French company targets training market with Cabri

 - February 27, 2008, 5:56 AM

Guimbal Hélicoptères has plans to take on the ubiquitous R22 in the training market. The company, launched by a former Eurocopter employee, has made headway, having secured orders from several European companies, including Eurocopter.

The Cabri has been designed for three types of mission–training, aerial work and private transportation. It received a CS-27 certificate from the EASA last December. The helicopter is powered by a 145-hp Lycoming O-360 engine, equipped with in-house digital ignition control and “silent” exhaust.

The Cabri differs from existing two-seaters–especially the Robinson R22–in design and flying qualities rather than performance. The empty weight is 940 pounds, while mtow is 1,540 pounds. Maximum speed is 100 knots and cruise speed is 90 knots (at 85-percent power). With fuel capacity of 45 U.S. gallons, endurance is five hours, or about 460 nm.

Eurocopter Lineage
The affiliation with the Eurocopter line is obvious; designer Bruno Guimbal used to work for the company. “There are several family features…and this is logical. My culture largely comes from Eurocopter and it was my intention to achieve this. The multifunction display is Eurocopter-style. The rotors rotate in the same direction as Eurocopter rotors. These are only two examples. However,” he added, “the Cabri is not part of Eurocopter’s range of products. I hope the Cabri will become a natural step before entering the Eurocopter world.” In other words, although “cabri” is French for kid (as in a young goat), it might be seen as more of a baby Squirrel.

The carbon-epoxy composite airframe completely shrouds the engine. The tail rotor, too, is shrouded and thus looks like a Eurocopter fenestron. The main rotor has three semi-rigid composite blades.

The fuel system and seats meet the latest EASA CS-27 crashworthiness standards. “We had to prove that both occupants can survive a 2,000-feet-per-minute crash landing,” Guimbal explained. This corresponds to an autorotation without a final flare. Seats absorb the impact. The fuel tank passes this test without rupturing or spilling any fuel. “Crashworthiness was certainly our biggest challenge as a small business,” Guimbal said.

The biggest challenge now that the design is certified is finding a niche for the Cabri in a market dominated by the Robinson R22. Complicating matters further is a euro-dollar exchange rate that favors the U.S. two-seater. The Cabri sells for E248,000 ($360,000), while the R22 is priced at $240,000, according to Guimbal.

“The Cabri is roomier, more comfortable and faster. It has a big luggage compartment, is crashworthy and has more range,” according to Guimbal. As a result, he believes the Cabri is more likely to compete with the R44.

The young company is focusing its sales efforts on Europe because, in addition to the unfavorable currency exchange rate, product liability insurance is a big issue
in the U.S., according to Guimbal. He thus wants to demonstrate the Cabri’s qualities to negotiate affordable insurance. Guimbal noted that the U.S. accounts for less than 40 percent of Robinson sales. From that, he infers that the U.S. will represent less than 30 percent of the Cabri’s market.

Guimbal claimed to have received firm orders for 12 Cabris, each backed by a deposit. The company said it is close to reaching an agreement on three more contracts. He added, “Two hundred prospects have contacted us, without any marketing effort on our part,” he added.

French-based operator Ixair is the launch customer, with orders for 10, five of them firm. The first delivery is pegged for late this month. Ixair is planning to use the Cabri for training. Sales director Mathias Senes sees the helicopter’s flight envelope as greater and safer than that of the Robinson. For example, “Twenty-five knots of wind grounds the R22, while the Cabri can fly safely in such weather conditions,” he said.

Senes maintains that the price difference between the R22 (which the Cabri will partly replace in Ixair’s fleet) and the Cabri is irrelevant. “There are thirty years or so between the two aircraft, just like the difference between a Bell 206 and a Eurocopter EC 120,” he pointed out. Moreover, longer TBOs on the Cabri offset the acquisition price over a lifecycle, he said.

Eurocopter announced a firm order for one Cabri G2 and options on two more, to be used at the manufacturer’s training centers, which provide pilot ab initio training in some major contracts. If the Cabri meets Eurocopter’s needs, the total order from the manufacturer could eventually reach 20 helicopters. So far, Eurocopter and Guimbal Hélicoptères have engaged in no more than a simple customer/supplier relationship. However, Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling in January said that he is not ruling anything out, hinting at the possible inclusion of the Cabri in his company’s marketing efforts.

Since the inception of the Cabri program, Eurocopter has drawn a line between the two companies. As Guimbal told AIN, “When I left Eurocopter to create my own business, senior management encouraged me but made it clear they wanted sharp separation. Eurocopter indeed helped us, thanks to design studies they subcontracted to us. We appreciated that, but obviously our core business is not design study subcontracting.”

Nevertheless, the two firms have formed a joint venture called Vertivision to develop the VSR-700, an unmanned derivative of the Cabri. This program is supported by a contract for a preliminary study from the French procurement agency.

In the days following certification, Guimbal Hélicoptères moved into a new, 21,000-sq-ft building, where it has begun the production phase. After a 15th audit this month, the company hopes to get production approval from the EASA.

The objective is eventually to produce one helicopter a week. This coming summer, Guimbal aims to produce one Cabri a month. He hopes to double that rate next year and again in 2010.   

Thierry Dubois contributed to this article.