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Airbus Helicopters is facing three separate lawsuits from owners of EC225LP/H225 Super Pumas who, among a range of damning allegations, are claiming Airbus sold the helicopters in a defective state due to an inherent problem in the main gearbox (MGB).
The three companies — Wells Fargo Bank (owner of Macquarie Rotorcraft Leasing Ltd.), Era Group Inc., and ECN Capital — are seeking remuneration for aircraft they claim are no longer airworthy, as well as damages and costs. Airbus has yet to respond to Era and ECN Capital’s claims in a legal capacity, but denied all allegations in court papers it submitted in response to Wells Fargo’s original petition.
When reached for comment by Vertical, Airbus said it refuted “the misleading and libelous allegations” included in the petitions from the three companies. “Airbus Helicopters will consider seeking remedies against any deliberate defamation,” the company added. Era and ECN declined to comment, while Wells Fargo did not return our call.
The global fleet of H225 Super Pumas remains largely grounded following the fatal crash of a CHC-operated H225 near Turøy, Norway, on April 29, which claimed the lives of all 11 passengers and two pilots on board after the main rotor separated from the fuselage. In the days and weeks following the crash, regulatory agencies around the globe — including the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA); its Norwegian counterpart; the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA); and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration — grounded the type, as well as the AS332 L2 variant of the Super Puma.
In its most recent preliminary report on the crash, released on June 28, the Accident Investigation Bureau of Norway (AIBN) said a fatigue fracture in one of the aircraft’s MGB second stage planet gears was the most likely cause — and said the fracture propagated in a manner unlikely to be detected by existing mandatory or supplementary systems.
That report also drew comparisons to the fatigue fracture found in the second stage planet gear in the epicyclic module of an AS332 L2 that crashed off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland, in 2009. In that instance, a catastrophic failure of the helicopter’s MGB caused the main rotor and part of the epicyclic module to separate from the fuselage, and all 16 on board were killed as the aircraft hit the sea at high speed. After an extensive investigation, the MGB failure was found to have been caused by a fatigue fracture of a second stage planet gear in the epicyclic module.
On June 29 of this year, Airbus issued an Emergency Alert Service Bulletin that called on operators to replace one of the two types of second stage planet gears in service in the H225 with the other; the reason being that one type was found to have increased damage tolerance and showed enhanced reliability.
EASA authorized the AS332 L2 and H225 Super Pumas to fly again on Oct. 7, issuing an Airworthiness Directive (AD) that ordered operators to complete the actions described in Airbus’s EASB, as well as mandating a life reduction and more frequent inspection for certain parts in the MGB.
However, the U.K. and Norwegian civil aviation authorities and the FAA have kept their flight prohibitions for the type in place.
Macquarie owner Wells Fargo Bank, which owns a fleet of three H225s, was the first to file papers against Airbus on July 18, 2016. It took delivery of the aircraft between Oct. 1, 2014, and Jan. 27, 2015 — but the aircraft have never made it out of storage at an Airbus Helicopters facility in Germany.
In its filing with the District Court of Dallas County, Texas, Wells Fargo claimed breach of contract and breach of warranty. “Airbus breached the [purchase] agreement when it failed to deliver the helicopters in airworthy condition, with failure of the main rotor system . . . likely to exist or develop,” the company states in its original petition. “[Wells Fargo] cannot lease the helicopters to operators. Nor can it sell them without incurring substantial loss. . . . This leaves [Wells Fargo] with helicopters that it cannot fly, lease, or sell for any price that would not result in substantial losses.”
In its response to Wells Fargo’s petition, Airbus denied all allegations. In separate submissions arguing against Wells Fargo’s request for an early trial in late January or early February 2017, Airbus said the leasing company was seeking “to take advantage of a tragic EC225 helicopter accident” to return aircraft it was having difficulty leasing due to a downturn in the oil-and-gas industry.
“[Wells Fargo] claims that an EC225 accident that occurred in April 2016 in Norway, and a temporary precautionary grounding of EC225 helicopters by aviation authorities in several jurisdictions while the cause of the accident is investigated, justifies [Wells Fargo’s] revocation of acceptance of its helicopters,” Airbus stated in its papers. “In fact, essentially all civilian aircraft are from time to time subject to government agency actions that impose flight restrictions or other modifications following certain incidents or accidents. [Wells Fargo’s] attempt to return the helicopters is not because they were temporarily grounded pursuant to regulatory oversight. It is because [Wells Fargo] has been unable to turn a profit on them apparently due in large part to a change in market conditions.”
The case is set for a non-jury trial on July 25, 2017.
ECN Capital’s papers, filed Nov. 17, and Era’s, filed Nov. 24, contain similar claims. ECN purchased one H225 and four AS332 L2s from CHC (Barbados) as part of a leaseback agreement in 2013, while Era bought 10 H225s between 2006 and 2011.
Both companies point to the H225 and AS332 L2’s evolution from the earlier SA330 J and AS332 L variants, and claim that Airbus did not appropriately update the MGB to withstand the increased weight and power of the newer models.
In responding to this claim, Airbus told Vertical that the SA330 J, AS332 L and AS332 L2 have different MGB designs. “All main gear box components reused in the H225 design from the newer AS332 L2 were recomputed with the new capacity of the H225,” the company said. “This was done in full accordance with product evolution rules of certification which are a standard across the helicopter industry.”
In its original petition, Era said the representations made by Airbus regarding the safety, reliability, and design of the 225 and, in particular, the design and reliability of the main gear box, “were (and remain) demonstrably false in light of recent revelations by Airbus Helicopters that at least the second stage planet gears inside of the main gear box are irreparably defective, rendering the 225 unfit for flight.”
Further, Era claims that, following the AIBN’s last report, it undertook its own investigation to explore the condition of the second stage planet gears inside its EC225s.
“Multiple second stage planet gears in at least one of Era’s 225s exhibit characteristics of degradation and spalling associated with the design defect that has been identified as a causal factor in the catastrophic failures involving Super Puma helicopters,” the company claims in its petition.
“While there are indeed fundamental differences between the two planet gear configurations, the characteristics of degradation are evident on both the parts identified for replacement (i.e., the ‘bad’ parts) and the parts identified for retention (i.e., the ‘serviceable’ parts). Era has determined that even those parts identified by Airbus Helicopters as ‘serviceable’ exhibit the same symptoms of failure that have necessitated the immediate removal and disposal of the parts that Airbus Helicopters has now admitted are defective and unsafe.”
The petition also states that Era paid “hundreds of millions” to Airbus based on the manufacturer’s portrayal of the H225 as safe, reliable, and state-of-the-art in design and build, but “now owns a fleet of 225s that cannot be flown.”
According to figures provided by Airbus, there are currently 98 H225s and its military variant, H225Ms, in operation around the world, out of a total fleet of 264. And out of the worldwide fleet of 77 AS332 L2s and its military variant, AS532s, there are 28 currently flying. (The manufacturer was unable to separate the figures for the civil variants before this story was posted.)
“Airbus Helicopters remains committed to working closely with all authorities, stakeholders and third parties to ensure the continuous airworthiness of the Super Puma family of helicopters and to overcome the specific situation affecting the H225 and AS332 L2 in the North Sea,” the company said in its statement. ” Meanwhile, we provide our full support to the active fleet of H225 and AS332 L2, with over 125 helicopters currently flying demanding military, search-and-rescue and passenger transport missions worldwide.”