The SA 341/342 Gazelle: The Helicopter from Blue Thunder
Image by the author
The SA 341/342 Gazelle is an unusual helicopter for those who were accustomed to see helicopters with the exposed tail rotors. Manufactured by France's Sud Aviation which later became Aerospatiale and was now integrated as part of Eurocopter, the rotary arm of the alliance of Europe's leading aviation companies known as EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company) it was one of the early helicopter designs to incorporate the Fenestron tail rotor, an anti torque system that was considered safer and quieter compared to helicopters with the conventional tail rotors. Its inception was brought as replacement to the ageing Aerospatiale Alouette II and carries with it the similar characteristic of the former having three main rotor blades except for the fact that it utilized fixed skid type landing gears in place of tricycle type ones as that of the Alouette. Formally introduced in 1973 it saw action as an anti-tank helicopter with the French ALAT (Army Light Aviation) and later attracted foreign orders allowing it to be built in agreement with UK's Westland Helicopters and Yugoslavia's SOKO aircraft factory. Leading users also include Serbian Air Force, Egyptian Air Force and leading Middle East and African countries.
In the UK, the Gazelle found service with the Royal Air Force, Army Air Corps and Fleet Air Arm. The unusual helicopter design platform also allowed it to be featured as the futuristic helicopter (after some modifications) in the 1983 film “Blue Thunder” which saw Roy Scheider (Jaws) as a renegade police pilot Frank Murphy who took it away other than being used by the villain Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell). It also gained a short time TV aerial in the series “The Highwayman” back in 1987 which starred Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) in a Glen A. Larson/Douglas Heyes created crime series featuring a breed of lawmen utilizing cutting edge technology and equipment on a hi-tech trailer truck whose drive seat transforms into a helicopter cockpit at the switch of a button and easily detaches from the land based chassis.
A Royal Air Corps Gazelle with its turbine encircled for reference
The Fenestron anti-torque/tail rotor system up close
The Gazelle is considered one of the fastest and quietest helicopters in its class powered by a single Turbomeca Astazou IIIA turboshaft engine rated at 590 shp (440 kW) incorporating main rotors built of composite materials as most helicopters are today. The engine assembly was so simplified that the cowling covering the turbine was minimized to the extent that the whole engine structure itself could be clearly seen making it a bit smaller compared to the whole airframe structure it was built to lift. The SA 341G variant is capable of speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph) with a range of more than 400 miles or an endurance of 3.5 hours. It could climb to a maximum ceiling of 20,000 ft and could carry a pilot and 4 passengers. This outstanding performance characteristics allows it to be the leading choice for rotary aircraft aimed at observation/reconnaissance or surveillance functions. Despite that it had been slowly replaced by advanced models from the Eurocopter range of helicopters, most are still flying today and in service for private and government/military duties all over the world.
The highly modified Gazelle in the film "Blue Thunder"