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Sunday, January 1, 2006

Rotorcraft Report: Eurocopter Plugs Gap in Product Line With China Deal

Eurocopter has finally moved to plug a long-standing gap in its product line, signing a pact to develop its next helicopter, the 7-9-ton EC175, with Chinese industry. This EC175 will compete head on with the AgustaWestland/Bell Helicopter AB139. Both its launch and AgustaWestland's November buyout of Bell's stake in the AB139 confirm that the 6-8 tonne market segment is widely seen as a highly profitable one for the next 20-30 years.

Signed in Paris Dec. 5, the agreement commits Eurocopter and China's AVIC II aerospace group to each invest 300 million euros to develop the aircraft and to evenly share its technology, intellectual property rights and production. Eurocopter officials said this is the first time such an ambitious co-development program has been signed with China, adding that it reflects their commitment to an ever-closer relationship that nation.

Eurocopter CEO Fabrice Bregier told 62/ the Chinese production line will focus on aircraft for the local market and a few other countries. Production for the international market will take place at Eurocopter's Marignane, France facility. He stressed that the EC175 is being developed for the civil market, "with no military implications," although he noted the European Union arms embargo on China only bans lethal equipment. Br�gier said he expects about 800 EC175s will be sold over 20 years, with as many as 100 a year in the middle of the next decade. He estimated the program's value at $10 billion.

Officials of EADS, Eurocopter's corporate parent, insisted they would keep tight control of technologies transferred to China under this agreement and a much larger one involving Airbus. But AVIC II's equal share of the EC175 program will make transfers much more difficult to monitor and control, leaving open the possibility that China might acquire the capability develop its own versions of the EC175, or indeed other helicopters. China today makes Dauphins and EC120s under license and is a risk-sharing partner in the EC120. The much larger, more advanced EC175 obviously provides greater scope for technology drain.

Plans call for the EC175 to fly in 2009 and gain certification in 2011. The EC175 is be fitted with the very latest cockpit and avionics technology, the five-bladed Spheriflex main rotor and a high-energy-absorbing airframe. It is to be certified for two-pilot IFR and single-pilot VFR operations when carrying up to 16 passengers, and is to have a range of about 400 nm. at a speed of 150 kt. The partners said nothing publicly of an engine selection, but at least two will presumably be offered. It is logical to assume the one for the Chinese market will at least be assembled locally, with local part-production a strong probability.--Giovanni de Briganti

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