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EBACE: Helicopter manufacturers pitch their wares to Europe's VIPs

As is the case in other parts of the aviation industry, where helicopters are overshadowed by their fixed-wing counterparts, so the same applies to business aviation.

No matter how luxurious its interior, a rotorcraft will always be outshone by a business jet: they lack the range, the size and the speed to go toe-to-toe with the best and brightest from Dassault or Gulfstream.

Of course, that is not comparing apples with apples: a jet designed to travel 6,000nm (11,100km) with a cross-section the size of a narrowbody airliner is always going to win on pretty much any metric you care to think of – sheer opulence being the icing on that particular cake.

Except one of course: vertical take-off and landing. To flip the comparison on its head: how many business jets can fly you directly from the airport to your office?

Or as Frédéric Lemos, chief executive of Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH) notes, what other mode can carry you straight to your super-yacht?

A private helicopter is the "perfect complement to a yacht", he argues. "Imagine that you arrive into the South of France in your business jet into La Môle. If you have to drive to the coast, you could spend an hour and a half stuck in traffic, which, even if you are in a Rolls-Royce, is still an hour and a half.

"Then you may have to take a tender out to the yacht which adds another 20 or 30 minutes; better a seven- or eight-minute transfer from the airport to the yacht by helicopter."

ACH was launched as a dedicated operation at last year's EBACE to handle all the airframer's offerings in the business aviation segment and provide customers with an "end-to-end" experience.

"ACH is a full eco-system that we have built in the company to provide a higher-end offering to our customers," says Lemos, who notes that it "raises the bar" in terms of what it delivers to the market.

ACH is designed to support customers through the entire process, from selecting the aircraft, to picking the interior, to handover, to in-service support from its tailored HCare First package.

In addition, it creates a "gap between ourselves and our competition", says Lemos; although other helicopter manufacturers are active in the segment, none have a stand-alone operation like ACH.

It also leverages the experience of Airbus Corporate Jets, the dedicated business aviation arm of the group's airliner operation. "Together we are creating the concept of business aviation by Airbus. We are the only OEM that provides that in both the fixed- and rotary-wing sectors," says Lemos.

Of course, a typical governmental client for an ACJ319 is unlikely to also be in the market for an ACH130 light-single helicopter, but the closer alignment of the divisions does make some sense.

If nothing else, it offers the market a clearer touchpoint within Airbus Helicopters for their business aviation requirements, as well as more coherent branding,

For the manufacturer itself, the first 12 months of operation have been positive. "One year after the launch of Airbus Corporate Helicopters we can say it was a success for us," says Lemos.

"We are grabbing market share from the competition, particularly in the light-twin segment."

In 2017, ACH had a claimed 70% share of the market for corporate or VIP-roled turbine helicopters over 1.3t maximum take-off weight (MTOW).

Lemos says that ACH took in 58 gross orders last year, or 54 net, with around 70% of commitments from new customers.

The bulk of orders were for the ACH125 and ACH130 light-singles (the latter the best seller of the two and present on its EBACE stand), but also included 13 light- or medium-twins – the German-built ACH135 and ACH145 – as well as a single ACH175 super-medium.

Key this year will be converting the "huge interest" from the market in the developmental ACH160 into firm orders.

ACH earlier this year signed two separate deals for the medium-twin: totalling five aircraft, these are the type's sole firm orders so far.

"It is very important for us this year. The ACH160 is a game-changer in the small medium category. We have started to enter into the process of submitting offers to the clients," says Lemos.

Certification for the baseline version of the Safran Helicopter Engines Arrano-powered twin is anticipated in 2019, with the Stylence corporate aviation model to arrive in 2020.

A more exclusive VIP variant – which requires a number of exterior modifications, including the addition of hinged doors and an electrically actuated footstep – is scheduled for 2021.

Lemos expects the ACH160 to eventually represent about 40% of the installed base in the medium-twin category, pulling customers away from the Leonardo Helicopters AW139 and Sikorsky S-76, the latter currently sold in its D-model iteration.

In addition, the new Airbus Helicopters type will supplant a previous favourite of the business aviation segment, the manufacturer's own ACH155 – the latest version of its famous Dauphin line.

The ACH155 is, Lemos says, "arriving a bit at the end in terms of VIP configurations". In the longer term "it will be pretty much replaced" by the ACH160, but the Dauphin continues to net customers, albeit in small numbers: two were ordered in 2017, with a further example sold this year.

No decision has yet been taken to stop making the H155, but as the H160 begins to ramp up and demand drops further – across all segments - it is likely to be phased out.

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Italian airframer Leonardo is in a slightly different position to Airbus Helicopters in that its newest product, the 4.8t MTOW AW169, is already on the market.

Around one-third of the medium-twin's total sales are from business or corporate operators, partly aided by its occupation of a weight and size class not filled by anything else: it is larger than the 3.7t ACH145 at one end, and lighter, with a more spacious cabin, than the 5.3t S-76D at the other.

"The AW169 has been very well received in the world VIP/corporate market, particularly in Latin America and Europe but also in other regions," says Leonardo, which is exhibiting an AW169 VIP on its stand and an AW139 on the static.

"[The AW169] is the perfect fit for those who are used to flying the AW109 and need more space and longer range, as well as those who’d like to keep the outstanding capabilities of the AW139 but in a smaller and lighter scale." In VIP configurations, the AW169 can accommodate six to eight passengers.

As part of its marketing push for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210A-powered twin, Leonardo has recently performed a demonstration tour in the USA using a solitary example of the AW169.

The manufacturer claims a share of 50% of the market for multi-engined helicopters, which also counts head of state variants of the three-engined AW101 – more usually considered a military platform – in that total.

In 2017, it delivered over 20 units into the corporate and VIP segment, predominantly the AW109 Grand New, AW169 and AW139. In terms of orders, Leonardo took in deals for "over 30 units", including commitments for the AW169 and AW189 super-medium, as well as a handful of second-hand aircraft.

At present there are only two contenders in the super-medium category: the ACH175 and the heavier AW189. Airbus Helicopters argues its aircraft has the edge, having taken in a single order for the type in 2017 for delivery next year, adding to several previous deliveries into the segment.

However, from 2019, they will be joined by the Bell 525 Relentless; at 9.3t MTOW, it is a step up in size from the AW189.

Although Bell has had well-publicised difficulties with the aircraft's certification – a 2016 fatal crash halted test flights for a year – once the 525 gains US Federal Aviation Administration approval, it should have a formidable contender on its hands.

Assuming it is not beaten to market by another serially delayed programme – the AW609 tiltrotor – the Relentless will be the first commercial helicopter to feature full fly-by-wire controls.

In addition, Bell is promising an extremely quiet and spacious VIP cabin, built onto the 8.2m² (88ft²) of available floor space.

Italian interiors specialist Mecaer has already announced a version of its MAGnificent cabin for the 525, which features a variety of different seat configurations, dimmable electrochromatic windows, smartphone cabin controls, and a noise attenuation system that makes the cabin sufficiently quiet to hold a conversation without the need for a headset. The package adds around $1.1 million to the helicopter's baseline price of around $22 million.

Having already designed a MAGnificent interior for the Bell 429, Mecaer has also broadened its offering to encompass the manufacturer's smallest and newest helicopter, the 505 Jet Ranger X.

The light single-engined helicopter, built at Bell's facility in Mirabel, Canada, is a successor to the pioneering 206 Jet Ranger and, although small, can offer a little bit of luxury for shorter range missions, where large numbers of passengers are not a priority. MTOW for the Jet Ranger X is 1.7t, with a range of 306nm.

In March, Bell secured its first order for a VIP-roled 505, with Montreal-based Helite Aviation signing for a single example with the MAGnificent interior. Changes include upgrades to the passenger and crew seats, carpet with threshold covers, reading lights and air gaspers, new passenger service units, new cabin liners for the doors and ceiling areas and flight control boots.

Bell has slowly been ramping up production of the type, and has been ticking off the type certifications from a number of nations, with China the latest to grant approval.

That move will allow the US manufacturer to begin deliveries of the 505 to Reignwood International Investment Group, its exclusive distributor in the country.

In 2017, Bell secured deals for 110 units from Reignwood, with 11-12 505s to be delivered in China this year, and another 25 earmarked for 2019.

Bell additionally offers the 429, available in both skid-equipped and wheeled landing gear guises, and the 407. The latter is now available as the GXi variant, which features an upgraded Rolls-Royce M250 powerplant and Garmin's G1000H NXi digital flightdeck. It can seat five passengers in an Executive cabin which features club seating.

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