Eurocopter deepens roots in Asia

 - January 27, 2010, 10:50 AM

Eurocopter (Stand H23) has chosen a strategy of partnerships in Asia. In Japan, the helicopter manufacturer wants to grow its subsidiary, notably through its maintenance joint venture with All Nippon Airways (ANA). In Korea, it is supporting Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI, Stand T87) in the design of the Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH), also known as the Surion. In China, a 50-50 alliance with Avicopter has already led to the first flight of the EC 175 medium twin.

In Japan last April, Eurocopter announced the acquisition of 80 percent of Japan-based distributor Euroheli’s shares, bringing its stake to 90 percent. The organization has subsequently been merged with its Eurocopter Japan subsidiary. Itochu Corp., the former majority shareholder, keeps 10 percent of the company’s shares.

With a staff of some 60 employees locally, Eurocopter has become “the first foreign aircraft manufacturer in Japan to carry out direct sales and customer support activities,” according to Eurocopter Japan CEO Stéphane Ginoux.

The French rotorcraft maker also has taken over 60 percent of ANA’s helicopter maintenance division, which it has renamed Eurocopter Japan T&E. It has facilities at Osaka International airport and Tokyo heliport. One of the company’s goals is to boost its technical support and training skills, and to this end it is planning exchanges with Eurocopter’s sites in France, Germany and Spain. For the long term, Eurocopter Japan T&E envisions getting involved in license-production of helicopters.

Also in Japan, Eurocopter has a long history of cooperation with Kawasaki Heavy Industries. KHI currently operates one of the world’s three EC145 assembly lines (the other two being in Germany and the U.S.). Surprisingly, in Japan the light twin is still known as the BK 117C2, its former name in Eurocopter’s portfolio.
KHI, which employs a total of 3,250 people, is responsible for sales in the Asia-Pacific area. In design and development, it was in charge of the main body structure, the main transmission and the fuel tank, said a spokesman.

Eurocopter claims a 55-percent market share of Japan’s civil market; that is, approximately 360 of 660 helicopters. The fleet composition includes 44 percent in aerial work, 20 percent in news gathering, 16 percent fighting fires, 11 percent in passenger transportation, including private use–a sector Eurocopter wants to boost–and 9 percent in law enforcement.

There are plans to install an EC 135 full-flight simulator in the country in response to a growing emergency medical sector (part of the 44 percent), as well as an order received last year for 15 military training EC 135 T2s.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force will receive two aircraft per year for its TH-X program until 2017. This order, along with the contract signed in 2004 for three EC 225s in VIP configuration, fuels optimism that the doors of the military market have opened.

One of the few EC 135 “L’hélicoptère par Hermès,” a luxury version of the light twin, is in service in Japan. Currently, ANA is offering its first-class passengers a helicopter transfer from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo. Passengers are first driven by car to Narita Sakura heliport, then they board an EC 135 Hermès operated by Mori Building City Air Services. According to ANA, the complimentary transfer to the Ark Hills heliport lasts a total 30 minutes. The service is available until March 31 this year and is offered to round-trip passengers returning from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Korean Surion
In Korea, Eurocopter is supporting KAI in designing the KUH Surion, a military transport helicopter based on the European group’s Super Puma/Cougar. According to Eurocopter’s Korean helicopter program director, Hubert Mantel, this project is ahead of schedule, and he is confident the first flight of KAI’s prototype will take place on time, on March 5.

The European company has a 30-percent share in the program, supplying the autopilot, the main gearbox and main rotor components. In addition to this role, Eurocopter provides KAI with technology transfer and technical assistance. KAI and Eurocopter also have formed a joint venture (51 and 49 percent, respectively) to work on KUH exports.

In addition, Eurocopter has been flight-testing a so-called dynamic test vehicle (DTV). It is a Cougar modified to represent the Surion. The DTV will help, among other tasks, integrate the 1,855-shp General Electric T700 powerplant chosen by the Korean procurement agency.

“The first flight took place in July last year, a bit ahead of schedule,” Mantel told AIN. The DTV now has flown more than 60 hours. “This is about 80 percent of the test program,” he added, noting that 100 hours were planned initially. Engineers eventually determined that 80 hours would be enough, as no serious difficulty had emerged. “We have validated maximum altitude, extreme c-gs, maximum weight and operations in hot weather,” Mantel said.

Eurocopter will now test the aircraft with its infrared suppressors. These devices, which look like big black boxes mounted next to the engines, dilute the exhaust gases and thus cut the infrared signature of these hot gases.
DTV flight tests are expected to end late in February. The aircraft will then be shipped to KAI’s base in Sacheon, Korean, where it will become a ground test vehicle.

The first Surion prototype made its first ground run at Sacheon with both engines and rotors in December. Another three prototypes will engage in the flight test program. Plans call for the Korean government to sign an initial production approval after at least 50 successful flight hours in development. This milestone, one on the way to a firm contract, is expected in November.

KAI has pegged the first delivery of the Surion to the country’s Army for the end of 2012. “This is a tight schedule,” Mantel said. Therefore, Eurocopter is negotiating with KAI to produce some components early.

The Korean company also is envisioning derivatives–one is for parapublic missions, such as medevac, and another as a naval KUH, with capabilities for search-and-rescue and ship operations. An attack variant would have a tandem cockpit and weapon-carrying hardpoints.

Last year, there were up to 40 Eurocopter employees working in KAI’s offices. The number has decreased to 30 and will continue to diminish until 2012. Engineers at Eurocopter’s sites in Marignane, France, and Ottobrunn, Germany, also are supporting the program.

EC 175/Z15 Developing
On December 4, in Marignane, the first prototype (PT1) of the EC 175 made its first flight. The seven-ton-class helicopter is mainly targeted at the offshore market, with a passenger capacity of 16. It is an $840 million program, shared on a 50-50 basis. The Z15 is the rotorcraft Avicopter will produce, based on a “common standard vehicle” with Eurocopter. The differences will be in options.

Also, according to Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling, Avicopter is reevaluating the engine selection. The two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67Es, providing 1,775 shp each, could be replaced by Turbomeca Ardidens. The French turboshaft manufacturer told AIN it is talking to Avicopter “and other OEMs” about the Ardiden.

In the joint effort, Avicopter is in charge of the entire airframe, including flight controls. It is also developing the main rotor, the tailrotor transmission and the fuel system. “It is also responsible for some equipment integration–namely the landing gear and the engine,” EC 175 program director Francis Combes told AIN.

Eurocopter’s share is made of the main gearbox, the tailrotor, doors, electric systems and, maybe most important, the entire avionics, including the autopilot.
Eurocopter is planning to achieve European certification of the EC 175 in the second half of 2011. The Chinese schedule is less clear, but it appears that the first flight of Avicopter’s first Z15 prototype could take place as late as 2011.

Eurocopter officials pride themselves on having a long, successful and friendly cooperation with their Chinese counterparts. Combes talked about “trust and mutual respect.” He used to be the director of the EC 120 program, the first joint effort with the Chinese industry, which has a 15-percent stake in the light single program.

Some limits have been drawn, though. Although the EC175/Z15 is a joint development, it does not imply a joint certification. “Otherwise we would have to fully open our books to them,” Combes explained. Eurocopter is very keen, for example, on keeping its main gearbox technology in Europe.

Bertling stated no “major problem” has ever occurred with “intellectual property use [the Chinese] don’t own or selling outside their zone; almost nothing in 25 years.” However, French aerospace weekly magazine Air & Cosmos recently suggested the Chinese could develop a military version of the Z15. Such an option is certainly not in the agreement.