Arguably the most competitive part of the helicopter market, the light-single segment is, however, not necessarily blessed with the most modern designs. Nonetheless, new models are in development which will bring innovation to the sector.
The biggest selling light-single rotorcraft still in production the Airbus Helicopters H125 dates back to 1975 and the Aerospatiale era, reflected by its original AS350 designation.
Of course, the helicopter has been through numerous iterations since that point, with the latest tweaks unveiled by the manufacturer in early 2020 aimed specifically at the utility work segment.
Snapshot: light-single developments
- H125 – fresh upgrades aimed at utility segment
- SH09 – service entry in 2022-2023 timeframe after Kopter acquired by Leonardo Helicopters
- VRT500 – Russian Helicopters subsidiary VR-Technologies is developing co-axial rotor-equipped model
- HX50 – UK start-up Hill Helicopters is working on 1.6t design which uses in-house engine
At the heart of the upgrade is a power increase for the H125’s Safran Helicopter Engines Arriel 2D turboshaft. Maximum output rises to 952shp (710kW), up from 847shp currently. This in turn boosts the maximum external load to 1,140kg (2,150lb), a 140kg increase on the current limit; the hover ceiling also rises by 1,500ft to 12,640ft, from 11,150ft now.
However, if BLR Aerospace’s FastFin modification is also fitted, the increases grow to 190kg and 2,300ft, respectively. Airbus Helicopters additionally competes in the segment with the H130, although sales are more usually to corporate or VIP customers than those seeking a utility workhorse.
In addition, there are signs that Airbus Helicopters is preparing the groundwork for a Squirrel successor. As part of its recovery plan for the aerospace sector, the French government in June signaled its intention to fund research and development work into a low-emission light helicopter that would offer a 40% fuel-burn saving over the current standard; a demonstrator is due to arrive in 2029.
In the nearer term though, the H125 is likely to face competition from a new arrival in the market, the Kopter SH09. Previously a standalone company, earlier this year the Swiss manufacturer was acquired by Leonardo Helicopters which has added the 2.65t maximum take-off weight SH09 into its product portfolio.
While the gestation period of the Honeywell HTS900-powered rotorcraft has been slowed – service entry now looks to be 2022 or 2023 – the considerable financial and industrial heft of its new owner promises to make the SH09 a stronger competitor. It is also the only new helicopter in this part of the market for decades.
In addition, the acquisition has obviated Leonardo Helicopters from the need to develop its own new rotorcraft in a segment where its sole interest is the AW119Kx. While this helicopter continues to sell – and has benefited from obtaining instrument flight rules certification in the USA - the manufacturer would be the first to admit that it is stronger further up the weight range. Development of the SH09 continues, with test flights resuming in Switzerland in October.
A bias in its range towards heavier machines is also the case with Russian Helicopters. However, the company is looking to change this with the development of the VR Technologies VRT500 light-single.
Featuring a maximum take-off weight of 1.6t and powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207V engine, the new model is already attracting interest: at 2019’s Dubai air show, Abu Dhabi’s Tawazun Economic Council was revealed to be in negotiations for 200 examples. Tawazun was also to take a 50% stake in the manufacturer, although the deal appears yet to have closed.
According to the most recent schedule, first flight of the VRT500 is due this year with certification to follow in late 2022. Aside from traditional helicopter applications, the manufacturer is hopeful that its co-axial rotor design will enable it to compete in the market for urban air mobility services.
At the lighter end of the segment is the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X. A consistent success for the US manufacturer since its service entry in 2017, the 1.6t 505 is powered by a single Safran Arrius 2R engine and boasts an impressive cruise speed of 125kt and 306nm range. Although deliveries have been pummeled this year by the coronavirus pandemic as owner-fliers rein in discretionary spending, the helicopter competes in multiple utility sectors.
One notable milestone was hit in September when the in-service fleet passed 50,000 flight hours. Bell also competes in the segment with the 407, with the 2.26t helicopter currently produced as the GXi-model variant.
At 1.25t MTOW, the Robinson R66 is the lightest helicopter in the category. It also passed a significant milestone this year when the California-based company handed over aircraft MSN1000. That figure was achieved in the little under 10 years since deliveries of the Rolls-Royce M300-powered helicopter began in late 2010. The in-service fleet has accumulated over 1.2 million flight hours.
Elsewhere in the USA, MD Helicopters has announced certification for an MTOW increase on its MD530F, rising to 1,500kg from 1,400kg previously. Upgrade kits for the Rolls-Royce M250-C30-powered helicopter are available for existing operators.
Lastly, there a potential new entrant to the segment as well. UK-based start-up Hill Helicopters is intending to develop a 1.6t MTOW rotorcraft, with an 800kg useful load. Powered by a single 500shp engine, the in-house GT50, first flight of the five-person helicopter is due in 2022 with deliveries to begin the following year. Production facilities will be sized to support output of up to 500 aircraft per year.
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New models set to bring fresh competition to light-single helicopter segment