Seven years after its unveiling, the Airbus Helicopters H160 is finally moving from the development phase to serial-production ramp-up. The medium-twin rotorcraft was headed to the U.S. ahead of its long-awaited certification by the FAA and route proving flights with U.S. launch customer PHI.
Order intake was initially slow and deliveries were delayed, but 2021 proved to be a turning point. The rotorcraft division of the European aerospace group won firm orders for 52 H160s last year and handed over the first one to Japan’s All Nippon Helicopter in December.
The militarized version—the H160M—saw its formal launch late last year following the signing of the long-awaited €10 billion ($11.3 billion) contract for up to 169 examples with the French Armament General Directorate (DGA). That contract includes 10 civilian examples for the country’s Gendarmerie Nationale.
“We are already starting the structural assembly of these aircraft,” said Gilles Armstrong, Airbus’s head of the H160 program. “We anticipated the work. We knew the contract was coming and wanted to get ahead of the timeline.” That timeline calls for all 10 civilian H160s to be delivered before the start of the Olympic Games in Paris in mid-2024.
“We are coming out of a long development cycle and are now moving into the entry into service phase and industrial ramp-up,” Armstrong said ahead of Heli-Expo during a briefing at Airbus Helicopters’s facilities in Marignane, France.
The H160 final assembly line is performing “remarkably well” and gearing up to produce 35 units per year, he said. Also, the new fully digitalized dynamics assembly line, which serves as a pilot for the whole Airbus Group, is performing well and has assembled its first H160 gearboxes.
Topping the positive news, FAA certification of the H160 is within sight. “We have had a lot of delay on that particular topic,” acknowledged Armstrong.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) approved the H160 in July 2020 and Airbus assumed the FAA would validate the aircraft’s European type certificate in a short timeframe and without requesting major clarifications—as is standard procedure under Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement (BASA) between the EU and the U.S.
“It turns out in this particular instance that the FAA has opened a lot more topics than what we expected, and those topics are sometimes quite complex, sometimes not,” Armstrong remarked. The ability to go through all these technical discussions was “severely hampered” by the Covid-related travel restrictions, he said, describing efforts to reach understanding despite having very frequent video calls with the FAA as a “relatively painful process.”
Painstaking Line-by-line Process
One of the topics the FAA decided to scrutinize concerned the aircraft’s noise profiles. “This was certainly not expected. The H160 has the lowest noise profile of any helicopter in its class,” Armstrong noted. The noise topic appears all the more intriguing since U.S. authorities regularly lament the EU’s strict noise rules for aircraft operating at the bloc’s airports in the EU-U.S. open skies joint committee.
Gradually closing the many topics has been a “painstaking line-by-line process. We are confident we are reaching the end of that convergence process,” Armstrong said. “We now have to see exactly when it [FAA type certificate validation] happens,” he added, cautioning the company must remain “humble on exact dates at this point. We are in their [FAA] hands to some extent.”
A final step before gaining U.S. certification is the approval of the FAA’s Flight Standardization Board, which will evaluate the H160’s training needs and processes. “The dates are fixed with the FAA. Now it is just making sure Covid doesn’t get in the way,” Armstrong asserted.
This aircraft will also support the route-proving program to enable PHI and Shell to familiarize themselves with the type’s advanced features and mitigate the normal challenges around service entry. PHI will operate four H160s for Shell in the Gulf of Mexico.
Armstrong, who has led the H160 program since May, readily admits that securing the H160 medium twin’s service entry in the U.S. is of key importance because “is a big market for us.” In fact, a U.S. private owner was the original launch customer for the type.
Owing to the delay of the U.S. approvals, Airbus delivered the first H160 to All Nippon Helicopters after the type attained certification from the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau in May.
Also, the National Civil Aviation Agency in Brazil has certified the all-composite, Safran Arrano-powered H160 and the rotorcraft is cleared for operations in the UK thanks to an agreement between EASA and the UK CAA, Armstrong told AIN.
Overall, Airbus’s international certification roadmap of the aircraft and all of the optional equipment follows the order book, he explained. Russia was on top of that roadmap, though the country’s invasion of Ukraine and consequent EU sanctions on Russia is likely to force Airbus to halt efforts to obtain H160 Russian type certification or export the helicopter to Russia.
On February 25, the European Commission announced it would prohibit sales of aircraft, spare parts as well as other related equipment to Russia. In a statement to AIN, Airbus said it “will comply with all sanctions and applicable laws once they are in force.” With more than 230 Airbus-built rotorcraft in service in Russia, the country is an important market for the European OEM.
Armstrong remained tight-lipped on the composition of the order book, saying only that the H160 had so far collected firm orders for 88 aircraft. The largest customer bases are in France and the U.S., with the remainder spread over a mixture of customers around the world.
Public procurement accounts for the bulk of the orders in France—30 Guépard (Cheetah) H160Ms for the Armed Forces, 10 civilian H160s for the Gendarmerie Nationale, and one aircraft for use as a systems testbed by the country’s DGA. Meanwhile, private aviation and oil-and-gas customers account for the majority of the orders outside of France.
Armstrong is not surprised by the aircraft’s success in the VIP sector. Its cabin can be configured to seat four or eight passengers in executive/VIP layouts, or 12 in a utility configuration. “It has incredible looks, it has incredible flyability, and it has a lot of safety features. It is comfortable, it is quiet, and it is efficient. If you’re able to buy anything you like, this is really what you want to be buying. This is a trendier purchase than anything else,” he maintained.
He did not disclose the price tag for the H160 but asserted that it has to be “competitive on product, on lifecycle costs, and maintenance burden. The low maintenance burden is seen by many corporate customers as a major asset.”
A lot of time has been spent on the development of optional equipment and additional capabilities for specific aircraft missions or customers. The H160 team last year conducted flight-test campaigns to validate hoisting, carrying sling loads, and operations in sandy environments in preparation for their certification.