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Friday, February 1, 2013

Q&A with American Eurocopter CEO Marc Paganini   

In an exclusive interview covering a number of topics including Armed Aerial Scout, R&D and improvements in safety, American Eurocopter CEO predicts that the commercial helicopter market will bounce back by late 2014.

By Andrew Parker, Editor-in-Chief

American Eurocopter displayed a Lewis Energy-operated EC145 in Orlando to showcase the corporate/VIP market during the NBAA Convention from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 2012.

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with the top executives of the major helicopter manufacturers, Rotor & Wing conducted an exclusive interview with American Eurocopter President & CEO Marc Paganini that covered a wide range of topics, including the company’s entry in the U.S. Army’s Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program, the 2012 U.S. summer tour of the X3 (X-cubed) and the outlook for 2013 and beyond.

Rotor & Wing: How was business for the company in 2012 and what does the picture look like for 2013 and beyond? 

American Eurocopter CEO Marc Paganini at the company’s Heli-Expo 2012 press conference.
Paganini: This year we’re going to produce about 100 aircraft in Mississippi. Half of them are for the UH-72A Lakota program, the light utility helicopter (LUH) for the U.S. Army, while the remaining [AS350] AStar B3s and B2s are for the U.S. public service sector—representing a small increase over last year. The market has been a little better on the commercial side in the U.S. in 2012 compared to 2011. The prediction is about the same overall.

Rotor & Wing: What is the outlook for the commercial market?

Paganini: We expect the market to continue to grow on the commercial side. It started to rebound at the end of 2011 and this continued through 2012. We expect to get back on track by 2014 to the levels pre-financial crisis. Strong markets like EMS are driving the recovery. EMS is a market that’s usually slow to grow, but there’s a lot of fleet renewal [possibilities].

Replacing old BK-117s, old BO-105s, old Dauphins—this is driven by replacement and a little growth, but not strong growth.

The oil and gas market is very promising in the Gulf of Mexico. This year the activity has grown significantly, and this is a market that will require large aircraft.

Police and law enforcement is slowly coming back. It’s been one of the most important markets after the economic crisis because of the financial situations of the municipalities. Now the overall situation is improving a little bit, and we’re starting to see some good opportunities in law enforcement, mainly for light-single engine aircraft but also a few for twin-engine helicopters.

For corporate/VIP, the year has not been too bad. It follows the economy and the profit of the companies, so hopefully the economy will continue to grow. It’s not obvious yet but it’s coming back slowly and we expect it to be active during 2013.

Rotor & Wing: What market sectors will experience the most demand in the next two to three years? 

October 2012 handover of the first EC130T2 to Maverick Helicopters, including Maverick’s John Buch and John Mandernach (center L-R), and Marc Paganini (second from right).
Paganini: In the U.S. market, we expect the oil and gas sector to be very strong, and EMS to remain quite solid. We expect the law enforcement market to come back. We already started to see that this year, and think that over the next two years we should see a strong rebound from law enforcement. Business has picked up with the tour operators—places like Las Vegas and Hawaii are doing well. We’ve sold a lot of EC130T2s to tour operators. In corporate/VIP, if the economy continues to recover and corporate profits hold, we should see this market start to bounce back. Another market that we’re looking at is the utility market, which at this point has a lot of very old helicopters set to retire because of safety reasons and operational/maintenance costs, so there will be a need soon for new aircraft. Then there’s firefighting, disaster relief and other sectors like wind farm support that can be counted among the utility missions that are very interesting and developing.

Overall, that is why our objective of getting back to the levels of pre-crisis by late 2014 should be achievable.

Rotor & Wing: How does American Eurocopter work with operators to improve safety?

Paganini: The number one priority for us is safety. We’ve worked very hard to improve safety not only in the design and operation of the aircraft, but also the equipment and the training. We work with customers on their SMS [safety management system] programs to increase the level of safety. For example, we have developed a full-motion flight simulator in order to have the pilot train in any flight condition that would happen—many of which you don’t want to involve an actual helicopter, but can accomplish in a flight simulator. We have also invested a lot in maintenance training, both in real helicopters and we’re also starting to offer web-based training.

We have also launched Vision 1000, which is an image recall and flight data monitoring system [developed with Appareo Systems]. It’s a simple, inexpensive device that is good for collecting information about what happens in the cockpit. We made it standard on the AS350 line, the EC130 and we plan to on the EC120. We’re looking at putting it on the EC135 and EC145 as well. It’s a very useful tool. When you have an issue during a flight, Vision 1000 allows you to come back afterward and figure out what happened. 

Air medical provider MedFlight of Ohio received the 2012 Eurocopter Vision Zero award.
In 2007, we created a safety award, Vision Zero, to promote a higher level of safety within the air medical industry. So we’re spreading our core message that American Eurocopter is serious about safety.

Rotor & Wing:What is the latest from the Eurocopter Training Center?

Paganini: We’ve invested in simulators for the AS350, as well as for the EC135/145. On the AS350, we decided to do something that has never been done before. It’s the first full flight simulator for a light single-engine aircraft, and also, instead of just having the cockpit, we included the full cabin. So we can train the crew and the observers at the same time as the pilot, which is unique.

Annually, we train upwards of 1,900 to 2,000 pilots and about 900 maintenance personnel.

Rotor & Wing: What improvements are being made in aftermarket support?

Paganini: Support and services account for about 30 percent of our overall activity. It’s an important part of the business, and a part that we’re seeking to grow. We want more activity in that area and we’re looking at what kinds of services that customers are looking for, such as maintenance planning, spares, training, and so on. This is also an activity where we’re examining possible acquisitions in the U.S.

Rotor & Wing: How much does American Eurocopter plan to invest in R&D, outside of the parent company Eurocopter?

Paganini: At American Eurocopter our R&D is mainly going to the development of the prototype for [the U.S. Army] Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) program [with EADS North America]. All the development of this prototype and this partnership with Lockheed Martin was handled here in Grand Prairie.

We have also developed a new version of the LUH [UH-72A light utility helicopter] in the Security & Support (S&S) Battalion configuration for the U.S. Army National Guard. We are also doing STCs [supplemental type certificates]—that’s what we do here in the U.S. More and more, we are building up the capability to not only develop STCs but to do some design work, major aircraft modifications, of for the first time we were given responsibility to do a prototype for Eurocopter.

The main R&D work in terms of development of new technology and programs, demonstrators, larger aircraft, is of course done in Europe, both in Germany and France. Today we remain in a plan that started in 2010 stretching out to 2014 where we are investing $1.7 billion to do what I just said—we have launched the EC130 T2, the EC145 T2, and the EC175.

We are working on the X4 successor to the Dauphin, and we have this technology demonstrator, the X3 (X-cubed) testing composite, new blades. We’re also working on a diesel engine-powered helicopter.

Rotor & Wing: What was the feedback like from the U.S. tour of the X3 in summer 2012?

Paganini: Of course the operators like the speed, but what they also liked is that the speed was not a tradeoff against cost, because we say we’re going to get 50 percent more speed but with an increase in life cycle costs of 20 to 25 percent. This is important because speed must be affordable, and this is why we decided to go to a speed in the range of 230 knots. We do not believe that going to higher speeds is what the market needs or is willing to pay for.

The second thing that was very important is that it’s still a helicopter, and then if you want to go fast, you go fast. You don’t lose any of the attributes of the helicopter, such as hovering, which are needed in many of the helicopter markets. Otherwise you go to fixed-wing. The combination of speed and classic capabilities of a helicopter were very well received, and the military pilots were impressed as well.

We decided to do something that had never been done in the past, to actually put some representatives of different market segments in the aircraft—let them take the controls, fly in it, and tell us if we’re going in the right direction. Is this what you want to have in 7 or 10 years, to fulfill your mission, to get some business, and so on.

We felt comfortable doing that because it’s a game changer, it’s a hybrid high-speed, but using so much already developed known technology. The response of the operators who flew it has been amazing. They were all really impressed by the simplicity of the concept.

Rotor & Wing: What role do you see unmanned aircraft playing in the future?

Paganini: Unmanned isn’t going to just be military, it will have commercial applications as well. The military is looking at unmanned aircraft for cargo. For example, they need to transport cargo from one place to another—that can be done by an unmanned helicopter. Cargo in civil aviation could be the same.

It’s not going to take away [from manned pilot operation]—in fact, it’s going to help with missions that would have otherwise been too dangerous for pilots to fly, especially on the military side. Let’s be practical, it’s going to take some time before we see a large application of unmanned aircraft. It’s going to be really focused on specific missions in the beginning.

Related: Airframe News

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