Bristow Helicopters, the largest global helicopter provider, is set to become the U.S. launch customer for the not-yet-certified Eurocopter EC175. Representatives of the operator and manufacturer are expected to sign the purchase agreement at Eurocopter’s Heli-Expo booth (No. C2922) at 3 p.m. this afternoon, here in Las Vegas.
The contract will finalize an earlier letter of intent and confirm Bristow’s purchase of 12 EC175s, plus an unspecified number of options for more. Eurocopter currently holds firm orders for 29 EC175s.
Before and after Eurocopter introduced the EC175 at Heli-Expo 2008 in Houston, the company relied on input and feedback from potential customers to define the design and capabilities of a “super-medium/light-heavy” helicopter for the biggest potential markets, these being the oil and gas industries, search-and-rescue (SAR) and VIP. The biggest global player in these markets is Bristow Group.
“Bristow was part of the customer group that advised Eurocopter on the EC175 and a key contributor to its design,” Marc Paganini, Eurocopter president and CEO, told AIN. “We are very happy that Bristow will be the first operator to put the EC175 in service in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Here at Heli-Expo, Eurocopter is showing the first series-production (S01) example of the EC175 (F-WMXB), decked out with a Bristow logo and its livery. It is the third EC175 to fly, which it did for the first time in December. Just two months later and one week ago, F-WMXB landed on an oil platform for the first time, after flying from Bristow’s operating base in New Iberia, La., to the Gulf of Mexico installation.
The first EC175 (prototype PT1) first flew in December 2009 and PT3 made its first flight in December 2011 (PT2 is a non-flying prototype). To date, PT1 has flown 360 hours, PT3 has 185 hours and S01 has 45 hours, for a total of 590 hours for the fleet. According to a Eurocopter spokesperson, “All the flight tests of the basic vehicle are finished. We are performing the flight tests of the oil-and-gas mission equipment in order to propose a comprehensive list of equipment at the time of the entry in service. Most of the certification flight tests are thus behind us.
“The EC175’s type certification schedule is being paced by the aircraft’s avionics system,” the spokesperson continued. “Certification of the Helionix system is now planned for the summer of 2013, and will be immediately followed by certification of the EC175 in the oil-and-gas mission configuration. This certification schedule remains consistent with Eurocopter’s contractual delivery commitments.” The EC175 is the first helicopter equipped with Helionix, which will be certified according to the latest international avionics standards.
Last year at this time Eurocopter had estimated EASA certification by the end of 2012. Bristow will receive its first aircraft soon after certification of the oil-and-gas version.
What Bristow Wants
“The number one question when a helicopter is designed is what missions will it do and what part of these markets it will serve,” Bill Chiles, CEO and director of Bristow Group, explained to AIN in a telephone interview last week. “Bristow has done a lot of work comparing the 175 [maximum weight 16,535 pounds (7,500 kg)] with the heavy and the medium helicopters, as well as the other light-heavy helicopter being designed, the AW189. When you look at the mission profile of carrying 16 passengers on a 135- to 140-nautical-mile radius on a standard day, with OGP configuration and IFR reserve, that’s a very compelling sweet spot for us.”
“OGP configuration” refers to guidelines developed by the aviation subcommittee of the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP). Among other things, these guidelines recommend equipment for helicopters and aircraft operating in the oil-and-gas industry, from items as simple as passenger briefing cards to more complicated and costly health and usage monitoring systems, vibration monitoring systems, aircraft flotation and life rafts and emergency pop-out windows. For multi-engine helicopters carrying more than 10 passengers, the guidelines recommend more than 40 special items.
“If we can use the EC175 for this mission profile,” Chiles continued, “it will be almost half the cost per seat-mile compared to a heavy helicopter.” The heavies in this market are the Sikorsky S-92 and Eurocopter EC225. “Obviously, if you need to carry 18 passengers and need to go to 180 nautical miles, the super mediums, or what we call the light heavies, don’t work.”
He said Bristow ran the EC175 against various mission profiles in different parts of the world. “It definitely has very special place in the market,” he commented. “We wonder how much of the heavy market it’s going to eat into.”
However, Chiles did say Bristow is hoping for more range. “It’s at 140 nautical miles right now, which works for us and is a good place to start off. But we really wanted to get 140 to 150 nautical miles with 16 passengers. We’re almost there. We might be able to get to 150.”
Paganini said the EC175 would fly an unrefueled roundtrip to 195 nm with 12 passengers and to 105 nm with a full load of 18 passengers. Maximum fuel load is about 4,600 pounds.
The continental shelf underlying the Gulf of Mexico accounts for the significance of the 150-mile range, explained Rob Phillips, director of flight operations for Bristow’s North America business unit. From many operating bases in the Gulf Coast states, the shelf ends at about 150 miles out, and the deep water begins. This is the area where much exploration is taking place and planned. Phillips said the oil companies–Bristow’s customers–want safe, twin-engine, IFR helicopters that can fly out and back to rigs and platforms in this zone without refueling and at a lower cost than the large offshore helicopters.
“We like that the 175 will be certified to the latest FAR 29 requirements,” Chiles said. We like the safety aspects of its crashworthy fuel system, the seat configuration, which provides fairly easy egress, the large pop-out windows in the cabin and the robust HUMS with flight-data monitoring. We like that it has fairly traditional fuselage construction, with composites in the cowlings. We like the simplicity of not having an APU; you can de-clutch one of the engines instead. An APU is fine, but it’s another engine and you have to maintain it. We like that Eurocopter chose the PT6 engine, which works well on this aircraft.” The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67Es on the EC175 are rated at 1,300 pounds shp each.
Chiles also mentioned the EC175’s five-blade rotor system and its Helionix avionics with four multifunction displays, which are both similar to those on the EC225, the simplicity of the DC electrical system, the pressure refueling and that the aircraft is planned for delivery with Tcas II. “Summing up the top reasons we bought the machine,” he concluded, “Safety first. The design is fairly straightforward. It meets all the latest safety requirements. And the PT6 engines.”
About the price Bristow is paying for its 12 aircraft, Chiles said, “I guess we’re never happy with the price, but let’s say we reached a reasonable compromise. No one is going away doing double-back flips, but at least we’re both reasonably happy. That’s the way it should be.” Eurocopter declined to comment on the base price of the EC175 or the price of Bristow’s offshore versions. Although not confirmed, about $8 million or so has been reported by various publications.
According to Bristow Group in a presentation given at the Credit Suisse Energy Summit in early February, the Group employs about 3,400 people and operates some 550 aircraft in 20 countries. More than 60 percent of Bristow’s revenue relates to oil and gas production and the company operates about one-third of the 1,700 helicopters serving the industry.
Flying the EC175
As part of a two-week tour in the U.S., Eurocopter last week brought the “Bristow EC175” (F-WMXB), which is being shown here at Heli-Expo ‘13, to New Iberia, La., to give Bristow an opportunity to show it to its staff and to current and potential oil industry customers. Several pilots had an opportunity to fly the helicopter with Alain Di Bianca, chief test pilot for the EC175, and Michel Oswald, chief flight engineer for the aircraft. Some flight-test equipment is installed in F-WMXB and Oswald is there to monitor things and make use of the flight time running various tests.
Shawn Vaughn was one of the Bristow pilots who flew the helicopter. He is a pilot check airman with Bristow, flying S-76s, has more than 4,000 hours in helicopters, holds ATP and CFII helicopter certificates and flew Sikorsky Black Hawks in the Army. The EC175 was the first Eurocopter he has ever flown.
Vaughn told AIN he felt the EC175 was “a very stable and smooth platform. I was surprised at how smooth the rotor system was at higher airspeeds, even approaching Vne.” While the sky was clear during his flight, the winds were about 15 knots and there was some turbulence at 3,000 to 4,000 feet.
Vaughn rode in the cabin when another Bristow pilot shot an ILS approach to New Iberia Airport. He said the other pilot did not seem to have any difficulty in setting up the nav system for the ILS. “The aircraft did what it was supposed to do and stayed on glideslope and course. I didn’t see any issues.”
He said he felt comfortable flying the aircraft after only one traffic pattern, but did not want to speculate about how long it would take him to learn the aircraft’s systems, especially since he is not familiar with other Eurocopter products.
“It’s an easy aircraft to fly,” he said. “The controls are in the right position and the FLI [first-limit indicator] system decreases workload.” In hover, he found the EC175 very stable. “Alain demonstrated an OGE hover at 3,000 feet, and then accelerated the aircraft to 60 knots at 3,000 feet.” Vaughn was not sure, but it would appear that Di Bianca used a “go around” feature to regain airspeed.
“The EC175 was very smooth and stable,” Vaughn concluded. “It was exciting and refreshing to get into an aircraft with the technology it has. I really enjoyed it.”
The author had a chance to fly the EC175 the day before Vaughn’s flight, but only for a short time because of inclement weather. Di Bianca demonstrated the autopilot’s hands-off control in a hover, using normal functions. If anything, the hover seemed more stable than it had been a year ago when I flew for more than an hour in EC175 PT1.
We flew one wide traffic pattern at New Iberia, under Special VFR and below a 600-foot ceiling in mist and rain, quite realistic conditions for offshore operations, I felt. Unfortunately, we had to land to avoid the approach of a reported thunderstorm with hail. Like Vaughn, I found the aircraft easy to fly but know it would take some good training and serious study to become comfortable with its sophisticated systems, particularly its avionics.
Some EC175 Performance Specifications
Max gross weight: 16,535 pounds
Max speed, VNe: 175 knots
Fast cruise speed: 149 knots
Recommended cruise, S/L: 147 knots
Best range speed, S/L: 130 knots
Best endurance speed: 80 knots
Fuel consumption (RC): 1,216 lb/hr
Fuel consumption (BR): 1,045 lb/hr
Hover ceiling, IGE, T/O power, ISA: >10,000 feet
Hover ceiling, OGE, T/O power, ISA: 8,068 feet
Service ceiling, 80 kt: 15,000 feet
Max range, BRS, w/o fuel reserve: 619 nm
Max endurance, 80 kt, w/o fuel reserve: 5:59 hours
Rate of climb, OEI continuous power, 80 kt: 502 fpm