This year’s Heli-Expo show in California will see a first appearance by a new entrant to the market. Well, sort of, in that it will be the first major exhibition to be attended by Airbus Helicopters since it shed its old Eurocopter guise in early January 2014.
“This is not just a change of name or brand,” chief executive Guillaume Faury told reporters at the company’s annual press briefing last month. “It is a change that goes to the core of our DNA.”
Forging closer links with its bigger civil airliner brother in the Airbus Group will bring advances in safety, technology and competitiveness, he stresses. “It is Airbus Group’s thrust that will give us wings,” says Faury.
Maybe so. But behind the corporate platitudes there needs to be evidence of progression to match those words. Faury has been in place since June 2013, following the departure of his predecessor Lutz Bertling, and his reign has so far been characterised by caution. That will be in part due to the natural process of taking stock since his arrival, and equally to the fact that whoever followed the garrulous Bertling would seem reserved in comparison. Nonetheless, there is a sense that Faury is trying to distance himself from some of his forerunner’s more ambitious promises.
Take, for instance, Bertling’s target – uttered this time last year – of having four new helicopters in service by the end of the decade. Pressed on whether that schedule still holds, Faury declined to commit to it, noting that “it gives expectations for something very far away”. However, he insists that the X programmes, as it calls its new development projects, “remain a priority” for the airfamer. That said, he insists that he feels no pressure to flight test a new product – be that a new helicopter or an iterative improvement of an existing model – each year, another of Bertling’s oft-stated goals.
However, Faury insists the manufacturer is spending enough to maintain its market leadership. “We continue to invest a lot in a number of products and technologies. I think we are aggressive on products and to a large extent this is paying off,” he says.
But he would not be drawn on Airbus Helicopters’ plans for its next development programme, the X4. The rotorcraft is already launched – Faury describes it as “ongoing” – and the major systems suppliers are signed up, but its exact specifications are still to be defined. First flight remains set for 2015, with certification following two years later, but it was left to the manufacturer’s chief technology officer Jean-Brice Dumont to hint that the proposed design – originally conceived as a replacement for its 4.3t AS365 and 4.9t EC155 – has grown and is now likely to be a 5-6t helicopter. That would put it squarely in competition with AgustaWestland’s 6.4t AW139 intermediate twin, which has been delivering a thorough mauling to the Dauphin line of late.
However, you cannot entirely blame Faury for wanting to slow things down a notch. Bertling oversaw a period of intensive growth at what was Eurocopter, with turnover rising from €3.8 billion ($5.1 billion) in 2006, to €6.3 billion in 2012 – a 66% increase. When Bertling left in May 2013 however, the airframer was struggling with mounting certification delays to the EC175 – its new super medium-class helicopter – and the grounding of its largest aircraft, the EC225, which had left orders and deliveries in the first half “abnormally low”, according to Faury.
Both programmes have since been put back in the right direction. It was with a clear sense of satisfaction that Faury announced at the 28 January press conference that the EC175 had gained certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency the previous day. In fact, most questions about future programmes were quickly brought back to the new 7.5t helicopter: “Today it is all about the EC175,” he asserted on more than one occasion. Deliveries of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-powered helicopter are due to commence in the second half of 2014, although for a man so proud of attaining the approval milestone, Faury was surprisingly reticent to reveal any sort of handover schedule. There seems to be greater emphasis instead on achieving maturity for the production and support systems at entry in to service – a point both he and his chief technology officer repeatedly made. Future upgrades are being worked on – such as a high-density 18-passenger variant for the Asian market – but as Dumont notes: “It will be more successful by being robust at entry into service.”
Perhaps, then, the tribulations of the EC225 offer a clue as to the reasons behind this more tentative approach to the introduction of a new model. As Faury joined (technically rejoined, given his previous lengthy stint with the then Eurocopter) the majority of the fleet was still grounded following a pair of ditching incidents in the North Sea. These were caused by the failure of a gearbox component – the bevel gear vertical shaft – which drives the transmission's oil pumps. Analysis by the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch revealed that in both cases a circumferential crack had initiated and propagated, causing the bottom half of the shaft to shear off. This ushered in a lengthy investigation by the manufacturer into the root causes of the failure, eventually tracing the problem back to an issue with corrosion.
An interim fix, involving a cockpit warning lamp linked to the MOD45 sensor on the helicopter’s HUMS detection system and targeted lubrication of the vertical shaft, was already under development as Bertling departed, although certification and the successful roll-out to operators was achieved under his successor. Around 90% of the global fleet is now back in operation, with the remainder to follow shortly, says Dumont. Longer term, however, Airbus Helicopters intends to introduce a completely new part.
Certification of the redesigned shaft is targeted for the end of the first quarter, or early in the second, with retrofit beginning in the summer. The revised component will be slightly thicker and overall around 100g heavier, says Dumont. Although it has yet to be flight tested, Airbus Helicopters has “corroded it, tortured it and cracked it” on its testbed, taking it beyond certification limits to prove the design is “very robust”. The operators and oil companies have been briefed on the redesigned part, which can be fitted on its own or as part of a complete gearbox in a couple of days.
Faury describes the EC225 as the “most scrutinised helicopter in the world”, noting that the authorities have “analysed what we have done and validated what we have proposed”. Understandably, his view of the type's safety is bullish: “I personally have full trust in the EC225. It has never had a fatal accident. We had these incidents, we solved them and we have confidence in the EC225. I am flying in the EC225 with full trust. There is a strong belief at Airbus Helicopters in the EC225.”
It is one thing, though, for the chief executive of the company manufacturing the helicopter to feel confident of its safety record, quite another to be operating the same aircraft in the harsh environment of the North Sea in winter, and another still to regularly travel in the back of that same aircraft. As Dumont points out, the company has not had the easiest time selling that message: “After the second ditching for operators there was a clear loss of confidence in us, but on the other hand they, and the oil companies, were very supportive.”
It was only through “transparency” that lost trust was regained, he says, although it remains “very fragile”. A process of winning the “hearts and minds” of oil workers is also ongoing, he adds. However, one only has to search the local news sites in Aberdeen to see the regular alarmed reports that an helicopter has made a PAN call on a hurried return to base to see that work may still need to be done to win the rig workers round.
There has also undoubtedly been a cost to Airbus Helicopters from the crisis, both in terms of the engineering resources required to locate the problem and design a new shaft, and from the sales the EC225 has clearly lost to the rival Sikorsky S-92. That cost has yet to be fully quantified, Dumont says, but he admits the episode “has hurt the company”, describing it as a “cost with no revenue”. If there is a positive to come from it, though, it’s the “human capitalisation”, he says. “We have grown and learned from this experience,” he adds.
In the background there is also an ongoing effort to improve the overall reliability of the EC225, says Dumont, “to drive maturity into the programme”. Around 200 improvement points have been identified, although these are not designed to enhance its capabilities. “It’s not about performance, what matters is availability and cost of operation. If you improve the range by so many nautical miles, that does not matter if the aircraft is not available."
“The growth path of a product can change many things, but we want to change what didn’t work,” he says. Key metrics to address will be availability, which languishes below 90% for some customers, and the number of returns to base per flight hour.
Small wonder then that with these issues bubbling away in the background, Airbus Helicopters has focused on the maturity levels of the EC175 before starting customer deliveries. What that has meant, however, is a certain degree of embarrassment as the entry-into-service date slipped – and then slipped again – and a subdued order tally last year, with the manufacturer booking just five new commitments for the EC175 in 2013.
Faury is keen to emphasise the importance of the new model, calling it the "most advanced helicopter in the segment". He says: "The EC175 is the helicopter that marks the transition between our very successful past as Eurocopter and our future as Airbus Helicopters."
But if the EC175 truly represents the start of the rebranded company, then until the first aircraft are delivered to customers in the second half of this year, Airbus Helicopters will not begin to show its true colours.