While Eurocopter remains the leader in unit sales of civil helicopters, its competitors are honing their products. The company’s management team is well aware of the pressure, as one official recently expressed concern about new competing products from Western manufacturers. He stated that they will soon be as capable as, and less expensive than, Eurocopter’s.
AgustaWestland is thus developing a new maritime search-and-rescue version of the AW139. The current versions are highly successful, with more than 200 ordered. Seeing a ready market, Eurocopter is now designing the EC 175 with a Chinese partner.
In addition, Bell, in partnership with Agusta, is developing the first civil tiltrotor, the BA609. Although certification has been postponed to 2010, the endeavor is progressing on both sides of the Atlantic, with one prototype flying in Italy, in addition to the one tested in Texas.
Bell is betting that its Modular Affordable Product Line (MAPL) of helicopters will transform its manufacturing process and produce more efficient aircraft. The twin-engine 429, the first MAPL-designed Bell helicopter, is slated to enter flight-test early this year. Another threat is emerging now that some indigenous designs are in production. For example, the HAL Dhruv might become a lower-cost alternative to Western products in developing countries.
AgustaWestland is working on a maritime search-and-rescue version of the AW139 medium twin. Development should be completed this year. The launch customers are the Japanese Coast Guard and CHC Helicopter (under a UK MoD contract).
Entry into service of two AW139 flight simulators is imminent at Rotorsim, AgustaWestland’s training venture with CAE in Sesto Calende, Italy. A third one will follow in the middle of next year near the company’s Philadelphia production site.
The production rate is climbing, with 37 copies manufactured last year, 42 planned for this year, and an eventual ramp up to 45 to 50 per year. Half of the production soon will come from the Philadelphia line, which delivered its first AW139 late last year. The other half of the production will remain in Vergiate, Italy.
As of October the fleet leader had logged about 6,400 flight hours. The European company has received orders for more than 200 AW139s, 35 percent of them from the offshore market. A clean-sheet design certified late in 2004, the AW139 is currently facing little competition, but that situation should change in 2011 with the planned certification of the Eurocopter EC 175.
The AW139 is a six-metric-ton-class helicopter, with a list price close to $10 million. In high-density configuration, it can seat 15 passengers. It is certified for single-pilot IFR operations.
AgustaWestland is now the only stakeholder in the program, having taken over Bell’s 25 percent. As a result, the helicopter is now known as the AW139 rather than the AB139.
Grand AgustaWestland is developing a new variant of the Grand offering six forward-facing passenger seats with a 35-inch pitch and targeted at the offshore transport market. The seats will be redesigned to comply with the latest crashworthiness rules. The European manufacturer hopes to have the helicopter certified by year-end. As of October, 114 Grands had been sold since the program was announced in mid-2004.
Almost exactly one year after its Hollywood-style debut at Heli-Expo 2005, the Bell 429 GlobalRanger light twin-engine helicopter is slated to make its first flight any day, the company’s executive director for commercial programs, Bill Stromberg, told AIN.
“The 429 is moving rapidly,” Stromberg said, noting that the aircraft will not be on display at next month’s Heli-Expo in Orlando. “It’s more important that we get it up and flying, rather than show it at a trade show. Our customers will support us on that. They want it badly.”
Two prototype aircraft recently completed ground testing on the flight control actuation systems, clearing the way for flight testing to begin. According to Stromberg, the first three production aircraft will also participate in the one-year flight-test program.
The timeline for FAA certification has been delayed more than a year–to the third quarter of next year–primarily due to flight control system design modifications and a backlog of 20 weeks in the parts supply chain, and in some cases a year or more.
“We are actively working with our supply chain to ensure we have parts in place to support the production ramp up,” Stromberg said. “We’ve had some issues getting parts out of our own internal factories as well as our supplier factories. We also uncovered some risk items that we want to ensure we have a good handle on. We want to make sure this helicopter is put out into the field with a high level of maturity.”
Stromberg said engineers worked through the Christmas holiday to resolve a few “relatively simple engineering issues” within the flight control linkage system.
Bell has taken orders for more than 180 copies of the 429, and the base price has jumped to $4.865 million (2007 dollars), up from the $3.95 million announced at last year’s Heli-Expo. Stromberg said the price reflects the high demand for the new model, yet still falls within the range Bell originally intended.
“If you look at the 429 compared to, say, the 427, we’re already seeing improvements in operating economics due to some of these technologies that we’re putting in place,” he said. The 429 is already showing a 5- to 7-percent reduction in direct operating costs compared to the 427, he said, mainly as a result of reductions in maintenance material costs. Stromberg said the blade grip on the 429 has a lifespan about six times that of the 427’s.
The 429 incorporates 10 of the company’s 13 MAPL design traits, which include modifications to the way the rotor blades are fabricated and shaped, a more open cockpit design, and a dual hydraulic system integrated with a fully coupled three-axis autopilot. The three MAPL elements that the company is still working on are an advanced-technology engine with lower operating costs, a quiet anti-torque device and a main rotor system that will enable the 429 to fly faster than its predecessors.
“The motivation for MAPL…was to begin replacing our more aging aircraft with a family of helicopters that had a lot of commonality,” Stromberg said. “We were looking for as much part-number commonality across the product line as possible, and where we couldn’t get that, we were looking for manufacturing process commonality. [Our goal was] to take the fullest advantage of economies of scale, so that we could pass on this reduced price to our customers.”
Stromberg said the next-generation engine would offer a significant reduction in direct operating costs and integrate well with the rest of the drive system. This might involve eliminating reduction gearboxes and FADEC technology, and instead incorporating these functions within the flight control computer. The two 429s that are about to begin flight-testing will use Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207B engines.
“There’s a fundamental rule of thumb in aviation, you never develop a new fuselage with a new engine; you just don’t put those two together,” Stromberg said. “We started MAPL with a proven drive system and incorporated those new technologies around that drive system.”
Eurocopter and partner Harbin Aircraft (a subsidiary of China’s AVIC II) will unveil details on the EC 175 in June at the Paris Air Show. An artist’s rendering (below) provides a glimpse at the EC 175’s appearance. Design started late in 2005, with Chinese engineers coming to Eurocopter’s offices in Marignane, France. Last December, Eurocopter said the program was on schedule.
The development timeline calls for the helicopter to fly in 2009 and to achieve certification in 2011. Harbin Aircraft is in charge of the airframe, main rotor, tail transmission, flight controls and fuel system, while Eurocopter is responsible for the main gearbox, tail rotor, avionics, hydraulics and electrical system. Integration and flight testing also falls under the purview of the European partner. The two companies have cooperated on previous projects. For example, AVIC II has a 24-percent share in the EC 120 program.
The companies will establish a production line in Marignane and one in Harbin.
The EC 175 (or Z15, under its Chinese designation) will be certified for two-pilot IFR and single-pilot VFR operations when carrying up to 16 passengers. Early specifications also include a 140- to 150-knot cruise speed and a 200-nm range. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C, General Electric CT7, Turbomeca Ardiden or even a derated Turbomeca Makila are strong engine candidates. The five-blade main rotor will use Eurocopter’s Spheriflex architecture.
In Eurocopter’s range of products, the 6.7-metric-ton EC 175 will fill the gap between the EC 155 Dauphin and the EC 225 Super Puma. It will compete with the AgustaWestland AW139. The partners expect to sell 800 worldwide over the next 20 years.
A spokesman at the Indian manufacturer told AIN late last year that EASA validation of the Dhruv’s Indian certification is “in discussions.” After an accident in November 2005 caused by a tail-rotor failure, the entire 62-aircraft fleet was to be retrofitted with a new tail rotor by this month. The cause of the tail rotor failure was found to be in the bonding material. The new tail rotor has been flying for almost a year, including in aerobatic displays, a HAL spokesman told AIN.
HAL expects to produce 18 helicopters between January 2006 and March of this year.
Recent improvements to the airframe include better soundproofing, broader seats and easier maintenance. For example, the company changed the shape of panels to improve access to some line replaceable units. First deliveries with a new IAI glass cockpit are pegged for next month.
A program that was initially reported to be a major cooperative effort among Mil, Kazan and Eurocopter has dwindled to a purely Russian venture. The Mi-38 is a derivative of the Mi-17 transport. The three manufacturers in 1994 announced they would jointly use the latter as the basis for a heavy transport to supersede aging Sikor- sky CH-53s and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks.
Last May, French-based Thales was selected to develop an integrated avionics suite, based on Russian ZAO Transas products. The Mi-38 will also get a Thales autopilot and electric power generation. The helicopter flew in late 2003.
Bulletins on the program are scarce. Neither Mil nor Kazan was available to give an update. Thales and Pratt & Whitney Canada, which supplies the 2,500-shp PW127T/S engines through a venture with Klimov, also declined to give any details on progress.
Russian promoters of the project said earlier in the program that the Russian oil and gas sector would be the major user of the new helicopter. Kazan Helicopters claimed the helicopter would meet FAR 29 requirements and European JAR 29, Category A and B. The manufacturer said the helicopter is suited to temperatures from -60 degrees C to +50 degrees C. The companies are considering several versions of the helicopter–a VIP model for 12 passengers, a standard 30-passenger model, an EMS model, a freighter and a sling transport. The first Mi-38 is due to be delivered next year.
Eurocopter, which originally billed the Mi-38 as an answer to European forces’ needs, now says the helicopter’s mission has not yet been defined. No early specifications or development schedule have been revealed. AIN understands the cooperation is in standby mode. In fact, Eurocopter is still talking to other possible partners–including U.S. ones–for such a heavy transport and could thus formally drop its participation in the Mi-38.
X-2 and S-76D
Sikorsky’s X-2 technology demonstrator was supposed to make its first flight by the end of last year, but various delays have pushed the event into this year.
Despite reports to the contrary, Sikorsky says the program is alive and well.
According to Peter Grant, manager of advanced programs, the coaxial-rotor project completed ground tests last year. “We have not seen anything that would indicate program goals cannot be achieved.” Grant said he expects the prototype to fly this year.
The X-2 design features two contra-rotating rotors and a rear propulsion fan, which Sikorsky claims will allow the craft to reach cruise speeds approaching 250 knots.