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Despite a flatlining of orders from the oil-and-gas market for the H225 Super Puma, a swelling of bookings from other sectors has led to Airbus Helicopters ramping up its production line to enable the delivery of more than 100 aircraft over the next five years.
Last year saw just eight H215/H225s delivered, but was also one of the type’s strongest years in terms of bookings, with 54 aircraft ordered.
Airbus has not received any orders for the H225 from the oil-and-gas market since the April 2016 crash of a CHC-operated H225 near Turøy, Norway. The incident resulted in the worldwide grounding of the fleet while Airbus and regulatory authorities explored the cause of the incident and confirmed preventative measures — such as the development of a full flow magnetic plug that improves the detection of metal spalling.
Despite the type subsequently gaining approval for operation from aviation authorities around the world, only 22 are now flying in offshore oil-and-gas operations, largely in Asia. In February 2018, Omni Táxi Aéreo signed a contract with Total E&P that marked the return of the type to operation in Brazil.
“Without the oil-and-gas [market], we are surviving in the Super Puma [program],” said Michel Macia, head of the H225 program. “Why? Because it’s a very versatile aircraft, a very flexible aircraft. Yes, oil-and-gas [offshore transport] was a big mission for this aircraft, but [it] can also provide public services, law enforcement, search-and-rescue, or military [service]. . . . So it’s a very versatile aircraft, and [there is] still a big market [for it].”
Because of the market interest, Airbus is making adjustments to its H225 final assembly line in Marignane, France, that will allow it to raise the production rate from 2017’s eight aircraft, to 13 in 2018, and 30 per year thereafter.
“It’s a huge ramp-up,” said Macia. “[It’s] a huge challenge in terms of people, because we need to find the right people to do it, but it’s also a challenge in terms of supply chain.”
At the end of last year, there were 100 people working in the final assembly line — which can accommodate 14 aircraft. This had increased to 150 staff by February 2018, and will reach 400 by the start of 2019. The workers will come from other programs, and some will be externally subcontracted, said Macia.
Because of the domination of oil-and-gas orders in the past, the assembly line was previously adapted to produce aircraft for that operation. With the lack of oil-and-gas orders, the organization of the line has been changed to more of a “flow line,” said Macia.
Together with improved control and monitoring of the supply chain, and increased efficiency at the various production stations, Airbus hopes to decrease the time it takes an aircraft to reduce the global lead-time for the aircraft by 15 to 20 percent.
An image problem in the North Sea?
Régis Magnac, head of customer operations at Airbus Helicopters, said the general downturn in the oil-and-gas market had led to an overcapacity that would have affected H225 sales in that segment regardless of the impact of the Turøy crash — but admitted the aircraft suffers from an image problem in the key market of the North Sea.
“We recognize that there is a perception issue in the North Sea because of the history of the aircraft, because of what happened,” he said. Indeed, in a survey from the manufacturer last year, 60 percent of the 5,000 respondents in the offshore oil-and-gas sectors said they would be uncomfortable flying in the H225. But the survey also found that the majority of respondents didn’t know what the company had done to address any issues in the aircraft.
Because of this, the manufacturer has embarked on an “awareness campaign,” communicating the work it has done and modifications it has made to the type. “It takes time, we’re doing this in a stringent manner and not trying to push anything to the market,” said Magnac. “We’re just helping our customers that own the aircraft in their will to fly again . . . and in that process, we see some positive trends. The people that have witnessed the improvements [Airbus has made to the aircraft], the things that have been performed, all the tests, and that have had discussions with the engineers here [in Marignane] are very much more convinced coming back than they were arriving here.”
Looking ahead to the longer-term future for the H225 program, Macia said Airbus was “requestioning . . . our strategy” on the potential of enhancing the type with equipment or weight upgrades due to the postponement of the X6 program to develop a new heavy-lift helicopter. “We need to reconsider something [for the H225] without the X6,” he said, but declined to give further details.