Scale of ambition

There’s nothing quite like the prospect of an imminent unveiling of a new aircraft to get tongues around the industry wagging.

With its X4 project for a replacement of the Dauphin, Airbus Helicopters has done an excellent job at dropping enough hints about the aircraft to keep interest nicely on the boil without giving away many (or indeed any) competitive details.

While the aircraft’s anticipated launch at this year’s Heliexpo did not materialise, the company did use the show to give reporters a rare update on the programme.

X4_Image_NW_1

The aircraft was confirmed as being in the 5 to 6 tonne range and will be offered to the market with a choice of engine from Pratt & Whitney or Turbomeca. The first prototype composite structure of the X4 was due to be delivered in mid-2014 with its first flight due to take place next year.

At that time, the X4 blades had been test flown for 150 flight hours, while the main gear box had started already endurance tests.

So on the face of it, the programme is running according to plan, with an unveiling now likely to happen at Heliexpo in Orlando in March.

However, remarks by Airbus Helicopters president Guillaume Faury at the recent Farnborough airshow suggest that the company may have tempered its ambitions for the X4’s configuration significantly.

Faury revealed that the X4’s avionics and automatic flight control system would be centred on the company’s Helionix suite, already present on the EC175 and EC145 T2, allowing them to introduce any future software upgrades across all three aircraft.

He denied that this was a downscaling of ambitions, arguing instead that this matched expectations from the market for products that were ‘easy to use, easy to operate, cost effective, reliable and creating scale effect’.

‘We want the X4 to go one step further in industrialisation but as well in terms of product maturity selecting from day one the right technologies, the right level of performance, not needing to do something new immediately after entering into service. We believe the X4 as it is today for first certification and entering into service is the right product,’ Faury argued.

The image of the X4 as a sensible, cost-effective machine is a long way from previous statements by Faury’s predecessor Lutz Bertling.

Over the years he had suggested that the aircraft would redefine the way helicopters are operated, and even that the X4 would have ‘no cockpit’, leading to speculation whether this meant it would have true flight automation from take-off to landing, or simply a redesigned cockpit architecture.

Thinking perhaps this idea was simply us excitable reporters reading too much into Bertling’s comments, I went back and checked a 2011 interview with the-then Eurocopter executive VP for engineering Jean-Michel Billig.

Billig confirmed that the plan was for a new avionics suite and fly-by-wire system to be included as part of a second iteration of the aircraft in 2020.

Developed alongside partners Thales and Sagem, the system would likely see flight information projected directly onto the windshield itself, in ‘highway-in-the-sky’ style.

‘On the X4 we are trying to revisit entirely the cockpit layout, overhaul the man-machine interface and to make use of all available volume. Today on a helicopter – and it is efficient but one could question if we could not do it better – the information is primarily shown in a head-down mode,’ Billig said of the company’s thinking at the time.

‘One question was couldn’t we think of better distribution of the information, in head-up mode, which could contribute to lowering the crew workload. So you superimpose some information in the head-up mode along with the external view, which would raise safety.’

When asked about this second iteration of the X4 during the press conference at Farnborough, Faury deftly sidestepped the question and he wouldn’t be drawn on the planned layout of the cockpit.

A more cautious approach would be entirely in line with Faury’s management style and strategy, and he has placed the company’s focus this year on better customer service and product quality.

However, it would be disappointing if the revolutionary technologies once planned for the X4 were shelved as a result.

As we discover in this issue, as it prepares its 525 Relentless for the market, Bell Helicopter clearly believes operators are ready for a step-change in capability after decades of incremental advances in helicopter technology, as we discover in the latest issue of Rotorhub.

No doubt Airbus Helicopters still has a lot of surprises left when it comes to the X4 and the unveiling of the aircraft will likely create unprecedented levels of interest. Hopefully all the previous talk about ‘a whole new way of flying’ won’t cause the launch to be an anti-climax.

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