AHF↑Inside: Maximizing the Gazelle

It’s a sunny Monday morning. The office of Aerotec Group at Valence-Chabeuil airport in southern France awakes after a two week summer holiday. However, in the maintenance hangar dedicated technicians have been working continuously to overhaul four Gazelle helicopters for a small southern European air force. Aerotec Group is dedicated to maintenance, repair, overhaul (MRO) and upgrade of Gazelles. Another core activity, and also the origin of this company, is all about Night Vision Goggle (NVG), compatible LED lightings and the optronics of the NVGs itself. Enough reason for Airheadsfly.com to shine a light on this company.

AHF↑Inside is a series of exclusive insights in the world of aviation,
given to us by the men and women who have made flying their daily life.
This time, editor Dennis Spronk hits the road all the way to southern France, and was
warmly welcomed by the Gazelle experts of Aerotec Group
at Valence-Chabeuil airport.


It all began when Paul Rossini, a former flight test engineer at GAMSTAT (the French Army helicopter test unit), with a lot of NVG experience, decided to start Aerotec Group (ATG). After developing NVG compatible cockpit lighting, they developed highly advanced NVG’s themselves. ATG has its own specialized optronics laboratory, and they now make NVG compatible lightings for different types of aircraft, helicopters, armoured vehicles and ships. Many have NATO reference codes, showing the high standard of quality of the ATG products. The latest additions are NVG compatible landing beacons, which already made its operational debut in Afghanistan in the hands of the French Army Light Aviation (ALAT). ATG also developed a night vision capability kit for the French special forces. This mobile kit enables the French Special Forces to change a standard French Air force Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraf  into a NVG capable aircraft for special operations. It only takes two hours for two technicians. After the mission they transfer the C-130 back for normal use.

Armée de Terre? This helicopter wants to be in the air! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Armée de Terre? This helicopter wants to be in the air! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The Aerotec Group logo on one of the company's demonstrators (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The Aerotec Group logo on one of the company’s demonstrators (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Gazelle overhaul and upgrading
In ATG’s maintenance hangar at the other side of Valence-Chabeuil airport, overhaul and upgrading is done on mostly Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters. Starting with overhauling Alouette 3 helos, in 2007-2008 an agreement was signed with Eurocopter, now known as Airbus Helicopters (Aérospatiale became part of Eurocopter first). Through this agreement, ATG became the only recognized French company for overhaul of this type of helicopter. Combined with their integrated engineering and design department, this gave ATG the opportunity to offer countries a broad range of options to overhaul and upgrade their Gazelle fleet. This also includes complete airframe overhaul, engine inspections and repairs, but also integration of the most advanced equipment such as FLIR camera, glass cockpit and modern weapon systems. Even training of pilot instructors or technicians is done, at ATG or on site.

A former Armée de Terre SA341F, waiting for it's next life (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A former Armée de Terre SA341F, waiting for it’s next life (Image © Dennis Spronk)
It's all about tools, to rebuild this Gazelle (Image © Dennis Spronk)
It’s all about tools, to rebuild this Gazelle (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Upgrade
The French contracted ATG to upgrade former ALAT Gazelles to the specifications of foreign military forces. These upgrades will get the maximum out of the helicopter. First customer was the Tunisian air force, who agreed with to purchase five Gazelles. These were completely overhauled and modernized, including test flights before delivery. ATG also provided NVG flight training to the Tunisian air force pilots. Other foreign customers include the air forces of Iraq (six Gazelles), and Niger (three Gazelles). Overhaul of four Gazelle helicopters for a small southern European country, will finish early 2015. During the Airheadsfly.com visit to ATG, some 6 other Gazelle airframes (all former ALAT) were seen in the overhaul facility.

Overview of the AEROTEC Group hangar, on the left the Gazelle for a small Southern European country, on the right the former ALAT Gazelles (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Overview of the Aerotec Group hangar, on the left the Gazelle for a small Southern European country, on the right the former ALAT Gazelles (Image © Dennis Spronk)
One of the former Armée de Terre Gazelles, waiting for it's next life (Image © Dennis Spronk)
One of the former Armée de Terre Gazelles, waiting for its next life (Image © Dennis Spronk)

The overhaul procedure
The Gazelle helicopter will be operational within the ALAT until 2030 at the latest. “It’s an easy helicopter, because it’s an old type”, says Joffray Sophys, Chief of Avionics at the ATG workshop. He continues working with a smile on his face. Joffray has been an avionics engineer with the ALAT for 16 years after which he spent two years at Eurocopter, before moving to ATG six years ago.

“Complete overhaul of a Gazelle normally should take about three to four months”, says Joffray, “but because some spare parts have delays in delivery time, we take eight months”. That’s the reason why ATG decided to stock some spare parts themselves. Joffray explains there are  eight stages when talking about a complete overhaul at ATG:

  • Step 1: Stripping the whole aircraft, and checking every part of it. This takes three to four weeks
  • Step 2: A report has to be made about the status of the aircraft. This will take one week. The report is used to see if the required work fits into the agreement, or whether additional work must be done.
  • Step 3: Fitting the avionics planning into the mechanical planning. This requires good negotiations between the mechanic, who is the project leader, and the avionics specialist.
  • Step 4: Start working
  • Step 5: After work has been completed, every (avionics) parts is checked, piece by piece
  • Step 6: Ground testing with the engine running
  • Step 7: Basic test flight (15 minutes) with only a test pilot on board, for flight safety
  • Step 8: Regular test flights, which also including a mechanic (one to check the rotor blades, one flight to check mechanical parts, one for radio navigation and one auto compass flight)

So, the Aerotec Group has its work clearly cut out. The result – time and time again – is a maximized Gazelle, a Gazelle that will be flying for many more years to come, in up to date configuration and NVG equipped. Or, as they say at Aerotec Group: “C’est magnifique, n’est ce pas?”

© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Dennis Spronk

Even a good old Gazelle has a lot of wiring, which has to be inspected and checked out (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Even a good old Gazelle has a lot of wiring, which has to be inspected and checked out (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A reliable Astazou IIIC engine, also checked and ready to get back to work (Image © Dennis Spronk)
A reliable Astazou IIIC engine, also checked and ready to get back to work (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Tailbooms in line. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Tailbooms in line. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The Chief of Avionics at work (Image © Dennis Spronk)
At work: the chief of avionics of Aerotec Group inspects the bare bones of a Gazelle helicopter. (Image © Dennis Spronk)