Eurocopter partnership boosts Chinese helo biz

 - November 15, 2006, 12:20 PM

Last December’s agreement between Eurocopter and China for the codevelopment of a new medium-size helicopter, the EC 175 (known in China as the Z-15), marks a step change that raises Sino-European cooperation on helicopters to a new level.

But the Franco-German rotorcraft maker is not new to China. Past relationships with its Aerospatiale precursor have produced the Z-8, a version of the SA 321 Super Frelon, and the Dauphin-like Z-9. In recent years, two other models emerged: the Z-11, strongly resembling the Ecureuil; and the highly successful EC 120B Colibri light-single, built jointly with China and Singapore.

Positioned in the six- to seven-metric-ton class, the EC 175/Z-15 fits in size between the EC 155B Dauphin and the EC 225 Super Puma and fills a gap in Eurocopter’s product offering, as well as meeting China’s requirement. Eurocopter and the Chinese industry will fund development equally, splitting costs of more than $765 million.

Eurocopter and China’s AVIC II group have wasted no time in getting the five-year development phase under way. On last January 6, they opened a joint project office at Eurocopter’s Marignane base, and Chinese engineers and technicians are working alongside Eurocopter personnel. All the Chinese industrial partners–manufacturer Hafei Aviation (part of the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group), engine company Dongan, research institutes CHRDI and CAPI, and equipment suppliers LAMC and ZTMW– have provided staff to assist in developing the design for a basic civil platform, known as the Common Standard Vehicle (CSV).

Eurocopter has technical leadership and will retain overall control of the development of the aircraft. The work share will be divided equally (see box).

Two prototypes (PT1 and PT3) will be assembled at Marignane, while PT2 will be built in Harbin. First flight has been scheduled for 2009. Once European certification has been obtained in 2011, one of the European prototypes will be sent to China to complete local certification.

Z-15s will be built in Harbin to satisfy the local market, as well as those of countries within China’s sphere of influence. Eurocopter will have rights to sell the EC 175 in the rest of the world.

Parameters Undefined

With the formulation of the CSV still in its early days, Eurocopter program director Francis Combes refused to flesh-out the design parameters for now. What has been revealed is that the EC 175/Z-15 will have a five-blade Spheriflex main rotor, most probably a fenestron-type tail rotor, high energy-absorbing airframe and advanced avionics.

The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engine, which could also be built by Dongan for the locally assembled Z-15, should drive the helicopter to a maximum speed of 150 knots. Its range is said to be in the region of 200 nm. It will carry up to 16 passengers and will be certified with two pilots for IFR missions and with a single pilot for VFR flights. No external dimensions have been made available yet. The EC 175/Z-15 is targeted at transport missions, search and rescue, and police use. Military versions, especially for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are not ruled out.

Eurocopter has succeeded in a market where U.S. manufacturers–not for want of trying–generally have failed to gain a foothold. The association between Sikorsky Aircraft and Shanghai Eagle on light helicopters is the only exception to date.

The European manufacturer claims to be China’s number-one rotorcraft supplier, with a 45-percent market share in the civil and parapublic sectors. But with an acute shortage of helicopters in this fast-growing country, its share is set to increase significantly. For the EC 175/Z-15 alone, China has estimated a requirement for some 300 helicopters over the next 20 years, with Eurocopter projecting a minimum figure of 400 over the same period.

The importance of the project for Eurocopter (Hall 4 Stand G16) can be gauged by comments made by company president Fabrice Brégier during the signing ceremony for the partnership: “This program is formative for Eurocopter. It guarantees more than 30 years of activity and the creation of 2,000 high-tech jobs for Eurocopter and its partners. We expect a large number of sales from 2010 on, both in China and the rest of the world. Over 20 years, the program will be worth close to ?10 billion.”