Design engineers from Eurocopter and the Harbin Aircraft subsidiary of China’s Avic II group gathered on January 9 at Marignane in the south of France to open the common design office for the EC 175 helicopter program. The joint program, evenly shared between the Europeans and Chinese, calls for certification and entry into service in 2011. However, so far details about the twin-turbine, seven-ton-class rotorcraft are scarce.
The cooperation agreement was signed by Avic II president Zhang Hongbiao and Eurocopter chief executive Fabrice Bregier on December 5 last year. Each of the companies will invest approximately $360 million to develop the new helicopter. The two partners forecast 800 sales worldwide over the next 20 years.
In Eurocopter’s product range, the EC 175 will fill the gap between the EC 155B and the EC 225 Super Puma. It will be certified for two-pilot IFR and single-pilot VFR operations, carrying up to 16 passengers. Max takeoff weight will be 14,750 pounds. Early specifications also include a 140- to 150-knot cruise speed and a 200-nm range. According to Francis Combes, Eurocopter’s EC 175 program director, the design focus is on ease of operation, ease of maintenance and environment friendliness.
The common design phase is planned to last nine to 12 months. “Forty to fifty Chinese engineers and as many Europeans will meet to agree on a definition and select equipment, such as engines,” Combes told Aviation International News.
The partners have yet to decide on whether one or several engines will be offered on the airframe, but a single-source powerplant is the most likely option, Combes admitted. Among the turboshafts being considered for the EC 175 are the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C, the General Electric CT7, the Turbomeca Ardiden or even a derated Turbomeca Makila.
The EC 175 will incorporate proven but updated technology in its avionics, Combes said. The five-bladed main rotor will use Eurocopter’s Spheriflex architecture. The airframe will feature high-energy absorption technology.
Combes confirmed that Eurocopter would not have launched the EC 175 without a cooperation with the Chinese. He suggested that the development cost would have been too high for a single manufacturer.
The first flight of the EC 175 is pegged for 2009 at Marignane. The new helicopter is expected to receive certification from both the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) two years later. Flight testing will take place both in China and France. “It is a tighter schedule than it seems,” Combes asserted, pointing out that the EC 175 is a clean-sheet design.
Two assembly lines will be built, one at each partner’s base. They will be very similar although not identical. Total production should reach 35 aircraft per year after three years.
Eurocopter CEO Fabrice Bregier emphasized that Eurocopter will control intellectual property rights and know-how in this latest agreement with China. “We have technical leadership of the project and respect the rules. There is no transfer of technology. The venture starts from scratch and each party’s role is clearly defined. There is no military application and the EC 175 does not breach the embargo on arms sales to China,” he told AIN.
The program is shared on a 50-50 basis and Eurocopter insists that the limits of the workshares are very clear. “We want to avoid any useless technology transfer,” Combes explained. Harbin Aircraft is in charge of the airframe whereas its European counterpart is in charge of the gearbox and the avionics.