Dubai Air Show

World’s helicopter makers descend on Iranian market

 - December 6, 2006, 12:53 PM

Iranian customers have recently placed orders for 15 locally built Shahed-278 light helicopters, but suppliers from around the world see Iran as a market ripe for development. The interest reflects the growing demand for modern rotorcraft to support Iran’s flourishing oil, shipping and construction business industries, as well as for medevac and VIP travel.

Aviation Industries Research Center in Isfahan developed the Shahed-278 as a follow-on to the Shahed-274, first flown in 1998 but subsequently shelved after the launch customer demanded larger seating capacity. The request led to the Shahed-278’s four-passenger, single-pilot configuration.

The Iranians have built three prototypes, the first of which flew in 2001. The production version features a glass cockpit, composite blades and fuselage and a single locally produced copy of an Allison 250C20 engine. The helicopter can also use the Ukrainian-built AI-450 as an alternative powerplant.

With empty equipped weight of 1,503 pounds and a max takeoff weight of 3,200 pounds, the Shahed-278 can cruise at 124 knots and climb at 46 fps. Fuel capacity allows for a range of 324 nm.

The HESA plant in Isfahan will produce the Shahed. Reportedly, the company has begun reverse-engineering the Bell Cobra attack helicopter. By no means new to the rotorcraft business, HESA (the Farsi acronym for Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Co.) started life in 1964 as Iran Helicopter Co. to support imported Bell models.

SAHA (Iran Aircraft Industries) and PANHA (Iran Helicopter Support and Renewal Co.) work on various other rotorcraft programs. PANHA applied reverse engineering to produce copies of the Bell 205 and 206 models, while SAHA has mastered not just repair and overhaul of the Bell 205/212/412 families, but also manufacturing parts for them.

Separately, Iran’s Red Cross has taken delivery of three Mil Mi-17V5s from Russia’s Kazan Helicopters, becoming the first overseas civilian user of the Klimov VK2500-powered aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Iranian defense ministry continues to take delivery of additional Mi-171Sh helicopters from Russia’s Ulan-Ude plant. An initial order for 25 unarmed aircraft came in 1998, and a follow-on deal for 20 more surfaced in 2000. However, deliveries temporarily came to a halt because of financial problems after the shipment of seven helicopters. The government has slated the remaining 13 Mi-171s for funding in the current Iranian budgetary year (which started on March 21).

Plans call for arming the helicopters with 58mm S-8 unguided rockets and GSh-23-2 23-mm twin-barrel cannons. So far, all the military Mi-171s have gone to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, including five to the Guard’s naval air arm.

Meanwhile, Iran’s private sector is also expanding its rotary-wing fleet thanks to Russian manufacturers. Small Iranian companies already operate a dozen Mi-8/17s and Kamov Ka-32s.

Navid Air, for instance, has added a Mi-17V5 to an earlier acquired Mi-8. Managing director Captain Azin told Aviation International News that its fleet increased from two helicopters in 2002 to five this year, including three Bell 212s. The company is looking for additional Mi-17s and, most of all, medium-sized helicopters such as the Kazan Helicopters Ansat. The heavy Mils have proved effective in delivering equipment for oil field exploration, but they cannot land on relatively small Gulf oil rigs, generally the province of lighter Bells.

“If Russian industry wants to succeed in Iran and other countries in the region” said Azin, “they should establish a local support system here with warehouses and maintenance facilities manned by qualified personnel to support the owners of the Mil and Kamov helicopters. If that happens, Iranian organizations will be looking for additional machines.”

Navid Air is talking with officials of the Ulan-Ude factory on just that matter, specifically efforts to create a local repair and overhaul station, following an experiment of overhauling Mi-17s at SAHA facilities at Rayam Airport near Tehran.

Other private Iranian companies operate Ka-32s. LG International sees an immediate market demand for at least seven more Kamovs. LG wants to use its own experience of Ka-32 operations in South Korea and through a partnership with Kamov and KumAPE to help market the type in Iran.

Eurocopter and AgustaWestland

Next year, Eurocopter expects to deliver three AS365N3 Dauphin twins under an order from Iran’s Ministry of Roads and Transportation. They will operate with the Ports and Shipping Co. (PSC) on shipping support and search-and-rescue duties off Iran’s Gulf coast. Eurocopter hopes follow-on orders will help it maintain its current position as the leading Western civil helicopter supplier to Iran.

Eurocopter estimates the immediate need of the Iranian market at 100 to 150 helicopters over the next three years. Most demand lies in the Dauphin class, although so far the AS350 Ecureuil series remains the best seller.

AS350 deliveries took place from 2000 onwards to the Geological Survey of Iran (GSI) and the Ministry of Oil (operated by Helicopter Services Organization). They have supplemented older Alouette III and BO 105 machines, of which 30 remain in operation.

Eurocopters tend to enjoy a higher rate of flight readiness than the Bells due to the U.S. embargo on selling parts and equipment to Iran. Of more than 100 helicopters in the Iranian civil inventory, no more than half can fly safely. Iranian operators often hire Bells and Eurocopters from neighboring Gulf states for offshore operations and oil industry support.

AgustaWestland remains optimistic about its chances in the growing Iranian market as it hopes to sell “dozens” of A109s to Iran in the coming years. The model is not subject to the U.S. trade embargo because less than 10 percent of its content comes from the U.S. It could present a good solution for offshore operations, VIP travel, oil industry support and medical evacuation. Nevertheless, no A109s operate in Iran today.