere Soviet-era apartments or military installations over the years, led me to believe the Ka-32 would be rough, clumsy, and perhaps even slightly unwieldy in order to achieve its difficult mandate. I could not have been more wrong.
When the chance presented itself to fly the Ka-32, spend time with VIH ’s heavy lift chief pilot, Shane Palmer, and learn more about the details of its history, design, and journey into the Canadian market, I jumped at it. How could I refuse? A blast from the past Despite the fact that Ka-32s operate around the world in a civilian capacity, across Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, it is still shrouded in mystery here in North America. The United States. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA ) has proven stubbornly resistant to certifying Russian hardware, limiting Kamov’s reach in this highly-lucrative region to the Canadian market. A design that was initiated in 1970 Soviet Russia, and first flown as a prototype
in 1973, the military Ka-27 was developed to supply the Soviet navy with a compact, powerful, and very capable shipboard platform to aid in antisubmarine warfare and logistics with external load mission profiles. Intendedfor operations in the harsh high-latitude climates found throughout the North Atlantic and along the Arctic coast of the Soviet Union, the Ka-32 exudes the theory of “function over form.” Bound by the very real problems associated with limited space aboard a ship, and the inherent difficulty in operating a machine in such a challenging environment, there is little attention paid to aesthetics unless they serve a good purpose. It is a practical machine in the strictest sense of the word. Cockpit ergonomics are excellent, giving pilots easy access to switches and breakers. An excellent heating/de-misting system makes it comfortable on even the most miserable days the Canadian West Coast has to offer. Graham Lavery The service life of the machines has been progressively extended from the original 8,000-hour mark to 32,000 hours. A further extension is expected.

The coaxial rotor system is, of course, the first thing that jumps out about the Ka-32’s unique design. With the need to keep rotor diameter small, yet make use of the massive power output of two 2,200-shaft-horsepower (2,400-s.h.p one engine inoperative) Klimov TV 3-117VMA engines, the coaxial concept fit the bill. The contra-rotating rotor heads and mast are complex, and require detailed knowledge to rig properly, but while I found the sheer number of moving parts to be impressive, it was actually the exquisite machining —and manufacturing quality — that stood out.
With rotor-heads of milled titanium (a material much more accessible to the Soviet Union in 1970 than to European or North American manufacturers), and twice the number of pitch links and control tubes seen on a standard helicopter, the Ka-32 displays an impressively-high degree of workmanship, forethought, and attention to detail. Tolerances are tight, adjustment almost unlimited, and access for maintenance staff is generally easy.
My overall impression when inspecting the mast, heads, and rotors was one of awe — it is quite simply one of the most The balanced torque from the Ka-32’s coaxial design presents some interesting “quirks” for pilots new to the aircraft….

Moving down to the transmission, a massive rough-cast block of painted metal — you start to see the machine has almost unsurpassed attention to detail where it matters, and where it doesn’t they didn’t even pretend to try. The transmission serves one function and one function only: harnessing all 4,400 s.h.p.with no torque limitations — it simply gives you all it has got, no questions asked. Aesthetics don’t matter, but what this locomotive-
like block of metal allows this machine to do, most certainly does. More on that later.

The Ka-32’s adventure in Canada began in 1991, with VIH importing the first airframe under contract from Kamov and operating in the restricted category for logging operations.
Experienced Canadian logging pilots flew the machines with Russian co-pilots assisting in the familiarization process. It met with immediate success, and so the certification process was initiated. By 1997, Transport Canada issued a two-year permit, and the company began acquiring the first of its three Ka-32s, all new low-time airframes from the factory in Russia. VIH began operations running parallel logbooks, meeting Canadian standards with an eye to easing the complete type certification down the road. Director of maintenance Russ McGowan reflects that were it not for “an excellent working relationship with the Russians,” and a foundation of personal relationships, the entire project would have been substantially more difficult. The first type certificate was issued in 1999, and the Ka-32A11BC was officially certified for use in Canada.
The question of spare parts was most certainly salient given the distance from the manufacturer and the relative infancy of its use here in Canada. Given the difficulties our industry generally experiences in this department, it was an area in which VIH took a very pro-active approach. Initially, parts orders would be sent to the factory in Russia on an “as needed” basis, but it was not long before that situation needed to be addressed. It is worth noting VIH puts more hours on these three Ka-32s than any other operator in the world — and by a considerable margin. Two of the three airframes are in excess of 16,000
hours, with the other not far behind with just over 11,000 hours, all logged by VIH . This extensive use presented a challenge not only for VIH and the spare parts availability, but to Kamov and the very concept of their maintenance schedule. As McGowan recalls, “The Russians were overwhelmed [by] how much we flew.”

The original maintenance philosophy for the machines was based on an expected 100 flight hours with little in-depth maintenance, followed by a period of complete downtime during which the machine could be dug into deeply and appropriate inspections completed. When VIH started running the Ka-32s in
the high-hour, competitive Canadian market — where downtime is an operator’s worst nightmare — it became obvious this approach was not going to be sustainable over the long term…
However, another hurdle for the Canadian operator presented itself in Kamov’s decision to design the machine to run for a paltry 8,000 hours before reaching the end of its service life. In a market where well over 1,000 hours a year can be amassed with relative ease, this, once again, was something that would need to change for the machines to become viable. After close consultation with the factory in Russia, the appropriate procedures have been adopted to progressively extend the service life of the machine, from the original 8,000-hour mark to 16,000 hours, then to 24,000 hours, and now 32,000 hours — with yet another extension expected. These factors alone have ensured the Ka-32A11BC’s viability for the long term, with its exceptional design and build-quality indicated by a scant total of just four airworthiness directives issued over the life of the machine.
The AF CS system on the Ka-32 is unique, and very, very effective in adding stability to the ship. Similar to the corresponding system on the Bell mediums, the AF CS allows pilots to override it with a push of the cyclic mounted button (or set it and then gently fight against it, depending on what is required). Unlike the Bell system, the Ka-32’s AF CS is slaved to the heading indicator, and the gyros will return the ship to the attitude at which it was engaged. This lends a great deal more stability to the platform — more than I’m used to, in fact — and actually makes it a system worth using, even in vertical reference work. If you are hovering in a level attitude with the AF CS button released and the system providing full stabilization, you can upset the attitude with the cyclic — or yaw the nose off the original heading — and it will return itself to that heading and attitude. This capability would be extremely handy in low-visibility situations when doing long-line work, or when situational
awareness is compromised (such as in over-water approaches, or when working on glaciers in flat light). In a 250-foot hover over the large coastal timber on a typical West Coast winter day.

The Ka-32 is incredibly smooth in flight when well tracked, is stable, predictable, and in the event of an engine failure, safe. It has plenty of power to spare OEI (one engine inoperative) and with the addition of the EE G and the AF CS, it is quite simply an easy aircraft to fly — once you come to terms with its peculiarities. It cruises comfortably at 120 knots with a VNE (neverexceed speed) of 140 knots, so transit times on long ferries are not an issue.

The Ka-32A11BC, on the other hand, is a niche machine, and that creates further issues with gaining market access. “The issue for our business [is] the cost of the possible FAA certification, and the number of potential orders in the US,” said Kirillov. “[The] Ka-32A11BC is a ‘special missions’ helicopter with [a] narrow market and [a] narrower variety of potential buyers.” Simply put, it will be up to the operators to initiate and then undertake the certification process for the Ka-32A11BC — as VIH has done in Canada with great success. The challenge will be creating a market for the machine to justify the certification
cost. In the end, it’s going to require someone to take the plunge. As an advocate for purpose built, specialized machinery, I can only hope the future holds greater things for Kamov in the North American market. A seasoned fixed-wing and helicopter pilot, Graham
has flown a variety of missions in unique locales throughout the U.S., Canada’s Arctic regions, Central America and the Caribbean. He currently flies long line, mountain, forestry, construction and charter work in B.C. and the Yukon; and can be reached at

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