Airbus Helicopters Preps for Naval Trainer RFP

Airbus Helicopters is eyeing initial flight demonstrations of its H135 twin for this fall in Pensacola, Florida, as the company steps up its push for the U.S. Navy’s helicopter training replacement program. In May the company announced plans to offer the H135 for the replacement program, displaying a demonstrator aircraft in Navy trainer markings during 2018 Naval Helicopter Association Symposium in Norfolk, Virginia. The announcement was in response to the Navy’s RFI seeking 105 commercial-off-the-shelf helicopters to replace the existing fleet of nearly 113 TH-57 SeaRanger single-engine helicopters that are variants of the Bell 206 JetRanger.

The Navy is expected to release a request for proposals in February 2019 and is further anticipated to move expeditiously to contracting, perhaps as soon as late 2019 or early 2020, with anticipation for initial deliveries later in 2020.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Chris Emerson, president of Airbus Helicopters and head of the North America region, said the service is emphasizing the need for readiness. “Today all we hear about is readiness from our services,” particularly for global conflict. With a well-established product and chain of support, he added, “we are ready.”

The Navy expects the replacement helicopter training fleet to accumulate 70,000 hours flight hours a year as it is used to train 500 to 700 pilots a year. Airbus executives point to complaints from the service that it is bumping into a shortage, running about 100 pilots behind its needs primarily because of equipment shortfalls, creating all the more need to have a readily available helicopter.

Emerson added that he believes a readiness push lends to Airbus Helicopters’ strength as a primarily commercially focused company.

“We're not [like] the mainstream aerospace and defense companies in the U.S. We can try to be like them and we had actually tried to be like them…but that's not who we are,” he said. While the company doesn’t have the numerous decades of U.S. contractor experience, it also doesn’t have a contract accounting standard system that pays its overhead and future projects, nor are its projects dependent on those contracts. “We're not like that. Our DNA is we self-invest and we drive off the commercial strategy, and that has worked for us.”

Encouraging to Airbus Helicopters is the Navy’s confirmation that the service is looking for an IFR-certified aircraft, which company executives believe dovetails well with their IFR-certified twin. While the helicopter would replace the service’s fleet of Bell TH-57 Sea Ranger singles, company executives don’t see other single offerings as readily available since they would need to be IFR-certified.

In addition, Emerson said, the twin makes sense in the progression of pilot training, because certain flight procedures differ from the single to the twin, and pilots will go on to fly multi-engine SH-60 Seahawks and CH-53E Super Stallions.

Emerson believes the H135 is a unique product as it is among the smallest twins on the market and certified under Part 27 of the FAA regulations. Operating costs, published at $811 per hour, are comparable to top-end singles, he said. He also noted that nearly all of the H135s in North America are used for air-medical purposes. “In that industry, it’s all about the cost of operations, so we’ve, over the decades, refined [it] such that the H135 is very comparable…to a single-engine helicopter.”

While a commercially focused company, Airbus Helicopters is hoping to build on its track record with its light utility Lakota. The U.S. Army in March awarded further contracts topping $390 million for 51 more of the UH-72A Lakotas, extending that program through 2023. Since 2005, Airbus Helicopters has delivered well over 420 of the model to the service and, Emerson added, “We’re inching up. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re going to get up to 500.” He expressed satisfaction that Airbus Helicopters continues to find efficiencies for the program, improving downtime and availability.

“How do you do that? It's a commercial approach,” he said. “It's not because we're looking at cost-plus or firm fixed price. It's purely because we've learned through working together how we can extend life with certain parts, how we repair or replace parts to enable that. You can fly longer, and then ultimately everybody saves money.”

The H135 would be built in Airbus Helicopters’ Columbus, Mississippi, factory alongside the Lakota, a military version of the H145. Calling the H135 a “little brother” of the H145, company executives believe it would be a smooth transition working the H135 into the line with little industrial risk.

Plans would be to slowly transition H135 production to Columbus lines, initially with assembled helicopters arriving there for final completion and then worked into the production line over about a year’s time.

Other companies bidding for the requirement are Bell with a 407-based proposal, and Leonardo with its TH-119, a version of the AW119Kx.