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  • ANALYSIS: Helicopter developments continue despite downturn

ANALYSIS: Helicopter developments continue despite downturn

Despite a sector downturn that is causing pain to all the major helicopter manufacturers the development of new products continues unabated. After all, what better way to stimulate the market than by promising customers a product that is better – faster, more powerful, more sophisticated – than their existing rotorcraft?

While some new programmes are advancing at a brisk clip – the Airbus Helicopters H160, for example – progress is slower elsewhere. In some instances – the Bell Helicopter 525 and Leonardo AW609 – delays have been caused by flight-test crashes, while in others – the X6, for instance – a segment-specific downturn is the more likely cause.

However, what is clear is that over the coming years – certainly 2018 is looking busy – a wealth of new helicopters is going to hit the market.

At Airbus Helicopters the immediate priority is the H160 medium-twin, the first platform brought to market under its new industrial model and corporate structure. It is continuing its relatively untroubled progress toward certification in 2018, with service entry the year after.

So far, two prototypes of the Safran Helicopter Engines Arrano-powered rotorcraft have flown, with a third due to join the fleet in the coming weeks.

No details of the all-composite H160's maximum take-off weight have been released, although FlightGlobal understands this will sit close to 6t, putting it in direct competition with Leonardo’s AW139.

Aeromechanical configuration of the new rotorcraft was frozen in July 2016.

Development of a military variant is also being accelerated, following the H160's selection by France to form the basis of its tri-service light rotorcraft replacement programme.

Deliveries under the hélicoptère interarmées léger (HIL) effort are due to start around 2024 and Paris plans to acquire 160-190 aircraft.

Two other clean-sheet programmes are in various stages of development at the manufacturer.

First there is the futuristic Racer – or Rapid and Cost-Effective Rotorcraft – a successor to the record-breaking X3 compound helicopter, which is being developed under the European Union’s CleanSky 2 initiative.

Although images of the Racer had previously been displayed, Airbus Helicopters unveiled a radical redesign in June.

It now features a box-wing design arranged in a V shape. This, it says, generates more lift, without blocking rotor downwash vital in a low-speed hover.

Safe and unobstructed access to the cabin is also been provided by moving the box-wing further aft.

In addition, the manufacturer calculates that the box-wing/pusher prop combination will cut power demand by 10% in forward flight, improving fuel consumption and increasing range.

Airbus Helicopters will also work with propulsion supplier Safran Helicopter Engines to develop a system that allows one powerplant to be idled – and rapidly restarted – in flight, at about 180-190kt (333-351km/h).

Final assembly of the rotorcraft is due to begin in 2019, with its maiden sortie scheduled for 2020. Maximum take-off weight is likely to be above 5t.

Meanwhile, at the heavier end of its range, work continues on the X6, seen as an eventual replacement for the 11t-class, 19-passenger H225.

Launched at the 2015 Paris air show, the helicopter is currently in the concept study phase, but the airframer has revealed little in the way of progress on design configurations since then.

In June the European Commission approved €377 million ($420 million) of French and German funding for the development.

Airbus Helicopters had previously suggested that the concept study phase would last about two years, with service entry tentatively scheduled for 2022-2023.

However, it is not certain if this schedule still holds, or when the programme will be formally launched.

For Bell Helicopter, the priority is to catch up the time lost to a grounding of the GE Aviation CT7-powered 525 Relentless super-medium-twin.

The programme's second prototype returned to flight on 7 July 2017 – a year and a day after a fatal crash hit the programme.

A US National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident continues, but the details that have emerged so far indicate that the 525’s main rotor blades struck both its nose and tail boom during the ill-fated sortie.

Asset Image

Production versions of Bell's 525 are in final assembly

Bell Helicopter

Although Bell has tried to maintain some momentum, certification and service entry have inevitably slipped back, to 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Since the flight restriction was lifted, aircraft FTV-2 has accumulated a little over 40h. The third 525 prototype will rejoin the effort in the coming months and two further examples, in a production-conforming configuration, are due to arrive over the next six months.

Initial production helicopters are already beginning to come together on Bell's final assembly line, and its new cabin production facility in Lafayette, Louisiana is also gearing up.

Although now switching from the development to the production phase, Bell's 505 Jet Ranger X light-single, meanwhile, is still waiting to obtain European certification.

Validation from Transport Canada arrived in December 2016, with US Federal Aviation Administration approval following six months later. However, there is no sign of the European Aviation Safety Agency following suit, with the milestone seemingly having slipped until later this year or early 2018.

Leonardo Helicopters, meanwhile, is pursuing new programmes of radically different complexity.

At the one extreme is the AW609 tiltrotor, which is due to enter service in 2019 following certification in 2018.

The AW609 is still recovering from a 2015 fatal accident involving the second flight-test prototype.

Italian investigators determined that flawed flight control logic and poorly understood behaviour of a new tail configuration caused unexpected and severe oscillations during high-speed testing in airplane mode.

This motion became so extreme that the AW609's proprotors contacted the leading edge of the wing, causing an in-flight break-up and fire.

Flights resumed in 2016 and Leonardo believes the tiltrotor is now back on track.

One AW609 is currently based in the USA – it performed icing trials in Marquette, Michigan in February 2017 – and a sister aircraft is located at its Italian headquarters. A third prototype, a production conforming example, is to be assembled at its Philadelphia final assembly line.

Leonardo is committed to tiltrotor technology and plans to fly a European Union-funded second-generation version – the Next-Gen Civil Tiltrotor – in 2023.

The manufacturer is also working on a new variant of its AW109, the Trekker, which adds skid-type landing gear to the popular light-twin.

A maiden sortie of the Trekker took place in March 2016, with a sister aircraft joining the flight-test programme five months later.

Avionics for the platform are provided by Genesys Aerosystems, while power comes from a pair of 735shp (548kW) Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207C engines.

Certification and service entry are due this year.

Over in Moscow, Russian Helicopters is pressing ahead with several new designs.

On the late-running Ka-62 there are finally signs of progress. Certification test flights are scheduled to start next year leading to Russian approval and service entry in 2020.

Two flight-test articles have been produced by the Progress Arsenyev Aviation plant, with the first of these having performed a 15min maiden sortie in May 2017.

First flight of the 6.5t Ka-62 was originally scheduled for 2013, but repeated, unexplained delays have held up its progress.

In addition, Russian Helicopters is addressing the one obvious gap in its line-up and developing a new light single-engined helicopter for service entry early next decade.

The VRT500, designed by its VR-Technologies subsidiary, will feature co-axial rotors and have a maximum take-off weight of 1.6t.

A mock-up of the design was unveiled at the MAKS air show in Moscow in July 2017, with first flight scheduled for 2019. Service entry is due in 2020-2021.

No details of engine or flightdeck suppliers have been released so far.

Further out, the company has also been hammering out, with China's Avicopter, the partners’ respective responsibilities on a new heavy-lift helicopter.

The pair successfully progressed negotiations at the recent China Helicopter Expo, agreeing on the technical specification for the project and moving on to the financial aspects of the programme.

Russian Helicopters will act as a subcontractor to Avicopter, with final assembly to be performed in China.

Dubbed the Advanced Heavy Lifter – or AHL – it is expected to have a maximum take-off weight of 38.2t, while its ceiling will be 18,700ft.

Arizona’s MD Helicopters is also working on a new model, the MD6XX light-single.

MD Helicopters took the wraps off its first MD6XX mock-up in early March 2017.

It revealed the familiar fuselage shape of the MD600N, but with several major changes, the most significant of which is a four-bladed tail rotor, replacing the familiar NOTAR anti-torque system.

It will also feature boosted flight controls, a Genesys Aerosystems-supplied IDU-680 glass cockpit, digital three-axis autopilot, a Rolls-Royce M250-C34E2 engine, composite fuselage panels, HTC-supplied rotor blades and resized stabilisers.

The redesigned MD6XX will be offered with a maximum take-off weight of nearly 2.5t with a 160kt (296km/h) maximum speed and 500nm (926km) range.

At the moment MD Helicopters has promised to deliver complete certification of the MD6XX by the end of 2018, but says the project could consume another year of testing.

New entrants to the sector are also making progress with their first designs.

Due to arrive next year is the Marenco Swisshelicopter (MSH) SKYe SH09, a clean-sheet, single-engined rotorcraft.

European certification of the 2.5t maximum take-off weight helicopter is due in the second half of 2018, says MSH, with first delivery following shortly afterwards.

However, it has been a year of change for the fledgling manufacturer with the departure in December 2016 of chief executive and founder Martin Stucki – whose name is also intertwined with that of the company.

Several former Airbus Helicopters executives are now in key positions at MSH and a name change is also being contemplated in order to highlight the break from its former boss.

In addition, the board has appointed as non-executive director André Borschberg, co-founder and pilot of Solar Impulse, the solar-powered aircraft which performed a circumnavigation of the globe.

In development since 2011, the SKYe SH09 is powered by the Honeywell HTS900 engine.

MSH will inaugurate its new production facility in Mollis, Switzerland, later this year. It holds firm and tentative orders for 101 units of the SKYe SH09.

Elsewhere, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is targeting September 2018 for a first flight of its indigenous T625 intermediate twin-engined helicopter, with certification to follow 18 months to two years later.

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When a new, indigenous powerplant is ready, TAI's T625 will be 10% made-in-turkey

BillyPix

Initially pitched at the civil transport market, a military version of the 12-seater will follow about two years after first flight, designed to perform search and rescue, troop transport and casualty evacuation missions.

TAI believes it can secure domestic orders for about 300 units over the next 15 years, with exports accounting for another 500 airframes over a 20-25-year period.

Powered by twin CTS800 engines from the Rolls-Royce/Honeywell joint venture LHTEC, the T625 will have a maximum take-off weight of about 6t.

The powerplants are the only part of the helicopter not produced in Turkey, but Tusas Engine Industries is developing an indigenous turboshaft which will be integrated later. Aselsan provides the all-glass cockpit.

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