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Monday, February 1, 2010

Eurocopter EC175 Takes to the Air

The EC175 medium twin features a brand new cockpit and four-axis autopilot. This joint venture between Eurocopter and China’s Avicopter is remarkably on-time and on-track.

By Thierry Dubois

The EC175 fills the gap between Eurocopter’s EC155 Dauphin and EC225 Super Puma. While the initial flight of the helicopter was on December 4, company officials introduced the model during a ceremony on December 17.
The Eurocopter EC175 medium twin helicopter was officially introduced on December 17 in Marignane, France, thus filling the gap between the manufacturer’s EC155 Dauphin and the EC225 Super Puma. The seven-metric-ton-class (15,000-pound-class) aircraft, a joint effort between Eurocopter and China’s Avicopter, had started to fly on December 4. The test phase has made a rolling start, since the December 17 flight was the sixth one.

Most of the current customers will operate in offshore oil and gas transportation. “We could have signed for about 50 more aircraft,” Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling said. He explained that he prefers to transform the 114 intentions into firm orders first. From there, “we know more precisely the production slots we can offer,” he said.

Flight test engineer Patrick Bremond appeared enthusiastic. “Engineers on the ground are holding me, they do not want to go too far, too fast into the flight envelope,” Bremond said. In just 10 days, the flight test crew—pilot Alain Di Bianca and flight test engineers Bremond and Michel Oswald—had reached 140 knots. Bremond insisted the pace of the flight tests is an indication of the high maturity of the aircraft. During the December 17 event, the EC175 was part of a flying display that involved the entire civil product range, from the EC120 to the Super Puma—a total eight helicopters.

The EC175 features a brand new cockpit developed by Eurocopter, which acted as the integrator of avionics hardware components and authored an important part of the software. “The innovation is in simplicity for the pilot,” Bremond told Rotor & Wing. Each pilot just has two large displays in front of him. Another selling point, for Eurocopter, is the four-axis autopilot.

The philosophy is to lighten workload. Alert messages are prioritized. One computer decides which alert to transmit to the crew between those from the fuel system, the engine, the air conditioning, the TCAS, the EGPWS etc., Bremond explained.

The left engine has a de-clutch capability. This makes it the equivalent of an auxiliary power unit (APU) on the ground. “Customers wanted an APU to run systems [like the air conditioning] before takeoff,” Bremond explained. The de-clutch capability avoids the weight and expense of a real APU.

The EC175 has been remarkably on time since launch late in 2005. This is all the more outstanding as many major aerospace programs are suffering huge delays, like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 and A400M. Eurocopter, too, had its share of program troubles in the early 2000s.

In July 2008, CEO Lutz Bertling had predicted the EC175 would fly late in 2009. That year had consistently been announced as the one for the first flight. EASA certification is now expected in the second half of 2010.

However, the Z15, the Chinese helicopter developed from the same “common standard vehicle,” will probably not fly until 2011. It will offer different options. The 50-50 joint effort enjoyed a relationship of trust, according to program director Francis Combes. The cost, €600 million, is evenly shared between the two partners. At Eurocopter, an emphasis has been on transferring knowledge from one generation to another. On the main gearbox, for example, each experienced design engineer worked side-by-side with a young colleague. This is all the more important as cleansheet designs as relatively rare now.

Maintainability has been a design driver. For example, the main rotor has no hidden component, Bremond pointed out. Moreover, engineers can simulate maintenance operations on a three-dimensional digital mock-up.

The EC175 is one of the first helicopters, with the Bell 429, to use the latest standard of the maintenance steering group, MSG-3. This translates into lighter maintenance. Above all, operators will be able to tailor check intervals and downtime to their needs.

The MSG-3 standard lists all elementary tasks for scheduled maintenance. “All these tasks are substantiated, which guarantees transparency to the operator,” Véronique Cardin, EC175 service chief engineer, told Rotor & Wing. MSG-3 also ensures no redundancy can be found in maintenance work.

From there, Eurocopter applies its own maintenance policy. The goal is to optimize downtime, Cardin said. The combination of a maintenance standard and a manufacturer’s policy crystallizes into the master servicing manual (MSM).

A maintenance schedule can thus be entirely re-arranged. For example, some operators prefer to perform a few hours of maintenance every weekend. Some others prefer a longer downtime, less often. “We will have several offers,” Cardin said.

A major inspection usually takes two to six months, every five to 10 years (these are orders of magnitude, actual numbers should be stated in man-hours and depend on utilization). Eurocopter plans to offer a suppression of such a major inspection on the EC175.

Instead, operators will be able to spread maintenance jobs on a weekly basis. Disassembling/assembling times will be optimized. The most complete visit will take place every 1,600 hours (this is still a target, though) but, again, its duration can be tailored.

Also, some operators find daily after-last-flight visits impractical because their helicopters do not return to their home base every night. Therefore, Eurocopter has been offering to make such visits on a flight-time basis.

On some of Eurocopter’s rotorcraft, the interval is thus 15 hours or seven days, whichever occurs first. Thanks to the MSG-3 standard, the 15-hour interval will be significantly increased.

“This is an overall optimization of the scheduled maintenance,” Cardin summarized. Eurocopter is working on the MSM with EC175 customers during the development phase.

“They give us their operational requirements; we are now listing elementary tasks,” Cardin explained. Work will continue once the helicopter is in service to carry on the optimization process.

Prototype EC175

The registration of the first prototype, F-WWPB, draws the last two letters from flight test engineer Patrick Bremond’s name. “This is the tradition,” he said. Bremond is the head of the flight test crew, just after the flight.

The EC175 (above) at Eurocopter’s flight test facility in Marignane, France. (Left) From left to right, Michel Oswald, Alain Di Bianca and Patrick Bremond, Eurocopter flight test engineers with F-WWPB, the prototype EC175. The EC175 is one of the first helicopters to use the latest standard of MSG-3, reducing redundancy and allowing operators to tailor check intervals and downtime to their specific needs.
(Below) Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling helped to unveil the EC175 during the Dec. 17, 2009 ceremony.
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