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Airbus Helicopters is reviewing its options after the H225 (EC225 LP) crash that killed 13 people on April 29 in Turøy, Norway, further damaging the reputation of the Super Puma heavy twin family among the offshore workforce. While the root cause of the accident is not yet known, the impact of the accident on the Marignane, France-based manufacturer is palpable.
“[Our] helicopters [division] is still very much impacted by the tragic accident in Norway,” said Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders during an analysts call in late July.
At the time, an Airbus Helicopters spokesman told Vertical that “it is too early for us to talk about implications” for the long-term future of the H225 following the crash and resulting grounding of much of the aircraft’s worldwide fleet. Rather, the company is endeavoring to communicate with customers — a lesson learned from previous crises.
The manufacturer is striving to keep proactive. Norwegian investigators have stated their belief that the initiating event in the main gearbox was a fatigue failure, which Airbus is addressing with emergency alert service bulletins (EASBs). An example is a precautionary measure for those helicopters still flying, such as in search-and-rescue or parapublic operations. Two types of epicyclic module second stage planet gears are in service. One has been deemed more reliable. The EASB describes how to replace one with another.
Despite Airbus Helicopters’ efforts, in early June, CHC, the operator involved in the crash, announced a major restriction for the type. It said it no longer intends to use the H225 from Aberdeen, U.K. — its largest base in the North Sea. Only for those customers who “wish to fly the aircraft” will the company “appropriately adjust the mix of aircraft.”
However, this will only take place after civil aviation authorities lift flight prohibition on the H225 and AS332 L2 Super Puma. “We are engaged in discussions with EASA to see when we can release the Super Puma fleet again,” Enders said. He added that 80 percent of the worldwide fleet is grounded. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimate 340 and five aircraft, respectively, are affected by their airworthiness directives. The AS332 L1 — 450 helicopters under the EASA’s oversight — is not affected.
In the history of aviation, very few situations are comparable, said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia. He pointed to the FAA withdrawal of the type certificate for the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 for five weeks in 1973, following the discovery of a serious design deficiency after a fatal accident in Chicago. The tragic event was not the only one in the early years of the program, and contributed to a loss of confidence from airlines at the time, Aboulafia noted.
For Airbus Helicopters, regaining trust from customers, pilots and passengers will be a daunting task. A Norwegian source familiar with the local industry’s reaction said Super Puma safety remains “a big issue among pilots.” The source also said industry members in the country would have liked to have seen more of Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury in the media; he gave only one interview to a Norwegian TV news channel, the source said.
The U.K.’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has numerous members working on offshore rigs and thus commuting by helicopter. The RMT heard widespread, strong backlash about the aircraft after the accident — the RMT’s regional organizer in Aberdeen received over 70 related emails in just six days, and all were expressing negative feelings about the Super Puma. This sentiment was echoed in a change.org online petition, purportedly representing North Sea Offshore Oil Workers and their families, which called for the H225 to be permanently removed from service. It received over 27,000 signatures.
Such groups, different from airline passengers, are concentrated and coordinated. They could have some influence, Teal Group’s Aboulafia believes.
Les Linklater, the executive director of Step Change In Safety, an organization dedicated to safety improvement in the offshore oil-and-gas industry, warns against the idea of singling out a type. In an column published on Energyvoice.com on May 13, he noted the loss of two Sikorsky S-76s in a six-month period in 2015-2016 in Nigeria, with six fatalities in the first accident. No regulatory response was seen in the U.K. “There was no call to ban this aircraft or the operator from transporting workers to and from offshore installations in S-76s, despite the fact that we continue to use them in the U.K,” Linklater wrote.
The Sikorsky S-92 is the preferred H225 alternative by many in the workforce, he went on. However, the S-92’s gearbox has had its share of trouble. In 2009, 17 people lost their lives off the coast of Canada on board this model of aircraft due to gearbox issues, Linklater wrote. An improved main gearbox for the S-92 has been in development since 2013 or even earlier. In February this year, Sikorsky could not give a target date for entry into service.
Asked about the Super Puma’s design, Aboulafia says it has been serving “so well and for so long” that he doubts the problem can be “a fundamental design flaw.”
At the Marignane factory, H225 production is running at a slow pace. But this would likely have been the same without the accident. The offshore market is “completely down, meaning that not a single order was booked worldwide by any manufacturer in the medium-heavy segment for the oil-and-gas business in the first half of the year,” according to Airbus Group’s Enders.
As for the other members in Super Puma family, the H215, which combines the AS332 C1/L1’s older dynamic systems with the H225’s modern avionics, is not affected by the grounding. The first example is to roll out next year from Airbus’s new factory in Romania.
In terms of the military versions of the Super Puma, Airbus hopes to conclude more sales campaigns this year. Poland is the number one prospect, after Kuwait inked a contract in early August (see sidebar). French forces have kept the Cougar (the equivalent of the AS332 C1/L1) and the H225M Caracal (the H225’s military variant) in service.
The Airbus Helicopters spokesman would not confirm reports that Singapore has postponed, due to the ongoing investigation and grounding, a decision on a $1 billion military helicopter purchase.
The airframer is proceeding with the development of the HForce generic weapon system that can be adapted to its range of commercial rotorcraft. A firing campaign took place recently with an H225M. One could see this is as evidence the manufacturer trusts its design.
The spokesman could not give an update, however, on the development of the upgraded H225. Formerly known as the EC225e, it features an increased maximum takeoff weight and further automation in the cockpit. In February, Airbus Helicopters was planning on a first delivery by year-end.
Further up the design pipeline, the firm has been preparing a replacement for the Super Puma under the X6 codename. Unveiled last year, the X6 is in a two-year “concept phase” until 2017. And, as we’re still in the early stages of fallout from the current Super Puma situation, it’s unlikely the X6’s development will be sped up any time soon. Such an acceleration would also be costly.
In Aboulafia’s view, the current circumstances illustrate the benefit of being part of a larger corporation for Airbus Helicopters. When parent company Airbus Group released its first-half financial results on July 27, CFO Harald Wilhelm said that “the financial impact [of the H225 situation] cannot be reliably estimated at this stage.” And, in addition to the 11 fewer Super Puma deliveries recorded in the first half of the year, “this is going to impact the support business,” he predicted.
Kuwait orders 30 H225Ms
On Aug. 9, Airbus Helicopters signed a contract with the Kuwait Ministry of Defense for 30 H225Ms. The deal includes associated support and services.
The order can be seen as a token of confidence from a long-term customer. “I would like to personally thank the Kuwait Air Force which placed its trust in our products,” CEO Faury said. The first delivery, however, will not take place until 2018, thus not boosting the production rate for the short term, according to a union source.