AIN Blog: 2015 Was A Year of Progress for Helicopter Technology

 - December 31, 2015, 8:37 AM
Airbus X6
Airbus Helicopters also unveiled the first artist rendering of the long-awaited X6, a new helicopter in the heavy category. The X6 will eventually replace the H225 Super Puma and will have fly-by-wire controls.

Last year was a noteworthy one for rotorcraft, with confirmation of some trends and the unexpected emergence of some others. Despite a softening commercial market, attributable largely to the dwindling price of oil, airframers do not appear to have scaled back their investment in technology.

Airbus Helicopters unveiled the H160 medium twin (until then codenamed X4), a clean-sheet design in the 12,000- to 13,000-pound-mtow category (typically 12 seats). As expected, it will succeed the AS365 Dauphin/EC155 series.

However, contradicting what then-CEO Lutz Bertling suggested in 2011 when he revealed the existence of the program, the H160 has a relatively conventional cockpit. The controls are not fly-by-wire and the man-machine interface lacks the windshield-size head-up display Bertling envisioned. Airbus will therefore not be the first helicopter manufacturer to offer a civil fly-by-wire rotorcraft. Bell Helicopter is poised to cross that finish line first with the 525 Relentless, which made its first flight in July. A second test aircraft was set to join the fleet late last year. It is safe to say this turn of events has left some Airbus engineers disappointed. Innovations on the H160 include swept-tip main rotor blades for quieter operation.

The H160 made its first flight on June 13 and Airbus plans to begin taking orders this year, so we will soon see how the H160 fares against its main target, the AgustaWestland AW139.

Airbus Helicopters also unveiled the first artist rendering of the long-awaited X6, a new helicopter in the heavy category. The X6 will eventually replace the H225 Super Puma and will have fly-by-wire controls.

Those disappointed engineers at Airbus might have drawn some comfort in July when their company unveiled the Bluecopter, a demonstrator based on the H135. One notable feature is a power management system that could shut down one engine in the cruise phase and use the other one at a higher (and thus more fuel-efficient) output. Such smarter use of engine power, including some level of hybridization with an electric motor, has been talked about for four years or so. Actual progress, however, has been erratic and the outlook for what to expect in the next couple of years is murky.

Lockheed Martin completed its $9 billion acquisition of Sikorsky Aircraft, a purchase the U.S. defense contractor announced in July. Lockheed Martin will maintain the Sikorsky brand, as well as the military and civil product lines, the latter including the S-76D medium and S-92A heavy twins. UTC disposed of its helicopter business because it saw a lagging profit margin and lackluster growth projections, which some industry observers (Lockheed Martin among them, apparently) deemed short-sighted.

Sikorsky logged a major technology advancement in May when the S-97 Raider semi-compound helicopter made its first flight. A follow-on to the X2 demonstrator, the S-97 combines two rigid coaxial, contra-rotating rotors and a pusher propeller to achieve speeds unattainable with a conventional rotorcraft. Sikorsky is looking mainly at military applications but civil use is in the cards. Sikorsky intends to dispatch the Raider on a demonstration tour this year.

AgustaWestland suffered a setback on the AW609 civil tiltrotor program after the fatal crash of prototype two on October 30. The aircraft crashed in Italy outside Santhia in Vercelli province, killing company test pilots Pietro Venanzi and Herb Moran. The aircraft was scheduled to perform high-speed testing at the time of the crash. Two more test aircraft are under construction and the bulk of the flight-test work is being moved to AgustaWestland’s Philadelphia campus in the U.S. Before the accident, AgustaWestland had hoped to have the AW609 certified by late next year and begin customer deliveries in 2018. The company has not released a revised schedule, but it has reaffirmed its commitment to the program.

Marenco Swisshelicopter, an outsider with ambition, made little progress last year. The company has had to redesign the main rotor head of its SKYe SH09 light single, which was already in flight-test. The Honeywell-powered SH09 is positioned at the higher end of the single-engine helicopter segment. An EASA rotorcraft expert told AIN he finds the project daring and exciting. We, in turn, hope Airbus Helicopters will not try to kill the SH09 in the nest by offering unbeatable discounts on the H125.

Describing Russian Helicopters as an outsider would be unfair but, even if it is a real competitor for Western airframers, it cannot be characterized as a major player either. Last year several civil programs remained stuck at various stages of development. The exception was certification of the Ka-226T. Communications are close to non-existent.

China’s Avicopter has made even slower progress, notably with the AC352 medium twin, the H175’s counterpart in a 50-50 program with Airbus Helicopters.