Warm Fairbanks weather delays helicopter testing

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Employees of two European helicopter companies in Fairbanks for cold weather testing are trying to keep busy while they wait out Interior Alaska's record-breaking warmth.

Forecasters say normal January temperatures are not on the horizon.

''Tell people to pray for cold weather,'' said a slightly desperate Giovanni Puricelli, project engineer for the Italian company, Agusta.

Agusta and a German helicopter company, Eurocopter, brought helicopters to Fairbanks in December to certify them for extreme cold temperatures. The rating gives companies a wider market to sell the aircraft, said Dave Carlstrom, marketing director for the Fairbanks International Airport.

Agusta needs at least a week of 49 below, Puricelli said. The mechanics, pilots and engineers originally planned to stay until mid-February, but they may leave earlier.

''This would be a good place if it weren't for the temperature,'' Puricelli said.

Thursday's high temperature of 38 broke a 20-year record at the airport. Eielson Air Force Base tied its record with 45, said Rick Thoman, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The normal high temperature in Fairbanks on Jan. 18 is 2 below zero and the average low is 19 below zero. The record low temperature is 65 degrees below zero.

Thoman held out little hope for immediate change.

''No threat of normal weather in sight,'' Thoman said, attributing the high temperatures to southerly warm winds.

Agusta is testing its EH 101, a 30-passenger helicopter. The helicopter needs cold weather certification because the company has sold 15 aircraft for use in Canada, Puricelli said.

Eurocopter is testing two helicopters. One is the prototype 11-seat BK 117 C-2 and the other is the seven-seat EH 135, an aircraft already in service but seeking a higher cold weather rating.

Elmar Kreutzer, project manager for Eurocopter, said the crew watches a thermometer back at their hotel for a sudden dip. Last week the group rushed out to the airport for a night test when the temperature dropped to a suitably low reading, Kreutzer said.

Eurocopter doesn't conduct cold weather testing frequently, Kreutzer said. It's a great expense with housing and feeding the dozen or so crew, not to mention hangar rental and fuel, he said. But he's been other places where the cold was a no show, he said.

''You always take a risk,'' he said.

Eurocopter employees did get a glimpse of local wildlife. A cow moose and her calf trotted by the Tundra Copter's hangar where Eurocopter is renting space. The crew had time to run out with cameras to take photos.

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