At an as-yet undisclosed point in the fourth quarter, likely to be October or early November, Airbus Helicopters will deliver its most important new model, the clean-sheet EC175.

The 7.5t rotorcraft sits in the new super-medium segment and will compete initially against the in-service AgustaWestland AW189 and later, the developmental Bell Helicopter 525 Relentless. First delivery will mark the midpoint of a crucial period for the manufacturer as it revamps its civil range.

In the pipeline since 2008, the arrival of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-powered EC175 has already been delayed on two previous occasions to allow the manufacturer to ensuret that its operations are ready for service entry.

Operators have been patient, although the EC175’s order total last year of just five aircraft suggests that well of goodwill is only so deep.

Three operators – Noordzee Helikopters Vlaanderen (NHV), Héli-Union and UTair – will take delivery of their initial examples this autumn as the airframer looks to ease the type into service.

Despite this glacially slow approach, Airbus Helicopters chief executive Guillaume Faury, speaking to reporters in early September, believes that momentum is now with the new rotorcraft.

A tour of the North Sea – including stops in Norwich, Aberdeen and Stavanger – was carried out in May, which Faury describes as “very successful”. Operators, he says, “see how they can take benefit from [this] aircraft and how they can position them”. Missions previously served by medium-weight helicopters are shifting to the super-medium class as rigs move further offshore, he notes.

Having previously highlighted the EC175’s poor 2013 sales total, Faury is confident that trend is reversing. “I believe that 2014 will be decent and 2015 will be brilliant,” he says. Orders this year are outstripping those in 2013, with commitments so far totalling 14 helicopters, including an additional six aircraft for NHV.

Future developments are also likely to include production of a military variant, despite previous insistence to the contrary. That said, Faury points out that Airbus Helicopters is “in no hurry” to militarise the platform. In the short term, he says: “We don’t see any tender where the EC175 would be the product of choice for military applications.”

Any future variant would also need to be developed outside the framework of Airbus Helicopters’ co-operation with its Chinese partner, Avicopter, which produces the main fuselage for the EC175 and is also creating its own variant of the rotorcraft, the Z-15/AC352 for its domestic market. Any military variant will be “pure Airbus Helicopters”, says Faury.

And in March 2015 comes the next stage in the airframer’s product renewal, when it officially launches its new X4, a replacement for the ageing Dauphin line, which is currently being given a sales mauling by the AgustaWestland AW139.

Crucially, however, under Faury’s tenure, the plan for the X4 has shifted markedly away from the two-step approach favoured by his predecessor, Lutz Bertling. That called for the introduction of an initial model with a regular cockpit and controls to be followed several years later with the arrival a more advanced variant featuring fly-by-wire systems and advanced cockpit displays. That plan has been revised, however. “We will make one product that is good enough from day one that addresses the market needs,” says Faury. “We do it from day one.”


Airbus Helicopters believes the EC175 will be a success despite delays during its development

Airbus Helicopters

The promised cockpit advances are the main casualty of this shift, for reasons that Faury sees as obvious: “Why delay the X4 to wait for fly-by-wire? Customers are expecting a competitive helicopter – that we can provide with the existing autopilot. We don’t need fly-by-wire.

“It increases complexity, non-recurring development costs and risks, and the value added for the customers – that’s not very clear,” he says.

However, the process of product renewal actually kicked off earlier this year with the first delivery of the revamped EC145 T2.

Handed over to German emergency medical services operator DRF Luftrettung, the 3.6t rotorcraft marks a step – but definitely not a leap – forward.

The EC145 T2, although effectively a derivative of the long-running Bk115 rotorcraft that predates even Eurocopter, is heralded by the company as “close to being an entirely new helicopter”.

Enhancements over its C2 predecessor include improved Turbomeca Arriel 2E engines, a completely new tail boom and shrouded Fenestron tail rotor – at 1.1m (3ft 7in) wide, the largest Airbus Helicopters has ever produced – along with the manufacturer’s new Helionix avionics suite, similar to that installed on the EC175.

Wolfgang Schoder, chief executive of Airbus Helicopters in Germany, says the rotorcraft has benefited from a number of manufacturing advances. He points to the three-piece carbonfibre tail boom, designed and developed at the company’s composite centre of excellence based at its Donauwörth site. The design, with the majority of the boom a monocoque structure, not only saves around 30kg (66lb) over the previous all-metal design, but is stronger too, says Schoder, because it removes the usual stress point at the boom-vertical fin junction and is more able to cope with dynamic loads.

Ramp-up at Donauwörth is steep: from 20 deliveries this year, to 50 next year, eventually taking it as high as 70. Schoder says he is “100% confident” that it can meet the production target, noting that it is already a “very mature” helicopter. A backlog of a little over 100 aircraft means “slots for the next two years are completely booked”.

It has not been a development without problems, however. First delivery was initially planned for late 2013, but delays to certification, particularly regarding the Helionix system, and a shift in corporate culture towards a more cautious approach with the arrival of Faury, pushed this back by over six months.

Schoder describes this hiatus as “frustrating, but not a drama” and stresses that customers have remained loyal.

“What we tried to do and I think we managed quite well, was to stay in touch with operators and help them keep to their targets,” says Dragos Grigorincu, EC145 T2 programme manager. However, he admits: “For sure, it was not a pleasant thing.” It was, he says, “a complex decision” to delay the programme, but declines to be drawn on whether first delivery could have taken place last year.

For its part, DRF Luftrettung remains unperturbed by the late arrival of the T2. Steffen Lutz, chief executive says the delay did not cause the Filderstadt-based firm any difficulties. “As launch customer, it would have been naive to think it would be absolutely on time. We still have enough helicopters,” he explains.

DRF Luftrettung has a framework agreement in place covering the acquisition of 20 of the rotorcraft. Five of these are firm orders in the period to 2016, and the rest will be progressively converted over the next 10-15 years, says Lutz.

The initial example – a second followed at the end of August – will operate from DRF’s Munich base performing inter-hospital patient transfers and replaces an older B2 variant. The Bavarian location was chosen, says Lutz, because that site has the most experience with the use of night-vision goggles and is also where its training captains are located.

In addition, it is sufficiently close to the Donauwörth plant should any teething troubles develop, he says.

Overall, the firm is delighted with its new rotorcraft. “We are very proud of this new helicopter and we think it is perfect to help us fulfil the rescue missions,” says Lutz, highlighting its single-engine performance and enclosed tail rotor as key attributes for DRF. The latter offers “huge security for ground personnel”, he says.

Franz Ahollinger, deputy flight operations manager at DRF, has been leading the project to integrate the new EC145 T2 into the company’s fleet. His initial experience at the controls has made him impressed with its power and capabilities. “I like the four-axis autopilot. [On an acceptance flight] we flew four IFR approaches and after configuration we just kept the hands off the controls and let it do its thing. I am already used to the three-axis [autopilot] on the C2, but this is a whole different ball game.”

Two instructors have finished conversion onto the new helicopter and the company is aiming for 20 pilots to be fully trained by the time of entry into service, expected to be in December.

The backlog also includes 15 examples of the military EC645 T2 variant on order for the German air force. The initial helicopters for this requirement are already being assembled at Donauwörth, ahead of first delivery in 2015.

And later this year comes another minor model update, with planned certification of the enhanced P3/T3 variants of the 2.9t EC135. Upgrades to the type included modified engine intakes, improved engine management software and main rotor blades that are 10cm (4in) longer than those on the current T2e/P2e models.

However, with images already circulating on the internet of what appears to be a heavily modified EC135 operating from Dönauworth – the addition of a five-blade main rotor is one major change – it is clear that the airframer is not standing still.