Certification in hand, Airbus Helicopters is endeavoring to ensure a faultless entry into service of the EC175 medium twin, a critical product for the company in the highly competitive offshore oil-and-gas market. The first delivery, to Belgium-based operator NHV, is slated for the second half of this year, almost five years after the type first flew. Program officials are confident that an unprecedented degree of preparation at the company’s headquarters in Marignane, France, as well as at a customer base, will ensure the new helicopter operates as promised immediately upon delivery.
“We want the delivered aircraft to be as close as possible to perfection; our oil-and-gas customers have high expectations in reliability and support,” EC175 program director Laurent Vautherin told AIN. Airbus is under even greater pressure than usual to deliver robust helicopters, following a series of incidents and accidents with the Super Puma, especially in the UK, since 2012 that has blemished the OEM’s reputation for reliability.
To polish the EC175 design and anticipate issues, during test campaigns and demonstration tours a prototype was flown in frigid weather in Canada, an arid atmosphere in the U.S., humid conditions in Asia and finally the harsh North Sea environment, where operations are under assault by challenging weather and salt water.
Airbus Helicopters has mounted an “operational maturity campaign,” essentially a mock entry into service, before the new type begins operations, EC175 program support officer Véronique Cardin explained. The program represents a first for the company. Over the last 18 months, Airbus dedicated two months to testing support and services. Then, an Airbus-owned EC175 prototype operated by Airbus maintenance technicians and crew spent two weeks at NHV’s base in Ostend, with visits to a site in Den Helder. Airbus tested maintainability, all the way down to tools and job cards.
“Five NHV pilots flew various mission profiles with Airbus pilots,” NHV fleet manager Mark Boumans told AIN. These included taking off at mtow from an elevated helipad to recreate standard oil-and-gas operations. The helicopter flew five hours each day.
At NHV’s base, Airbus maintenance technicians performed a simulated 50-hour check and 100-hour check–giving instruction to, and receiving feedback from, 10 NHV technicians, who handed down their verdicts on the adequacy of Airbus’s tooling and procedures, Boumans said.
“The maturity campaign is a huge help in introducing a new type when you are a launch customer,” Boumans noted. Spending a fortnight in a launch customer’s environment is a valuable opportunity for the manufacturer, too, and Cardin said Airbus is committed to having the EC175 meet its target dispatch reliability within two years.
The three launch operators–NHV, Russia’s UTAir and France’s Héli-Union–will benefit from additional support. Each company will have two technical representatives (one mechanic and one avionics specialist instead of the usual one technician) on-site for at least six months. Each of the three operators will also have one instructor-pilot on site.
Airbus will provide each launch customer with an expanded inventory of parts on-site. “We are choosing which parts by drawing on our experience with other types, the maintenance record of the EC175 prototypes and on simulations of reliability,” Cardin explained. The two prototypes and the first production aircraft have logged a combined 1,100 flight hours, during which time many teething troubles have been solved, she added.
When AIN visited the Airbus Helicopters Training Services (AHTS) subsidiary in Marignane, the company was training its own EC175 maintenance technicians, 15 of whom will be qualified before the type enters service. The EASA approved EC175 maintenance technician type license courses in May.
AHTS is using a full-scale mockup made of real parts. “Each trainee here actually performs at least 50 percent of the tasks in the program,” AHTS general manager Hervé Berriet told AIN. The company is providing airframe and avionics courses, and Pratt & Whitney Canada has partnered with FlightSafety International to provide PT6C-67E maintenance training at Paris Le Bourget.
AHTS is in charge of pilot training and has already qualified five instructor-pilots. EASA certification of a level-D full-flight simulator was expected last month. In the meantime, a Level III flight and navigation procedures trainer (FNPT), valid for multi-crew coordination, was used for qualifying the flight instructors.
“The pilot type-rating course provides eight hours on the FNPT, 13 hours in the full-flight simulator and five hours in the aircraft,” said William Pasquon, chief flying instructor. While pilots cannot earn any credit toward the type rating for time in the FNPT, it is a “good educational tool that enables avionics familiarization at relatively low cost,” he said.
In the factory in mid-May, AIN saw 14 EC175s in various stages of construction. China-based Avicopter, Airbus’s 50-50 partner in the program, delivers major components such as the fuselage, the tailboom, the intermediate gearbox and the tail gearbox. Final assembly of aircraft S/N 18–the first for a private customer–had just begun. The preceding serial numbers are all for oil-and-gas operators and have a standardized configuration for shorter production lead times. Airbus offers only a dozen items of optional equipment.
The production line, located in a former Dauphin assembly hall, is initially a conventional one in which one airframe is assigned to a station. But Airbus plans to adopt a mobile, so-called takt-time, layout under which the vehicle moves at regular intervals to shorten the production cycle and cut costs.
Program director Vautherin said Airbus expects to deliver three EC175s this year and 18 next year, with the production rate eventually exceeding 30 per year. As of early last month Airbus Helicopters held firm orders for 64 of the type.
EC175 by the numbers
Radius of action 105-195 nm
Cruise speed 150 kt
Mtow 16,535 lbs
Price $19 million (converted from €13.6 million)