Airbus Helicopters’ H175 in flight
Airbus Helicopters’ H175 in flight

Airbus Helicopters’ H175

The H175 is a much better helicopter than its sales would suggest. Airbus Helicopters sold just 38 of these super-medium, twin-engine aircraft from the time deliveries began in 2014 until the end of 2019. On the surface, this seems puzzling, given the helicopter’s jet-smooth ride, comfortable cabin, advanced avionics, good operating economics, competitive price, executive seating for up to 12, and nearly 300-nautical-mile loaded range (seven passengers, two pilots, NBAA IFR reserves). These attributes would suggest brisk sales, but product qualities matter little when the largest market for the product is rapidly contracting. 

That market is offshore oil.

The H175 has enough range to service 90 percent of the world’s offshore energy rigs from shore. And when Airbus unveiled the model in 2008, the company marketed it as a cost-efficient alternative to heavy-category helicopters costing $25 million to $32 million that were used to fly up to 18 energy workers to offshore platforms. At the time, oil was trading at better than $100 per barrel; and for a while, it climbed to over $150, with some analysts predicting even higher prices. In May 2008, Goldman Sachs analyst Arjun Murti brazenly told the New York Times that oil would soon top $200 a barrel. 

Then times changed—rapidly. 

Airbus Helicopters’ H175 cabin
Airbus Helicopters’ H175 cabin

The worldwide economic crisis that began in late 2008 drove oil prices down to $50 per barrel by January 2009, and, thanks in part to new capacity from land-based wells in the U.S., the picture only grew bleaker in the ensuing years, with oil falling below $29 by 2016. Some offshore wells were capped and plans to bring others online were deferred or scrapped. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of in-service rigs in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico dropped from 60 to 20; between 2014 and 2017, worldwide demand for offshore “jack-up” rigs (feet on the seabed), plunged from over 400 to 300. Concurrently, energy companies became much more efficient in extracting more oil from existing rigs, reducing the need for new ones. 

The main helicopter service companies flying to these rigs not only saw demand for their services reduced; their customers were also increasingly strong-arming them for lower prices and shorter contracts. Several of these companies—Bristow, CHC, and PHI—would eventually file for bankruptcy as a result, even as oil recovered to near $70. Meanwhile, these companies’ orders for new helicopters—including the H175—evaporated. Fleets were downsized. Helicopters were mothballed. The resale prices of large-category helicopters—such as the Sikorsky S-92A—plummeted to the point where it became demonstrably cheaper, when you include capital costs, to operate them on offshore routes than to employ new midsize and super-midsize helicopters. 

In October, Airbus said it still held orders for 110 H175s, but without the drag from offshore parsimony, that number could easily have been twice as large. Of the more than three dozen H175s in service, around two dozen are flying to rigs in the North Sea. A handful do the job in other locales. The remainder have been configured for parapublic duty or VIP/head-of-state missions. The anemic demand has forced Airbus to hold the line on prices—you can buy a nicely equipped H175 with an executive interior for $16 million. (Of course, you can spend more—those gold-plated fixtures and stingray-hide sidewalls can add up.) 

Executive and VIP H175s are badged ACH175s and sold by Airbus Corporate Helicopters. Through last year, ACH had delivered eight VIP-configured ACH175s, including two as aerial tenders for super-yachts and “several” head-of-state aircraft, according to Frederic Lemos, ACH CEO. An ACH175 delivered in December was the first certified for single-pilot IFR operations. 

Airbus Helicopters’ H175 cockpit
Airbus Helicopters’ H175 cockpit

Lemos says the ACH175’s large cabin—all 434 cubic feet of it—lends itself to bespoke interiors with all the latest features including cabin-management systems, satcom, mood lighting, electrochromatic dimming for the panoramic windows, a small galley and seating, veneers, accents, and fabrics as plush as you’re likely to find in any large-cabin business jet. Entry is through a hinged door on the side of the aircraft and boarding is eased via electrically deployable steps. The 95-cubic-foot baggage compartment is larger than those in some midsize corporate jets. 

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The two-zone environmental control system (ECS) eliminates the Hobson’s choice of either freezing in the cabin or frying the cockpit (or vice versa). Each seat has its own overhead gasper, and passengers can adjust the ECS via side-ledge controls or an app on their smartphones. The ACH175 doesn’t have an auxiliary power unit, but one engine can be run on the ground while declutched from the rotors, providing power to cool the cabin prior to passenger loading. 

The standard cabin noise level is just 71 dB (add more insulation and that number goes down), allowing normal-tone-of-voice conversations between passengers without the need for headphones. Airbus accesses a variety of suppliers for its executive and VIP cabins but performs all the integration and installation at its VIP department in Merignane, France. This ensures a single point of responsibility for everything in the cabin as far as the customer is concerned. 

In the spacious and comfortable cockpit, the Helionix avionics system offers all the latest safety features, including automatic hover, which corrects for wind drift. Helionix also incorporates redundant flight computers and a four-axis autopilot and has the capacity to keep the helicopter stable in challenging situations such as brownout (kicking up blinding dirt while taking off or landing) or inadvertent encounter with instrument flight conditions. 

Power comes from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-67E turboshafts (1,776 shp each) that can propel the H175 to 19,685 feet in under seven minutes. The H175 has good one-engine-inoperative performance. Maximum takeoff weight is 17,180 pounds and standard fuel capacity is 695 U.S. gallons. The engines, main gearbox, and rotors all have an initial time between overhaul (TBO) limitation of 5,000 hours. 

The helicopter has been designed for ease of maintenance. Its tall cowling facilitates access to a variety of systems; the flared exhaust stacks whisk heat away more quickly from the work area; and a variety of ladder attach points are built into the fuselage, enabling quick climbing. 

Airbus Helicopters’ H175
Airbus Helicopters’ H175

The H175 does have a couple of minor misses: it is not available with folding main rotor blades for shipboard operations and the baggage compartment door is so high up that a ladder is required for loading and unloading—a consequence of the positioning of the built-in emergency floats. But other than that, the H175 is a solid, comfortable—albeit underappreciated—performer, delivering large-cabin capabilities for a midsize-cabin price. 


2020 ACH175 at a Glance

Price: $16 million (average executive interior) 

Crew: 1–2 

Passengers: 7–12 

Maximum Cruise Speed: 151 kt

Maximum Range: 613 nm (ferry, no reserve) 

Maximum takeoff weight: 17,196 lb

Cabin: 

            Height: 5 ft 

            Width: 7 ft 

            Length: 13 ft 

Source: Airbus Corporate Helicopters

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