After the flurry of new helicopter launches in recent years, 2014 has seemed relatively quiet in comparison.
So far this year the only new programme to emerge is AgustaWestland’s AW109 Trekker – and that merely adds skids to its existing light twin. And for all that the Trekker is billed as new product, you might argue too that Airbus Helicopters also unveiled a fresh model with its plans for an enhanced Super Puma variant called the EC225e.
Instead, then, consolidation and execution appear to be the watchwords as airframers look to finish development and certification of their new helicopters – and then get them out the door to customers.
First deliveries this year have included the long overdue Sikorsky S-76D and the AgustaWestland AW189. US operator Bristow Group was the initial recipient of both new types, and the helicopters are now in service supporting the offshore oil and gas industry.
Next to make its service debut will be the Airbus Helicopters EC175 with deliveries to three operators – Russia’s UTair, Belgian firm Noordzee Helikopters Vlaanderen and France’s Heli-Union – due in October.
The French manufacturer finally secured certification for the 7.5t rotorcraft in January, following approval issues surrounding the type’s Helionix avionics suite announced last June. That marked the manufacturer’s second delay to the programme – in part driven by the desire of new chief executive Guillaume Faury to ensure complete readiness for the aircraft’s introduction.
The question is whether that delay has dampened enthusiasm for the EC175. Orders have not been flooding in, although Airbus Helicopters points to a strong backlog of 64 rotorcraft. A total of 14 commitments for the type were logged at the Heli-Expo show back in March, which has already outstripped last year’s low order tally of just five aircraft.
This show success was followed up by demonstration tours for the EC175 in both Southeast Asia – where it has yet to secure a customer – and the North Sea, where it has many.
And even before the first helicopter has been delivered, keenly aware of the contest for super-medium supremacy with the AW189 and the developmental Bell Helicopter 525 Relentless, Airbus Helicopters has announced an upgrade and weight increase for the EC175.
The manufacturer will next year begin evaluating the new model, which gains an additional 300kg (660lb) over the baseline helicopter, ahead of planned 2016 approval. The rival AW189 has already gained an additional 300kg, with AgustaWestland now billing what was previously an 8t-class helicopter as an 8.3t model.
Although Airbus Helicopters believes the higher maximum take-off weight can be achieved without modifications to the airframe or engines, the test programme will assess any potential impact on maintenance costs, says Mickael Melaye, head of worldwide oil and gas sales at Airbus Helicopters.
"We know that we had margins on pretty much every part of the aircraft, now we are asking for additional payload," he says.
If the assessments reveal a negative effect on overhaul intervals or on the helicopter's empty equipped weight, the airframer may from 2016 offer customers a choice of variants to "maximise flexibility", Melaye adds.
However, if the reverse is true it will likely only produce the heavier 7.8t model. "We still have to discuss this with our customers," says Melaye. Any modifications required will also be “retrofitable” to the previously delivered examples, he adds.
In all, Airbus Helicopters plans to deliver “three to four” EC175s this year, before ramping up to 18 in 2015 and 30 in 2016.
Sikorsky, too, is bringing a higher gross-weight variant of one its two civil helicopters to market. Around 10h of gearbox testing remain to be conducted on the new version of the S-92, says Carey Bond, president of Sikorsky Global Helicopters, which will be certificated at 27,700lb (12.6t) – an increase over the current 26,500lb maximum take-off weight. Following completion of the final evaluations “it is just paperwork and processing” that remain, he says, and the type should receive US Federal Aviation Administration approval in the fourth quarter.
A few “minor” structural modifications have been required to achieve the new weight, but Bond says they will be retrofitable to existing S-92s. It will be presented as an option to customers, he says, as “there are some advantages at [26,500lb] if you don’t need the additional weight.”
Operator reaction has been favourable, he adds. “People are just champing at the bit for[ 27,700lb] – I’m getting calls fairly frequently asking me to keep them up to speed.”
Partly fuelled by the growth of oil and gas exploration activities further offshore, the S-92 continues to sell strongly – along with its big rival, the Airbus Helicopters EC225. Sikorsky is sitting on a backlog for the S-92 of around $2 billion, with production sold out until late 2016, says Bond. “The heavy market continues to be really, really strong,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sikorsky’s other civil rotorcraft, the S-76D, is continuing its ramp-up following the first customer deliveries early this year. Although acknowledging that the medium market is “slightly flat”, as attention switches to long-range helicopters able to operate in more hostile environments, Bond points out that the backlog for the 5.3t type is still “north of $600 million”.
Six S-76Ds are in customer operation, with one aircraft operated by Trinidad & Tobago’s National Helicopter Services having “just ticked through the 500h mark”, Bond says.
Meanwhile, over at Bell Helicopter, the engineering teams of its two developmental programmes – the 525 Relentless and 505 Jet Ranger X – are still battling to win the race to first flight. Bell maintains that both are likely to achieve the milestone later this year, although the 505 may have the edge, says Matt Hasik, senior vice-president commercial programmes at Bell. This is due to the relative simplicity of the design, which features largely proven systems – particularly compared with the more complex, clean-sheet Relentless.
Nonetheless, the first 525 flight-test article is coming together at Bell’s Amarillo, Texas production facility, and “is starting to look like a real aircraft”, says Hasik. Joining of the three sections of main fuselage should take place in the coming weeks, with final assembly activities following late this summer. A second flight test aircraft is also on the assembly line, scheduled for final assembly two to three months behind the initial example.
Tests and validation of the Relentless’s fly-by-wire controls and software have been under way at the manufacturer’s Xworx research facility in Amarillo since last August, and are tracking towards first flight, says Hasik.
“We have had almost a year to wring out and test and work through development of that code,” he says.
Testing activities on the 525’s new carbonfibre rotor blades and new gearbox are also in progress.
The other big news from Fort Worth this year is the revival of the Jet Ranger line, with the name now conferred on the aircraft previously known as the SLS – or short light single, from the segment in which it sits.
Production of the first fuselage is complete at Aernnova’s factory in Querétaro, Mexico, and it will transfer this month for assembly at Bell’s site in Montreal, Canada.
Back in Europe, Russian Helicopters is struggling with its own development challenges. First flight of the new Kamov Ka-62 – a 6.5t rotorcraft featuring a high degree of Western content – was originally planned for last August, but has continually slipped back and is now scheduled to take place later this year. Certification and entry into service will follow in 2016.
Although not the biggest helicopter in its range, it does represent what could be a blueprint for future programmes with a much more Western outlook than previous models.
The airframer is additionally still working to make progress on the Mil Mi-38 – a 15.6t multirole helicopter that is now severely overdue, having performed its first flight in 2003.
Aside from the two development programmes, the other significant development involving Russian Helicopters is the cancellation of a programme so young it can barely be described as fledgling. Unveiled at last year’s MAKS air show, Russian Helicopters was to join forces with AgustaWestland to build a new 2.5t rotorcraft. However, that project was quietly shelved in March after the two parties changed their view on the segment, believing that competition there is too fierce.
At AgustaWestland, however, its energies have been mainly focused on the entry into service of the AW189, and continued development work on the lighter AW169.
So far two AW189s have been handed over, with the Anglo-Italian airframer targeting a total of “more than a dozen” deliveries this year. Operator feedback has been “very good” so far, as it utilises lessons learnt from the previous introduction of the AW139.
Production will ramp up to at least 25 aircraft per year by 2016, the firm says, noting that “with final assembly lines in Italy and the UK, this can be increased depending on demand”.
The Yeovil, UK site is specifically geared to the search and rescue segment – not least producing helicopters for operator Bristow for use on the UK’s Long SAR contract from 2015. The first two of 11 rotorcraft are in final assembly at the UK plant, and AgustaWestland says it is “hopeful” of securing further orders “in the near future”.
Progress on the AW169 – a new 4.5t-class helicopter – has also been steady, with the manufacturer having flown a combined 800h across four prototypes and undertaken further ground trials on its static test article. The first prototype has recently performed load trials in the UK.
Certification is expected by year-end, with first delivery the following year.
Sales have been solid, with AgustaWestland having amassed some 120 firm and tentative commitments to date, and the airframer believes more will be forthcoming once it achieves EASA approval.
“The AW169 is the only all-new helicopter in its class for nearly 40 years,” it notes.
Production will eventually total 45-50 aircraft per year once the ramp-up is complete, it adds. Initially assembly will be conducted at Vergiate, Italy with a second line in Philadelphia coming on stream in the first half of 2015.