Airbus Helicopters' H160
FOR AIRBUS HELICOPTERS, the company’s new H160 medium turbine twin is more than just another addition to its product family; it represents the catalyst through which the European company is trying to transform the way it makes and supports helicopters. Airbus introduced the model in 2015 as a state-of-the-art replacement for its AS365 and H155 twins.
For several years, Airbus Helicopters (or Eurocopter as it used to be called) was generally perceived as making great products that were let down by less-than-stellar product support. This reputation didn’t seem likely to change until Guillaume Faury took over as CEO in 2014.
Faury had spent most of his career at Eurocopter in flight testing and engineering. He rejoined the airframer after serving as vice president of research and development at French automaker Peugeot from 2009 through 2013. His sojourn into the automotive world transformed his vision of what customer support should mean and he quickly set about making changes at Airbus, dramatically increasing the supply of spare parts, improving their delivery rates, and adjusting their prices downward in some cases; he also unveiled a comprehensive warranty program called H Care.
The moves paid off. Airbus Helicopters advanced from the basement to second place among rotorcraft manufacturers in the annual product support survey of our sister publication, Aviation International News, and has remained there since 2015.
The transformation has started with the production stage, with a plan to perform final assembly in just 18 weeks—about half the time it now takes for the AS365. The final assembly line in Merignane in the south of France will integrate five major component assemblies that will be completed and tested before they reach the line. This means that lead time will be stable in the final assembly line. The flow will be automated and move down two production lines, each with several workstations capable of assembling the various H160 configurations. Airbus intends to ramp up to 50 helicopters per year.
Two prototype H160s are in flight test and a third is scheduled to join the program later this year. Certification is slated for 2019. The model features an all-composite airframe with aggressive lines and futuristic styling unlike anything the industry has seen before. It features a flat-floor cabin, oversized windows, and a generous baggage compartment that can swallow 661 pounds. The cabin can be configured to seat four or eight passengers—with all the bells and whistles you’d find in the latest large corporate jets—or it can offer utility seating for 12.
THE H160 INCORPORATES a variety of new technologies, including “Blue Edge” active tracking main rotor blades in a five-blade system with a double sweep design that reduces noise and improves ride smoothness; new Safran Arrano engines that offer 10 to 15 percent better fuel consumption; and the Helionix avionics system with four large touchscreens, the architecture of which already is flying on other Airbus twins, including the H135, H145, and H175. To control costs, Airbus decided to skip a pricey fly-by-wire flight-control system and to make rotor-blade deicing an option. Still, there is much to like about the new technology that the standard model incorporates.
The Blue Edge blades feature tips with a bend that resemble the business end of a hockey stick. As rotor blades spin, the tips emit vortices. Bending the tips disrupts the “blade vortex interaction” from one blade to the next, reducing the helicopter’s noise signature by as much as 5 dB.
The Arrano engines (1,300 shaft horsepower each) feature a two-stage centrifugal compressor and variable inlet guided vanes, which cut fuel consumption in all phases of flight and particularly at cruise power. They help propel the H160 to its estimated maximum cruise speed of 160 knots and service ceiling of 20,000 feet and give it an anticipated range of 450 nautical miles. Airbus Helicopters also maintains that the Arranos will have lower maintenance costs than other engines in their class.
Helionix avionics are designed to reduce workload by providing pilots with the information they need when they need it. The avionics couple to a four-axis autopilot and a first-limit indicator that shows all engine instrument data. Other advanced features include traffic and weather advisories, terrain-avoidance, and a synthetic-vision system.
The H160 also incorporates a canted fenestron tailrotor that further decreases its noise signature. The canted fenestron and the biplane horizontal stabilizer on the tailboom combine to improve lift. Electrically activated landing gear and brakes in place of the traditional hydraulic systems trim weight and improve reliability. A health usage and monitoring system tracks key maintenance parameters and can transmit them to technicians on the ground while the helicopter is in flight, with the proper datalink.
Airbus thinks that the H160’s overall maintenance costs will be more in line with those of a light twin than a medium one; and that it will be one ton lighter and 15 to 20 percent more efficient than its main perceived market competitor, the wildly successful AgustaWestland AW139. That remains to be seen, as does the price, which will be in the neighborhood of $19 million with an executive interior.
What we do know now is this: the H160 incorporates impressive technology. And on looks alone, it is in a class of its own.