Certification in hand, Airbus Helicopters is endeavoring to ensure a faultless entry into service of its 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 planned for the second half of this year, almost five years after the first flight. Thanks to the unprecedented preparation at the company’s headquarters in Marignane, France, and at a customer base, program officials believe an EC175 will be able to operate immediately after delivery.
“We want the delivered aircraft to be as close as possible to perfection–our oil-and-gas customers have high expectations for reliability and support,” EC175 program director Laurent Vautherin told AIN. Airbus is under even greater pressure than usual, as a series of incidents and accidents has put its helicopters in a not-so-desirable spotlight, especially in the UK, since 2012.
As a way to polish the EC175 design and anticipate problems, the company flew a prototype in various environments during test campaigns and demo tours. These included cold weather in Canada, a dry atmosphere in the U.S., humid conditions in Asia and finally the harsh North Sea environment, where poor weather and salt water prevail.
Simulated Entry Into Service
Airbus Helicopters, for the first time, has planned an “operational maturity campaign” before the entry into service of a new type, EC175 program support officer Véronique Cardin said. Over the last 18 months, the company dedicated two months to testing support and services. Then, an EC175 spent two weeks during May and June at NHV’s base in Ostend, with visits to a site in Den Helder.
It was a simulated entry into service. Airbus tested maintainability, including tools and job cards. The aircraft was an Airbus-owned prototype, operated by Airbus maintenance technicians and crew. “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, which represented standard oil-and-gas operations. The helicopter flew five hours per day.
At NHV’s base, Airbus maintenance technicians performed a simulated 50-hour check and a 100-hour check. They showed 10 of their NHV counterparts how to perform these tasks and receive feedback from them. The latter ensured that the company’s tooling and Airbus’s procedures are adequate, Boumans said. Airbus aims to meet its target dispatch reliability within two years, Cardin said.
The three launch operators–NHV, Russia’s UTAir and France’s Héli-Union–will benefit from additional support. For each customer, two technical representatives–one mechanic and one avionics specialist–instead of the usual one, will be available on-site for a minimum of six months. For each of the three operators, one pilot instructor also will be made available.
Airbus will provide each launch customer with extra on-site spare parts inventory. “We are choosing the parts based upon our experience with other types, the maintenance record of EC175 prototypes and simulated reliability,” Cardin explained. The two prototypes and the first production aircraft have logged a combined 1,100 flight hours, which has helped solved a lot of teething troubles, she added.
When AIN visited the Airbus Helicopters Training Services (AHTS) subsidiary in Marignane, the company was training its own EC175 maintenance technicians. Fifteen of them are to be qualified before the entry into service. AHTS is also in charge of pilot training and has already qualified five instructor pilots. EASA certification of a level-D full flight simulator was expected in June. A level III flight and navigation procedures trainer (FNPT), valid for multi-crew coordination, was used for the flight instructors’ qualification.
In the factory in mid-May, AIN saw 14 EC175s at various stages of construction. Vautherin said three deliveries are planned this year and 18 in 2015. Eventually, the production rate should increase to more than 30 per year. Airbus Helicopters, as of early June, held 64 firm orders for the type.
Not content with the initial version, Airbus Helicopters is increasing the mtow of the EC175 medium twin by 660 pounds (to 17,196 pounds) thus offering an equivalent growth in payload or an extra 40 nm of range. Certification is expected in 2016, following a flight-test campaign scheduled for next year. “Operators will have more flexibility in payload versus range,” Mickael Melaye, senior manager, oil-and-gas sales promotion, told AIN.
In the cockpit, the “rig ’n’ fly” option will be available in 2016 for automated approaches. The system is designed to significantly cut pilot workload, as it will conduct the entire approach down to the helideck’s height at a single push of a button. The crew will still have to perform the landing. “We bring standardization; an approach in Angola will be the same as in the North Sea,” Melaye said.
A cursor-control device also will be offered in 2016. “For search-and-rescue, when the crew often interacts with the map and the infrared camera, it will be a better interface than two rotating knobs,” said Yves Royannez, program director of the Helionix avionics suite.
Also planned for 2016 is integration of a synthetic-vision system. Royannez said Helionix has a very open architecture, which makes additional applications easier.
The new avionics suite was developed with Israel-based electronics firm Elbit, which supplied the hardware and developed mission capabilities–HTAWS, digital map and so forth–under Airbus’s specifications. The main drivers were system redundancy, crew workload reduction, mission efficiency, centralized maintenance and cockpit standardization, Royannez said. Helionix was certified under the latest international avionics standards, which were more demanding and complex than expected.
The EC175 by the Numbers
Mtow 16,535 pounds
Recommended cruise speed 150 knots
Max range (5,000 ft, no reserve) 680 nm
Seats 12 to 18
Price $19 million (€13.6 million)