Building a $20 million helicopter – meet LifeFlight’s team behind the machine

For the first time LifeFlight has revealed exactly how much work went into assembling its most impressive aircraft, releasing time-lapse footage of its engineering team assembling one of its $20 million AW139 helicopters at its Archerfield heavy maintenance hangar, ahead of the base Open Day on June 24.

There was a buzz of excitement in the air in June last year when more than a dozen crates containing vacuum-packed parcels arrived at Archerfield. Inside was LifeFlight’s new AW139 helicopter – the first to be fully assembled in Australia by a company other than the manufacturer.

The helicopter’s arrival in the country marked the end of a long journey. First it had been manufactured parts at the Augusta Westland factory in Italy, then flown to an assembly plant in Philadelphia, USA where it was assembled and tested, before being carefully disassembled, packaged into crates, and loaded onto a 747 freighter jet. It was flown to Victoria before being driven to Archerfield by truck.

The AW139 is now housed at LifeFlight’s Sunshine Coast base at Maroochydore and has already flown more than 200 missions.

Upon arrival at the Archerfield hangar last June, the main fuselage and tail boom of the aircraft were on separate pallets, accompanied by all the crates of parts. Engineers carefully unloaded the truck, checking each individual part, to ensure everything had arrived safely.

Rhys Leaver (Lifeflight’s AW139 Type Specialist) was lead engineer on the project. With a decade of experience in working with AW139 aircraft he knows exactly what goes into assembling the impressive helicopter.

“You have to make sure you have the man power, skills and tools and then you can proceed,” he said.

“Then it starts with a list of instructions basically, like any model.

“The vibe was exciting, there were a lot of people who were keen to work on it and they all got their chance.”

Over the next month a team of LifeFlight engineers and support staff were kept busy by the mammoth task of building the complex aircraft. First, the landing gear was placed onto the aircraft. It was then lowered onto the ground before cranes were used to piece the remainder of the aircraft together.

“You probably have four to five people at a time working on the aircraft,” said Rhys.

“It’s assembled in a very logical sequence, because otherwise you go two steps forward and three steps back. If you do it properly you do it once.”

With a number of apprentices working at LifeFlight’s engineering hangar, Rhys said he enjoyed passing on his expertise to other members of the team.

“I particularly like this machine because I’ve spent some years working on it and I suppose you get to know it. On this build I really enjoyed working with a lot of the young apprentices out here and seeing them develop their skills and knowledge is pretty cool.”

The aircraft was then sent to HeliMods – a Sunshine Coast-based company – for a specialised aeromedical fit-out.

Thanks to a massive team effort, the newest aircraft was ready for launch in July last year - right on schedule to mark the 35th anniversary of CareFlight, and the launch of its new name, LifeFlight.

In February 2017 the helicopter was named after former LifeFlight board member ‘Don Moffatt’. It’s the third AW139 in LifeFlight’s fleet, but holds a special place in the eyes of the engineering team. The two previous aircraft were shipped almost whole into the country, whereas the Don Moffatt was assembled by the LifeFlight team. Rhys says it’s a testament to the team’s benchmark capabilities.   

 “In all honesty there’s not too much more you can do to an aircraft than build it from that starting point. It doesn’t come much bigger than that,” Rhys said.

The aircraft is an invaluable addition to the LifeFlight fleet, ensuring the service can continue to provide world class emergency aeromedical care to the community.

“When you go back 10 years and look at the other aircraft that were available, it’s night and day. This aircraft travels 50 knots faster than the older aircraft. Comfort wise and noise wise there’s just no comparison,” Rhys said.

“It’s become the aircraft of choice.”

It isn’t the last time the LifeFlight engineering team will go through the process of re-building this particular aircraft at the Archerfield heavy maintenance hangar. It’ll be pulled apart again in a few years, the exercise forming part of a rigorous maintenance schedule.

“When these hit four years of age we’ll basically have to do something very similar to that again. You pull it all to pieces every four years and you rebuild it,” said Rhys.

“With these machines each hour of flying will result in around four hours of maintenance.” 

The public is invited to come and check out where this impressive aircraft was built during the Archerfield heavy maintenance hangar’s open day on June 24.

There will be tour guides on hand to answer questions about what the team has been up to and some of the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters will be on display for the public.

There will also be a barbeque, raffles, face painting and a flight simulator. The base – at 6 Grenier Drive Archerfield Airport - will be open from 12-4pm. Entry will be a gold coin donation.

LifeFlight is a community-based charity that relies on donations from the public and community support.

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