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Monday, October 8, 2012

Eurocopter EC175: Survival of the Fittest?   

Eurocopter EC175 in flight.

Watching an EC175 test aircraft performing a series of climbs, turns and hovers at a satellite airfield cum-training ground near Eurocopter’s Marignane headquarters showed not only an aircraft well on the way to certification, but talking to its flight test crew revealed the continuing headlong development rush that has been a company trademark since its inception in 1992.

While there is a growing sense that the AgustaWestland AW189 and Sikorsky S-92 are the front running candidates for the UK’s re-running Search and Rescue-Helicopter (SAR-H) requirement, being managed by the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport (DfT), Eurocopter has developed a new aircraft that has been tailored to SAR and offshore work. Its challenge is to muscle its EC175 aircraft into contention for the UK job in the same way that it has already successfully done with oil and gas operators.

The Maritime Coastguard Agency, part of the DfT, currently operates out of four bases: Stornaway, Sumburgh, Portland and Lee-on-Solent. CHC provides the service with four Sikorsky S-92s operating from the Scottish bases while three AgustaWestland AW139s serve the two bases on the south coast of England. Breaking past this established line-up is Eurocopter’s biggest challenge.

Indeed, should the EC175 be selected for the SAR-H role it would present Eurocopter with the best possible sales platform in terms of search and rescue customers for its new seven-ton helicopter. Winning the requirement for the heavier, long-range EC225 (there will potentially be two types of aircraft selected for SAR-H, the second for longer range out-at-sea missions) would be the icing on the cake (although unlikely). That is not so much of Eurocopter priority and the EC225 order backlog for civil/military aircraft will keep its production line healthy without it.

Both the EC175 and the slightly heavier eight-ton AW 189 have yet to be certified, so both share this risk in the eyes of the DfT. The EC175 is expected to gain certification in at the end of the year with the AW189 close behind it in early 2013. Both are scheduled to enter service in 2014 and are looking at similar mission profiles. This would allow them to have both gained certification by the time the DfT makes its decision in March 2013 and awards the 10-year SAR-H contract.

UK SAR Helicopter Procurement Options• Lot 1 will deliver the service at, or in the vicinity of, Sumburgh, Stornoway, Culdrose, Leconfield and Valley with a minimum rescue capacity per aircraft of eight casualties/survivors (two of which are capable of being stretchered) and a minimum radius of action of 200nm (250nm at Stornoway).• Lot 2 will deliver the service at, or in the vicinity of Lee-on-the Solent, Chivenor, Prestwick, Lossiemouth and Wattisham with a minimum rescue capacity per aircraft of four casualties/survivors (two of which are capable of being stretchered).• Lot 3 will deliver the service requirements of both Lot 1 and Lot 2.

Three potential operators now remain in the race to win all or part of the DfT’s 10-year contract: Bristow Group, Bond Offshore and CHC Scotia (the previous winners before cancellation). Customers for the EC175 include Russia’s UT Air (15 aircraft), France’s Heli-Union (4) and Belgian company Noordzee Helikopters (10) and Bristow. Operators already signed for the AW189 include the Gulf Helicopters (15), Era Group (5), Exclases Holdings (2) and Bond Aviation.

AgustaWestland’s enticement to the Ministry of Transport lies in the promise that if the AW189 is selected for the SAR-H role, then “all SAR-configured AW189s will be assembled at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil factory, not just those for SAR-H, but all AW189s sold worldwide.”

Advisory Boards

Eurocopter set up customer advisory boards involving the SAR and oil and gas communities to seek opinion and guidance on the development and equipping of the EC175 and were surprised by several of the suggestions that challenged their perceived beliefs on what the market wanted. Most significant was the discussion over the cabin concept. The customers wanted a change to the cabin making it wide, full and flat.

“The cabin concept is huge and flexible to allow a lot of configurations which are continually the subject of discussions with customers,” said Laurant Vautherin, vice president and EC175 program director.

When discussing the EC175 as an aircraft for UK SAR, Vautherin says that operators can be assured that they will get their aircraft on schedule: “We think the risk [to the DfT] is low—and this is an important part of our statement. First the customer can get the performance of the aircraft before the DfT has to award the tender. There will be no question regarding certification.”

He clarified this belief further: “If you look at the moment when the aircraft are supposed to be delivered—beginning 2015—we will have delivered all the customer aircraft planned for 2013-14. That is more than 30 aircraft including some in the UK. There will be no industrial issues concerning our ability to deliver the helicopters as they require them.”

Most of the initial customers are in the oil and gas sectors that quickly accumulate high operating hours and will be building the knowledge base concerning the aircraft and its maintenance before the SAR helicopters would enter service.

As far as Vautherin is concerned the only risk concerns the SAR mission package, but states that Eurocopter’s experience in not only providing SAR aircraft but also CSAR EC725s such as those operated by the French Air Force would lead them into recommending state-of-the-art equipment with proven capability. “The development of the mission package concept has already started so that we can deliver aircraft ready-to-go within 2014 ahead of the requirement,” he stated. Eurocopter’s delivery schedule will see 10 aircraft placed with four different customers by the end of 2013 with a further 20 delivered in 2014.

Some of the most recent work during the summer comprised hot and high trials in the mountains around southern France and more precise tests such as those involving the floatation devices for the oil and gas market.

The two aircraft test program (PT1 and PT3) had accumulated more than 300 flight hours by June together with a further 200 hours of ground tests. Importantly there was also the successful test of the 30-minute dry gearbox run as well as a cabin evacuation trial. The first production aircraft, S01, is due to be ready by the beginning of October and will also enter the test program. Production aircraft S02 will be the first delivered to a customer.

Due to the initial orders for oil and gas missions that is where most of the basic trial demonstrations have been directed. “We are at the critical time in terms of compliance,” states Vautherin, “and the most important test for our customers was the 30-minute dry gearbox test. Naturally in this sector the cabin evacuation test is very important for safety. I can say that we not only reached the certification target but exceed it by far. As you know Eurocopter is very keen on safety—what I remember is we need to complete evacuation of the cabin in 90 seconds and it was achieved in less than 30 seconds.”

At the beginning of the year there was a marked increase in the aircraft’s performance. New technologies together with the use of a five-bladed main rotor and three bladed canted tail rotor have improved lift in the hover with power provided by two Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67E engines (Eurocopter has experience of the canted tail rotor through its involvement with the NH-90).

Vautherin said that a decision was made early in the design of the EC175 to utilize mature technology and minimize risk. The usual question of what level of innovation to incorporate against using state-of-the-art but mature technology came firmly down on the tried and tested side. “We have used technologies that are known to Eurocopter. Their engine is the latest in a trusted line from Pratt & Whitney.”

Earlier in the year, Richard Dussault, vice-president marketing at P&WC said that the PT6-67E engine “incorporated the latest Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system that reduces pilot workload and provides the most advanced diagnostic capability in the market. This means our engine is easier to fly, provides fast and accurate control and is easier to maintain, so operators can focus on their mission.”

Those who have flown it have commented on the stability of aircraft, low vibration low and ease of piloting. A man who subscribes to all of these views is Eurocopter’s chief test pilot Alain Di Bianca. Following a brief flying demonstration for Rotor & Wing he confirmed that in his opinion “the EC175 flies very well, almost by itself. It has excellent visibility outside the aircraft which is obviously very important and valuable for both SAR and oil and gas missions.”

He complemented the “abundance of power available—the engine has the capability of rapid response to the need for more power” as well as the “improved stability, particularly in turbulence.” But also was keen to draw attention inside the cockpit. “There has been a conscious effort to take out unnecessary displays.

Trials have confirmed to Di Bianca a comfortable cruise speed of between 140-155 knots, although this can be pushed up to 200 knots. He added that the canted tail rotor is both efficient and well sized for the power that the aircraft requires. His longest flight (at the time of the discussion) had been three hours and the maximum weight he had flown was 7.5 tons. He complimented the less than five minutes engine start from cold.

Di Bianca concluded that SAR operators should be aware that the hoist will operate from the right hand side of the aircraft but that plenty of fuel would be available for longer missions due to the 2,136 kg internal fuel capacity. In summary, he believes that Eurocopter has developed a helicopter with all the attributes demanded the SAR /oil and gas mission profiles.

As a footnote to this article, the DfT is boxed in regarding the process of the SAR tender and the timetable for implementation. It has to contemplate opting for an aircraft, be it the EC175 or the AW189, at the start of its service life. Considering the importance of the decision in terms of replacing a tried, trusted and yes, old Royal Air Force and Royal Navy operational capability based on the venerable Sea King, that no operational test and evaluation of the new replacements has been sought. While all of the operators have huge amounts of experience, they all want the contract.

Even in times of financial restriction, one would have thought that the DfT would have been more comfortable making such a decision based on some measure of independent assurance and verification.

Department for Transport: Timetable for Implementation of SAR-H

Notify Short-listed Bidders July 23, 2012

Dialogue Meetings (Phase 2 – Boot Camp) July 24-Sept. 11, 2012

Return of Revised Proposals (Phase 3) Oct.15, 2012 

Issue ISFT Nov. 23, 2012 

Return of Final Tenders (Phase 4) Dec. 14, 2012 

Notification of Intention to Award Contract (Phase 5) March 7, 2013 

Sign Contract March 19, 2013

UK SAR Helicopter Procurement Options

• Lot 1 will deliver the service at, or in the vicinity of, Sumburgh, Stornoway, Culdrose, Leconfield and Valley with a minimum rescue capacity per aircraft of eight casualties/survivors (two of which are capable of being stretchered) and a minimum radius of action of 200nm (250nm at Stornoway).

• Lot 2 will deliver the service at, or in the vicinity of Lee-on-the Solent, Chivenor, Prestwick, Lossiemouth and Wattisham with a minimum rescue capacity per aircraft of four casualties/survivors (two of which are capable of being stretchered).

• Lot 3 will deliver the service requirements of both Lot 1 and Lot 2.

 

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