AgustaWestland overhauls avionics, maintenance and training for new helicopter family

 - February 11, 2012, 10:10 AM

AgustaWestland has introduced some impressive new aircraft in recent Heli-Expo shows. But its presence at this year’s event here in Dallas is all about the collective strength of its growing family of products. The company is showcasing its New Generation Helicopter Family, consisting of the existing A109 Grand New and AW139 flagships and the in-development AW169 and AW189 models.

The strategy is clear. AgustaWestland wants to give operators options to build their fleets through the different weight classes it will soon cover. Mindful of the example set in the fixed-wing world by Airbus, the group’s engineers have been placing a renewed emphasis on offering common technology across the family to give operators greater flexibility and efficiency in both crew training and maintenance. The commonality is particularly apparent in the cockpit, but also in key components such as gearboxes and rotorheads.

At the same time, technological innovation–particularly in the cockpit–is to be made more readily available to existing operators through software-enabled upgrades. A prime example of this is new Phase 7 version of Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics suite for the AW139, which is being introduced here in Dallas this week (see “New Approach to Avionics Built on Flexibility”).

According to AgustaWestland’s new CEO Bruno Spagnolini, the company is keeping development work on schedule for both the AW169 and the AW189, while also staying mindful to ensure that these new types deliver their promised performance parameters when they enter service. First to arrive on the market will be the AW189, which is set to complete certification, in its offshore configuration, during the second half of 2013. The AW169 is set to follow during the second half of 2014.

During a visit to AgustaWestland’s Cascina Costa headquarters in northern Italy earlier this month, AIN saw the AW169 starting early evaluation on a digital test bed. “This is more than just an iron bird,” explained Spagnolini. “It is a complete helicopter that is closer to a full prototype. And we will use it to test all rotating components as well as getting an idea of how well the integrated systems are functioning before the aircraft’s first flight this spring.”

Over the past couple of years, existing customers—most notably leading offshore operators—have been helping AgustaWestland to define both new designs, with the manufacturer collecting an unspecified number of non-refundable deposits. “The response from the market is quite good,” said Spagnolini, who recently took over as CEO, succeeding Giuseppe Orsi who moved on to lead the company’s parent group Finmeccanica. “Customers are saying ‘you are doing what we expected from you’ and that they like the idea of a family of helicopters.”

In Spagnolini’s view, AgustaWestland came of age as a helicopter maker with the introduction of the AW139. “It really boosted our credibility, and one of the main lessons we learned for the 189 and the 169 is to develop all the avionics ourselves so that we can develop modifications through software more flexibly and more cheaply,” he commented.

Another lesson learned with the 139 is the importance of being ready with complete training packages, including full flight simulators, in time for new models to enter service. This was not achieved for the 139, causing service-entry holdups for operators. But, working with CAE simulators for the 189 and 169 are already in the works and should be ready in time for certification.

As part of the certification process, AgustaWestland is working to convince the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) of the high degree of commonality between the new types. Many aspects of the technical publications will be the same and this should be reflected in a high degree of cross-over in operational requirements and training.

“If you want to have a mixed fleet, you will find that the interiors and much of the equipment are exactly the same [between the 189 and the 169],” Spagnolini told AIN. “For instance, if you want to move from having 12 to 16 passengers with the 189, you can simply exchange some seats from the 169 cabin. It’s a completely modular approach and we believe we are the only manufacturer offering this.”

But the winds of change at AgustaWestland have had an impact beyond the design of its growing rotorcraft family. The company has also been stepping up its commitment to providing a completely comprehensive level of support throughout the operational life of its aircraft. The aim is that this approach should be evident at every stage in its relationship with clients, from product definition, through the sales process, to aircraft delivery, training, maintenance and spares support.

This more holistic approach based on a more meaningful sense of partnership with clients was inspired by the more cost-sensitive needs of the larger, more commercially-driven operators who bought the AW139. The company expects to attract more operators like this as it introduces the AW189, offering greater payload and range to sectors such as the oil and gas industry, which is now very much in growth mode. According to Spagnolini, industry sectors such as law enforcement and emergency medical services also are still expanding, despite tough economic conditions in several of the airframer’s traditional markets.

“The need for continuing investment in logistics and product support is now much more fundamental at AgustaWestland, and this wasn’t true 10 years ago,” said Spagnolini. “We have a young and determined group in our customer-support organization.”

So where next for the AgustaWestland family? When the AW169 and AW189 enter service, the company will turn its attention to renewing the lower end of its product range with planned upgrades to the AW109 light twins. Meanwhile, the company is looking at new-generation engines, including diesel powerplants that would offer reduced fuel burn and emissions. Its engineers are also working on lower profile blades that would generate less noise.