Eurocopter will unveil the first example of the EC145 Mercedes-Benz Style light twin helicopter this morning. Earlier this year, the company announced four improvements to existing models, refreshing a product range that will soon include in-development aircraft like the EC175 medium twin. Meanwhile, the Marignane, France-based manufacturer is expecting the downturn, which has been especially felt in the light helicopter sector, to end maybe as early as later this year.
Last year here at EBACE Eurocopter showed the new luxury version of the EC145 as a mock-up. The “Mercedes-Benz Style” package consists of aesthetic and practical innovations, both inside the cabin and to the exterior. The cabin can seat up to eight passengers in a comfortable business layout. Or, in a conscious effort to break the mould of the traditional corporate helicopter concept, the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in Como, Italy, is proposing to redesign the cabin to accommodate to four passengers with space to carry surfboards or a pair of mountain bikes for weekend excursions.
To enable configuration changes, the seats are mounted on rails. “Multifunction boxes” that can house a cooler, a DVD player or a table can also slide on the rails. Finally, the aft separation wall can slide to change the size of the luggage compartment and sports gear can be secured at several attachment points.
Passengers can adjust both the intensity and color of the cabin’s ambient lighting. The customer can choose from several kinds of wood to run on the floor and the ceiling. Externally, even the nose has been redesigned to avoid what was perceived as a too technical-looking radar compartment. According to last year’s announcement, the aircraft is priced at approximately $8.4 million.
Downturn Impacting Light Models
In sales, the economic downturn that is still affecting business aviation is impacting on Eurocopter’s light models–those preferred for private and corporate use. For example, the combined orders received for the EC120 Colibri, the Ecureuil/EC130 family and the EC135 in 2010 totaled 222 helicopters compared to 548 in 2008.
Eurocopter officials (Stand 7065) are hoping traditional markets for light helicopters will pick up again late this year or early in 2012. However, an obstacle to this development is that there is still a glut of new, light helicopters on the preowned market. In January, the available preowned stock was still reckoned to be as many as 1,000 helicopters worldwide.
Geographically speaking, 2010 saw a significant reshuffle in the worldwide market. Asia was number one and Latin America number two in terms of sales value, at approximately $1.1 billion and $700 million, respectively. Asia is expected to keep the lead or at least to stay a major contributor to revenues.
Earlier this year, talking specifically about China, Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling emphasized that, given the size of the country, the some 200 civil helicopters flying in the country are a tiny number compared to the some 10,000 civil rotorcraft flying in the U.S. Therefore, Eurocopter is considering building a final assembly line in China.
For business helicopters alone, “the potential in China is huge, much like the anticipated growth in private yachts and business jets,” according to Bruno Boulnois, CEO of Eurocopter China. He was speaking at the Hainan Rendez-Vous, a luxury event where Eurocopter was an exhibitor early last month. The show’s promoters describe it as “a world where champagne never stops flowing,” situated on “the Chinese Riviera.” Hainan is also the place where China’s government is starting its plans to open up lower-altitude airspace to private rotorcraft flights. Once this is accomplished, Boulnois estimates that there will be around 100 VIP helicopters flying in China’s airspace within the next 10 years.
EC175 Certification Due
For new Eurocopter programs, 2011 should be the year for the certification of the EC175 medium twin–a 50-50 joint program with China’s Avicopter. The EC175 is targeted mainly at the offshore oil-and-gas transportation market. However, Eurocopter recently revealed it is also considering a “quick-role change configuration,” enabling rapid conversion from an oil-and-gas interior (which seats 16 in standard layout) to a corporate helicopter “with more comfortable seats and amenities.”
While basic type certification is planned for this year, a complementary certification for the oil-and-gas design is expected by mid-2012. The second prototype already in this configuration has been flying since December. It includes features such as emergency flotation gear, life rafts, radio navigation system and dual FMS, Tcas II and air conditioning.
The MSG-3 maintenance program is said to be on schedule for the new EC175. Spain’s Indra is to manufacture the first full flight simulator, which is to be installed in Marignane, France. It is scheduled to be ready in time to train pilots ahead of the first deliveries, which are slated for 2012, with the first customer being oil-and-gas transport operator Bristow.
Meanwhile, a third prototype is supposed to fly by December. Among other functions, it will be used for the certification of an “ice protection system” by 2016. The EC175 is in the seven-metric-ton (15,000-pound) class.
EC145 with Fenestron
Another twin that may be of interest to corporate users is the EC145 T2. It features a fenestron (shrouded tailrotor) in lieu of the original EC145’s exposed unit. Two new Turbomeca Arriel 2E turboshafts boost power output, an increase that will be especially apparent with one engine inoperative. Other changes include a new three-display glass cockpit and four-axis autopilot. Performance improvements include five-percent higher cruise speed, to 137 knots. Deliveries are slated to begin in 2013.
The “T2” is only one in a raft of improved versions announced in February–the other one versions are designated with an “e.” For example, the single-engine AS350 B3e Ecureuil has a more powerful Turbomeca Arriel 2D turboshaft engine, along with a new-generation Fadec and an engine data recorder for condition monitoring. As an additional option, the aircraft can be operated at its maximum takeoff power rating for 30 minutes. The B3e incorporates tail rotor modifications for ease of piloting. It also features an improved interior design. Certification is scheduled for this summer, with deliveries to begin by year-end.
Just above the Ecureuil in the Eurocopter product range, the EC135 T2e and P2e light twins (where the T and P letters designate engine suppliers Turbomeca and Pratt & Whitney Canada, respectively) have an increased maximum takeoff weight of up to 6,500 pounds. This offers an 88-pound increase in payload and allows an extra passenger to be carried. Certification of the EC135 T2e/P2e is planned in mid-2011. The improvements are also to be offered for retrofit on in-service helicopters.
The manufacturer has integrated the advanced cockpit and automatic flight control systems of the EC225 on the 20,000-pound-class AS332L1e Super Puma medium twin.
Finally, the AS365 N3e is an improved version of the N3 in the Dauphin family. From its first delivery in late 2013, it will feature new Turbomeca Arriel 2N turboshafts with dual-channel Fadec. In addition, Eurocopter will use the main gearbox from the EC155, a new Starflex rotor head and a reinforced main rotor mast. These upgrades are to provide a 15-percent increase in power for “better performance, a significant payload gain [with the mtow increased from 9,500 to 9,900 pounds] and reductions in operating costs.”
The codenamed X4 program, which is about to be fully launched, is eventually to supersede the Dauphin. Bertling has promised that the X4 will be “a game changer,” offering “a new way of flying.” The cockpit will be very different from today’s cockpits, he said. The rotorcraft manufacturer already has partners in the program: engine maker Turbomeca, avionics specialist Thales and aerostructures firm Daher.
Finally, Eurocopter is continuing with flight testing of the X3demonstrator, a compound helicopter that targets a 220-knot speed at affordable cost, thanks to two side-mounted propellers.