In November 2017, the Brazilian Army’s (EB, per its Portuguese acronym) Aviation Training Center (CIAvEx, per its Portuguese acronym) and 1st Aviation Battalion (1º BAvEx, per its Portuguese acronym), will each receive an upgraded Esquilo helicopter. These versatile helicopters are very much in demand for different types of missions throughout the country. “The Esquilo is a small aircraft and very adaptable. We can land in the backyard of a house, which we actually did during a humanitarian operation that I took a part in,” said Brazilian Army Captain Leonardo Costa Castiglioni, a pilot with 1º BAvEx.
The EB fleet counts 36 Esquilo helicopters, which the 3rd Aviation Battalion also uses. Upgrades of the aircraft—one at a time—started in 2011, under an agreement between EB and the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, Helibras. The Esquilo helicopter upgrade program will bring the aircraft at the forefront of technological advances in aviation. Changes to the aircraft include the installation of autopilot technologies, digital navigation systems, new weapons pylons, and a new communications system. Since 2011, Helibras has delivered to EB 16 helicopters with these new capabilities, extending their lifespan by 20 years.
Upgraded Esquilos have been assigned to most operations conducted in 2017 in addition to during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. “At the Olympics, the Esquilos were used for command and control duties to monitor certain areas of Rio [de Janeiro],”Capt. Castiglioni remembered. “For example, the operations commander would observe traffic situation from above to radio information to teams that were working on the ground and get athletes to their different events.”
At the Olympics, the helicopters were also occasionally used to transport members of the delegations. The new Esquilo helicopters can carry three passengers, in addition to the basic crew of a pilot, copilot, and flight mechanic.
Keeping up with technology
As a pilot, Capt. Castiglioni says that the greatest benefit of the Esquilo upgrade was the installation of an autopilot system. The new option allows for a sequence of maneuvers to be programmed in advance, freeing up the pilot and copilot for other tasks during the flight.
“Another important modification was the inclusion of an onboard GPS system. This is integrated with the autopilot system and it improves our ability to navigate and operate the aircraft,” said Capt. Castiglioni. “For example, now I can have the helicopter fly on autopilot to a desired destination, within a certain pre-set flight pattern, without constantly having to control it.”
The autopilot technology didn’t exist on the older models of the Esquilo, nor did the digital screens that are the main features of the new glass cockpit system. “In the older helicopters, which are still being operated by 1º BAvEx, flight deck instruments are all analog. On the new models, they are all digital, in the form of LCD screens,” says EB Sergeant Willian Jonathan de Oliveira Cruz, flight mechanic for the Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron of the 1º BAvEx.
The analog technology provides information on the position and angle of attack of the helicopter, as well as data pertaining to navigation and spatial awareness, and information on potential problems with weapons and lights systems, among others. “The advances of the instrument panel allows the crew to make quicker decisions and to be more agile in their actions during flight, specifically because information is more readily available and more precise,” said Sgt. Willian.
Flight mechanics are now part of the crew on the new Esquilo helicopters. The location of the weapon pylons on these helicopters prevented them from joining the crew. With the upgrade, weapons pylons were shifted from the front section, next to the cockpit, to the rear of the aircraft.
The change allowed for flight mechanics to fly aboard the aircraft and undertake basic maintenance duties — such as a general revision of the helicopter and fuel supply — and to operate weapons and surveillance cameras during flight, as well as assist in rappel and cargo drop operations. The pilot operates the pylons that carry the helicopter's weapons. Esquilo helicopters are armed with .50 caliber machine guns and 70 mm rocket launchers. The flight mechanic uses lateral machine guns that can be installed based on the type of mission.
Capt. Castiglioni told Diálogo that EB has an open bid for a new weapons system for its Esquilo helicopters that has to conform to the position of the weapons pylons on the updated aircraft. This addition will allow for the deployment of a wider range of weapons, such as different calibers of rockets, missiles, and other types of machine guns.
Plans are also underway to upgrade the eagle-eye system of cameras, monitoring, and capturing and transmitting images from the aircraft. “The system currently in use is old and not compatible with HD cameras, and it’s also very heavy. Our current camera weighs about 70 kilograms. We need to upgrade these systems as well,” said Capt. Castiglioni.