France's helicopter industry is poised for a comeback after several years of steadily declining fortunes during which, in common with helicopter manufacturers elsewhere, the recession hit civil and military sales particularly hard.
In 1996, however, the industry saw real signs of progress, with orders up by an astonishing 75%. Much of this was because of success in winning export orders, which accounted for no less than 90% of the total - French Government orders having virtually dried up as reduced government spending took effect.
Since 1991, France's helicopter industry has been inextricably linked to that of Germany through the Eurocopter consortium, in which it has a 70% stake. A major milestone in 1997 will see put in place the final elements of the process of creating Eurocopter as the first totally integrated European aeronautics group. This will leave it is a fully operational company in its own right rather than as four separate companies operating under French law (Eurocopter SA, Eurocopter France, Eurocopter International and Eurocopter Participations) and Eurocopter Deutschland under German law.
The revised organisation will, according to Eurocopter's French president, Jean-Francois Bigay, be directed strongly towards improving customer service, productivity and efficiency, and will be built around new business centres, responsible for technical, industrial and economic performance, supported by centres of expertise taking care of research and development, oriented towards the business centres. A single management structure will be responsible for both the French and German entities, with Eurocopter directors exercising their functions across the board. The result, as far as the customer is concerned, will be a more easily identifiable organisation built around the Eurocopter name. The company's headquarters has also been moved, to Marignanne, in the south of France.
Last year's successful results were a breath of fresh air for Eurocopter. Total sales of 228 machines were broken down into 64% military and 36% civil. Of the 10% of domestic orders, only 2.6% came from the French Government, highlighting the export challenge now under way.
Exports up 10%
The 228 total sales consisted of 109 single-engined and 23 twin-engined Ecureuils, 23 Bo105s, five BK117s, 18 EC135s, 21 Dauphin/Panthers and 29 Cougar/Super Pumas. Orders taken for both new and used machines were worth Fr12 billion ($2.1 billion), with turnover at a similar level to that of 1995, at Fr9.3 billion. Exports were up by 10% over the previous year. "In the face of shrinking procurement funding everywhere, and the resulting extremely tough competition," says Bigay, "Eurocopter rallied to the challenge with unprecedented determination." In 1996, the alliance succeeded in closing several crucial deals with Spain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, marking Eurocopter's return to the Middle East market after its expulsion following the Gulf War. The group now says that it has captured roughly 20% of the global military market, not including the USA and CIS, marking a recovery to 1992/3 levels.
Despite the difficult years, Eurocopter, which claims the widest range of helicopters in the world in the 2.5-10t class, has maintained its continuing development programmes and has succeeded in fielding two new civil helicopters, the four-seat, single-engined EC120, in co-operation with China and Singapore and the seven/eight-seat, twin-powerplant EC135.
During 1996, it also continued development of new versions of existing machines, with particular emphasis on offering customers more flexibility on purchase and operating costs. The Cougar 100 (which will be flown for the first time in the summer) will thus be marketed as a lighter, lower purchase-and-operating cost alternative to the more sophisticated Cougar MkII, while in the civil and public service sectors, the N3 version of the Dauphin and B3 version of the single-engined Ecureuil (due for certification in November) offer improved performance, enabling, says Eurocopter, "an approach to a broader market base". Helicopters in the medium-lift segment have also received upgrades aimed at reducing costs.
The biggest recent event was the market launch of the new EC120 Colibri at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) show in Anaheim, California, in February. With almost 20 machines sold during the show, the new helicopter is off to a good start, and Eurocopter will now embark on a campaign to secure as much as possible of an estimated market sized at between 1,500-2,000 machines. It is the first all-new helicopter in the 1.5t class for many years, and in many cases is competing with helicopters designed 30 years ago.
The three-bladed rotor design uses Eurocopter's Spheriflex all-composite bearingless hub with parabolic-section blade-tip fairings to reduce noise, along with the Fenestron shrouded, asymmetric tail rotor developed by Eurocopter France. The result - generally agreed by observers at the HAI show - is an extremely quiet machine, which will improve the helicopter's image when operating in urban environments. Power comes from a single Turboméca Arrius 2F turboshaft, while avionics, supplied by Sextant Avionique, introduce liquid-crystal displays and a new monitoring and control system. Maintenance requirements are also minimised by the simple design, with the maintenance manual for the entire helicopter being available on CD-ROM.
Success has also attended the service introduction of the EC135, which, with certification in June 1996, accounted for 18 sales in the second half of the year, and the resulting decision to increase significantly the production rate of the helicopter. The largest order so far has come from the Bavarian police, for nine machines, and followed on the heels of several others in recent months, including two for the German air rescue service and six for France's Helicap.
Variants on the way
The EC135 was conceived specifically to meet the new Joint Aviation Authorities JAR-OPS3 regulations relating to public service helicopters. Like the EC120, it has extensive use of composites, a pair of (more powerful) Turboméca Arrius 2B powerplants, a bearingless main rotor and Fenestron tail rotor. Together with the EC120, the EC135 will provide the basis for a range of variants in the future which will maintain Eurocopter's already strong presence in the civil and public utility markets, which accounted for around 36% of total sales in 1996.
On the military side, events are more subject to political and budgetary fortunes, with Eurocopter basing its future on the Tiger anti-tank/ support and NH Industries (NHI) NH90 transport helicopters, and on continued sales of its own Cougar - which has been selling well in its latest, Mk II version.
The hope is that France and Germany will remain committed to the Tiger and NH90. The joint Franco-German requirement for the Tiger stands at 215 French and 212 German helicopters, divided into the multi-role "UH" Tiger for Germany and anti-tank and combat support/escort protection versions for France. Whether this number is actually ordered is still in question - at present the hope remains that the industrialisation contract due to be signed at the Paris air show will lead to an initial order for 160 machines (80 each) during 1997. This would lead to Ìrst deliveries to the German army in 2001 and to the French army in 2003.
The Tiger was flown for the first time in 1996, and there are five prototypes in the programme, which between them have built up a total flight time of around 1,600h. The escort/protection version has completed successfully its third series of cannon, rocket and air-to-air missile Ìrings, while a "cold weather" qualification campaign has also been carried out in Sweden.
The NH90 programme is being developed under a NATO-agreed specification, with the ECU 1.4 million ($1.6 million) fixed-price design and development contract having been signed in September 1992. The NH90 brings Italy and the Netherlands into the picture, with France taking a 41.6% share, Italy's Agusta 28.2%, Germany 23.7%, and the Netherlands' Fokker 6.5%. Although there have been doubts about continued funding, the future is beginning to look better for this programme, which is potentially Europe's largest-ever co-operative effort on a military machine, despite reductions in the number required by France and Germany (to 160 and 243 respectively). With Italy having increased its requirement to 224 machines, and the Netherlands remaining the same at 20, the total requirement now stands at 647 helicopters.
The first example has now built up more than 115h of flight-testing time, and the second - which is the first to be fitted with a fly-by-wire flight-control system, flew on 19 March. A total of five prototypes are contained in the programme, the first aircraft having opened up the flight envelope to 20,000ft (6,100m) at speeds up to 190kt (350km/h) and maximum gross weights of 10,000kg, plus 12í slope landings and rolling landings at speeds in excess of 50kt.
"Pilots and test engineers of the four partner nations have all been impressed with the NH90's performance, handling qualities and general behaviour," says Eurocopter. Almost all of the suppliers have been chosen for the two versions - tactical transport and naval - and NHI is now preparing its offers to the NATO management agency on industrialisation and production of the first batch of up to 240 machines.
In the long term, the hope is that export orders for the NH90 and Tiger programmes will be secured. Although the competition from the USA in particular - but also those countries developing their own helicopter industries - can only get tougher as money for significant military contracts gets more scarce, there is no doubt that Eurocopter has demonstrated its ability to survive when faced with such a challenge.