Romania once had a thriving aircraft building industry, with state-owned firm IAR specialising in helicopter production – mostly licence-built examples of the Aérospatiale Alouette III and Puma. But those days are long gone. Although rotorcraft still represent the bulk of activities carried out at IAR’s Brasov facility, it is entirely upgrade or maintenance work these days, either performed by IAR itself or Airbus Helicopters Romania, a joint venture in which the Romanian firm holds a 49% stake.

But IAR occupies a fraction of the space it once did. Viewed from above, the decline is clear: grass and weeds choke open areas and saplings sprout from shuttered buildings. Romania has not assembled an aircraft since the last Avioane Craiova IAR-99 jet trainer in 2004. That industry appears deceased. But this is Transylvania – Dracula’s castle lies half an hour up the road – and things here have a reputation for refusing to stay dead.

In fact, it is Airbus Helicopters that hopes to revive aircraft manufacturing in the country. It has set up a new wholly-owned subsidiary in Romania – Airbus Helicopters Industries – and is investing some €50 million ($53.2 million), including €5 million from the European Union, in the Brasov site to create a 10,000m² (108,000ft²) assembly line which from 2017 will produce new versions of its legacy AS332 Super Puma models. The 8.6t medium-twin helicopter itself is also in need of reinvigoration – it has suffered in relation to the newer, larger, and more capable H225, without ever being sufficiently cheap to break into a utility market dominated by Russian-made Mil Mi-8s and Mi-17s.

Airbus Helicopters had already made a tentative assault on that segment, launching the AS332 C1e in 2012. This was envisaged as a low-cost model featuring a simple baseline configuration and limited list of options, but with the highly-regarded avionics and four-axis autopilot from the H225. However, sales have been moderate, with 20 orders so far.

But with the Brasov factory, the manufacturer believes it can go further. Aside from a 15% reduction in labour costs through locating the facility in Romania, it will also configure assembly around a flow-line concept, speeding production and supporting the cost reduction initiative. A further simplification of the baseline helicopter and options list will also take place. All of which, Airbus believes, will enable manufacturing time to be cut to just 11 months, down from 18 at present.

The helicopter is also redesignated, becoming the H215, in common with the firm’s new naming convention.

Describing the move as a “very important investment”, Airbus Helicopters chief executive Guillaume Faury says the “streamlined industrial model” will enable it to produce “one of the most affordable heavy helicopters in the world” at Brasov.

Starlite H215

H215 will build on the innovations introduced on the AS332 C1e

Dominic Perry/Flightglobal

"We have everything in place – the product, the skills, the knowhow, the environment, and the willingness to make a successful company and a successful product,” he says.

Faury says the H215 was built around the requirements of the market and the "shortcomings of existing solutions". It is, he says, designed to deliver on customer expectations for a "reliable, robust [helicopter] that is fast to market and very competitive".

Those shortcomings include the UN’s increased willingness to insist on EASA or US Federal Aviation Administration certification standards in its tenders for helicopter operations, which plays against Russian-approved Mil models.

And, says Benoit Terral, sales promotion manager for the type, spares availability is also a major headache for operators: "When we discuss with operators of the Mi-17, the big concern is that they don't know whether Russia will deliver major parts or not."

The H215 will continue to be available as long- or short-fuselage models – 76cm and 150kg (331lb) separate the two – but the latter will be stripped down, says Terral, trimming empty weight by around 250kg to 4.2t and turning it into an all-round utility and aerial work platform. Items removed include the air intake particle filters (saving 80kg) and the rear cargo door (30kg).

As well as reviving aircraft building in Romania, Airbus Helicopters also hopes to build up the local supply chain, both through work packages for local companies and from encouraging its broader supplier base – engine maker Turbomeca, for instance – to transfer work to the country.

However, says Fabrice Arfi, vice-president of business development, that will require them to “pump up their standards”.

IAR, which already fabricates sheet metal components for the Super Puma, could also play a part, particularly given its history with the type. "They could do much more if they improve their production tools,” he says. And, if local suppliers are successful on the H215, they may be offered work on other models too.

Although the new site and associated production process encourages speculation other models could be produced in a similar low-cost way in Romania, Faury is adamant that this is not the case, at least in the immediate future.

He describes the Brasov development as a “fully fledged solution” unique to the H215, which is “an industrial and product approach to the market”.

He says: "It will evolve, but we are at the beginning of the story. We will grow the capability and knowhow [in Brasov] but it is now too early to talk about future potential."

Securing production ramp-up to 15-20 helicopters per year and ensuring the H215 captures market share is “already a broad project", he points out.

However, it is not necessarily as clear cut as that. The H215 needs to sell, otherwise a €50 million production facility will be left, if not idle, then at least not working to its full potential.

In which case there appears to be a contingency plan: "We believe in the market so that scenario [of limited orders] is unlikely. But the mitigation plan is potentially other platforms,” says Arfi.

Regardless of what is eventually built, Romania’s aircraft manufacturing industry seems to have regained its bite.