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Cold weather testing: Bemidji area offers perfect location for helicopter manufacturer

A Twin Engine 109E Power helicopter hovers over Paul Bunyan Friday afternoon after a week of cold weather testing conducted by manufactures AgustaWestland. Pioneer Photo/ Monte Draper1 / 2
Dressed in Bemidji Woolen Mills signature red-and-black plaid, Ira Batchelder, left, and Bill Batchelder get to view two helicopters being cold weather tested at North Memorial Air Care hangar Friday afternoon. With the Batchelder father and son are Chief of Flight Operations Experimental Test Pilot Chris Hyder, second from left, and Flight Test Engineer Andrea Castelli, both with AgustaWestland. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper2 / 2

Bemidji, long known as a cold weather test site for cars and trucks, is now a site for cold weather testing of helicopters.

Pilots, engineers and mechanics from AgustaWestland of Philadelphia, Pa., spent last week testing two helicopters they manufacture, a single-engine helicopter "Koloa" and a used 109E Power twin engine, whose previous owner for the past eight years was the U.S. Coast Guard in Florida.

Chris Hyder, chief of Flight Operations Experimental Test Pilot, said Bemidji was selected for two reasons: obviously, the cold weather, but also because of North Memorial Air Care, which has a hanger at Bemidji Airlines and own eight helicopters for air ambulance services.

"We did cold soak testing," said Hyder. "It basically sits outside. All our testing is taking the requirements to the edge of the envelope. The certifications require testing at minus-35 (degrees) C, but we have a 10-degree leeway."

The headquarters for AgustaWestland is near Milan, Italy. Accompanying the testing project was Flight Test Engineer Andrea Castelli. Castelli said the helicopters were first tested inside in a controlled minus-35 (degree) C chamber. Possible problem areas were discovered and corrected. The next step was testing outside.

Castelli said he tested the helicopters in three areas - stability, auto rotation and engine-fail test. Both helicopters passed and were certified by the FAA. AgustaWestland will conduct the last test today, a low-load test.

AgustaWestland crew members developed a friendship with owner of the Bemidji Woolen Mills, Bill Batchelder, after shopping at the retail outlet. Batchelder showed them old photos from the 1960s that hang in Woolen Mills office. One image is of the military test plane and the other is of a helicopter flying over the statues of Paul and Babe, which at that time, stood on the edge of Lake Bemidji.

On Friday afternoon, the crew duplicated one of the old photos by flying over the statues for a photo opportunity.