If you build it, they will come. Airbus Helicopters might have been following the famous advice of the film Field of Dreams when it invested almost €52 million ($62 million) in a factory in Romania in November 2015. Two years on, the Brasov plant is ready to produce its first H215M, an iteration of the venerable Super Puma. All that is missing is a kick-off order from Bucharest. The Franco-German manufacturer – which has a relationship with Romania’s rotorcraft industry that began in the early days of the Nicolae Ceaușescuera – built the final assembly line in the Transylvanian city in anticipation of a sale to the domestic customer. An order would extend the production life of the rebranded AS332 C1e/L1e and help retain in Romania a competence in helicopter engineering that stretches back to the 1960s.

At time of writing, an order for the 16 examples of the 8.6t maximum take-off weight type that Airbus Helicopters says it needs to launch production looked likely, with media reports suggesting Romania had made a decision. After a two-year hiatus since Airbus Helicopters unveiled the factory, recent indications had looked promising. In August, the company announced in Bucharest, in front of French president Emmanuel Macron and his Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis, that long-time local partner IAR would be prime contractor for any future H215M orders by the Romanian defence ministry for 15 years. Later that month, Serge Durand, managing director of Airbus Helicopters Industries, told FlightGlobal that “we are waiting for a strong signal from the Romanian government”.

The 10,000m2 (108,000ft2) factory – which will have an initial capacity of 15 aircraft a year – may be new, but Airbus Helicopters is no newcomer in Romania. As Aerospatiale, it licensed IAR to build the Alouette III and Puma – more than 360 were delivered in the 1970s and 1980s alongside IAR’s own products. In 2002, with Romanian helicopter production at an end, the then-Eurocopter launched a 51%-owned joint venture with IAR to maintain, repair and overhaul helicopters in a facility next door to the new factory. Originally focused on the domestic fleet, Eurocopter Romania began expanding its net as operators from further afield sent aircraft for more complex refits and refurbishments. This year, more than 80% of the unit’s revenues will come from outside Romania for the first time, says Durand.

Airbus Helicopters Romania – as the MRO operation is now known – is qualified to work on smaller types such as the H120, H125, H130 and H135, but the bulk of its work comes from the Super Puma. Several – in various states of refurbishment – stood in the main workshop when we visited. “It is our core competency,” says Durand, who is responsible for both the MRO operation and the new factory. Alongside its plans to launch production of the H215M, Airbus Helicopters also offers an upgrade for legacy Super Pumas to “H215 standard”, although Durand thinks this programme will fill only a small part of a potential demand for 1,000 Super Puma-sized aircraft, a segment where the main rivals are the Mil Mi-17 and Sikorsky S-70.

“The market is huge, particularly if you look at the UN,” says Durand. “To get 20% of that market over 15 years is not so ambitious, although it’s possible that we can get more.” A Romanian order would be “a signal to the market”, he believes, and would prompt further interest from operators involved in areas such as firefighting, aerial observation, medical evacuation, logging and disaster relief. He describes the H215M as a “workhorse” that can be operated and maintained simply. “Technology-wise, it’s not an [NH Industries] NH90, but it’s robust with classic technology,” he adds. “It can be maintained in the field. Pilots love it because of the automatic pilot and mechanics love its simplicity. I think there will be more and more demand for this kind of available, reliable aircraft.”

Romania itself flies about 60 ageing Puma and Super Puma helicopters, some of which are 40 years old. Other government entities, such as the health and interior ministries, also operate Pumas of a similar vintage. While it is unlikely that Romanian customers will commit to orders in the high double figures in the short term, the latest agreement with IAR – an extension of a previous five-year deal – covers a timescale longer than the realistic working life of the current fleet. “Most of the country’s helicopters will have to be replaced within 10 to 15 years,” notes Durand.

Under the agreement, IAR itself – which also has a facility next door to Airbus Helicopters Romania – will carry out any military customisations. The deal works both ways. The state-owned company has a separate deal with Bell Helicopter to prime with the US manufacturer to offer the AH-1Z Viper for a Romanian requirement thought to be for 24 attack helicopters. In August, Bucharest submitted a request for information on pricing and availability to the US government. However, IAR can work only with Airbus Helicopters on any pitch involving a medium or heavy type, notes Durand. “That makes us more confident", he says.

Airbus Helicopters Romania employs 170 people with a further 30 undergoing training and carrying out preliminary work in the new factory. Once assembly is at 15 aircraft a year, the workforce will need to rise to 350, says Durand. Airbus Helicopters is working with local education facilities to train potential recruits – 28 have started a tailored technician course at the city’s technical college. With many of the remaining workers from IAR’s days as a helicopter manufacturer approaching retirement, Airbus Helicopters is keen to nurture a new generation of specialists – the demographic time bomb means it is vital to secure a production contract for the H215M as soon as possible.

“We have a plan for the next 15 years, a succession plan for the transfer of experience and knowledge,” notes Durand. “Building new helicopter skills is not so easy.” He also believes expatriate Romanians with aerospace experience will be tempted to return with the promise of a secure career at home, lower salaries compensated for by lower living costs and quality of life in an attractive, prosperous city surrounded by heavily-forested mountains dotted with ski resorts and picture postcard castles. Several have already been lured back, including the head of Durand’s design office. A local airport would help make moving to Brasov more attractive, he admits. Unusually for an aerospace hub, the city has only a grass airfield and the nearest airport is several hours’ drive away in Bucharest.

At the same time, Durand is keen to develop a local supply chain to support H215M assembly and possibly compete for work on other Airbus Helicopters programmes. Although Romania has barely made its own rotorcraft this century, there are still small companies in the Brasov area and beyond “with all the competencies we need to build a helicopter”, he says. For a country whose aerospace industry had to fight for its life after the end of communism, it would be a real turnaround. “There is a real industrial network here,” says Durand. “It means Romania can have autonomy in a small club of helicopter manufacturers in the world.”

Source: Flight International