One more hit for the helicopter junkie

So you wait all year for the launch of a new helicopter and then three come along at once.

At the Heli-Expo exhibition in Orlando we were introduced to the Airbus Helicopters H160 and two new airframes from Composite Helicopters from New Zealand.

The unveiling of any new rotorcraft helicopter always adds a certain spark to Heli-Expo – the world’s biggest helicopter exhibition. While the annual launch of type upgrades may help the helicopter addict make it through the next 12 months, the real hit only comes when the covers come off a long-rumoured new aircraft never before shown to the public.

In 2012 it was the Bell 525 Relentless super medium helicopter that was unveiled at a ceremony straight out of Hollywood. Bell’s unveiling of the 505 Jet Ranger X in 2014 arguably had less impact, since the product had already been formally launched at the previous year’s Paris Air Show.

Like any good product, both aircraft came with a ready-made narrative, which provided insight into Bell’s intentions in the commercial sector and wider trends at play in the market itself.

This year Airbus Helicopters revealed the H160, which was the result of its X4 project to create a successor to the Dauphin/EC155.

3d front view landscape

The H160 launch created quite a stir but was by no means the only surprise of the event as New Zealand company Composite Helicopters International showed two new helicopters to the general public for the first time.

There were also a number of upgrades announced, including the Bell 407GXP, which has already been sold in a 200 aircraft order to Air Methods.

Perhaps most notably, however, was news that Bristow has teamed with AgustaWestland to help develop the AW609 civil tiltrotor, to prepare the aircraft for oil and gas, and SAR duties.

One of the AW609 prototypes even appeared at the show emblazoned in Bristow colours. The CEO described the tiltrotor as the future of point-to-point transportation in hostile environments.

The AW609 developmental programme has been a drawn out affair to say the least: Bell pulled out of the project in 2011 so the involvement of a savvy operator such as Bristow gives the project a boost of credibility.

But back to the H160, and how it fits into the company’s wider transformation into Airbus Helicopters.

You can read our story on the new aircraft here – detail that was provided to Shephard thanks to unprecedented access to a myriad of officials involved in the project in advance of Heli-Expo.

The H160 is intended from the start to contain ‘Airbus DNA’. While this is a vapid piece of marketing-speak, it does point to the development and industrialisation lessons the company has taken from its fixed-wing big brother.

Part of the transformation into Airbus Helicopters resulted in a change of direction for the X4 project – the emphasis was placed on technologies the market needs now, rather than revolutionising the way a helicopter is flown.

Former CEO Lutz Bertling had piled the weight of expectation onto the project stating that the X4 would change the way a helicopter is flown and would not include a traditional cockpit.

AR droite horizontale

Visions abounded of highway in the sky navigation, with all navigation information projected onto the canopy and fly-by-wire (FBW) flight controls making the pilot more of a systems manager than an old fashioned aviator.

Such comments have not made life easier for the management team as they launch a helicopter that still has a traditional cockpit and flight control systems. This is because new CEO Guillume Faury has taken a more pragmatic approach to the positioning of the H160.

He points out that the Helionix avionics suite was not available when the X4 project started and its use allows the company to move towards a common cockpit concept.

While FBW has distinct value for fixed wing operations, especially in relation to fuel efficiency, Faury argues that the benefits to the commercial market where less obvious. It seems the Bell 525 is going to remain the pathfinder for the technology in the civil sector.

Arguably just as ambitious, but more relevant to today’s operators, is the goal of the H160 reaching 95% availability ‘from day one’.

Questions remain about the positioning of the H160 if the weight increase has left a gap in the company’s portfolio. Airbus Helicopters is philosophical about this, arguing it is more about how the capability meets the mission than having an aircraft that sits in every weight class.

Something that cannot be easily measured but which must play a factor at some level when a buyer decides what they want is the look of an aircraft. Here, Airbus has clearly opted for style for style’s sake and the H160 is undeniably a good-looking aircraft.

Chief designer Guillaume Chielens, who has the fabulous title of Head of Design, Style & Loft, told Shephard that you simply ‘cannot measure’ the added value of style and the look of the aircraft.

With the aircraft now unveiled to the world at Heli-Expo, the helicopter industry can of course judge all this for itself. But the company seems to be on the right path with the H160 as a way to erode the AW139’s dominance of the sector.

AW609

For AgustaWestland, it used Heli-Expo to unveil a heavier, 7t version of the AW139 and French civil operator Heli-Union was announced as the launch customer. But whether this is enough to fend off the H160’s acceptance onto the market is doubtful.

The number of order announcements during the show appeared to be significantly down on previous years, but with next-generation designs such as the AW609 and H160 inching closers to service, there is going to be no shortage of excitement in the sector in coming years.

 

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