First announced at Heli-Expo 2012, the Bell 525 represented a brand new “clean sheet” design from the manufacturer. Certification is expected in the second quarter of 2017. Bell Helicopter Image
One would think that with the depressed oil prices that have prevailed for the past year, the mood of the helicopter manufacturers that have new aircraft specifically aimed at the deepwater market — AgustaWestland’s AW189, Airbus Helicopters’ H175, and Bell Helicopter’s 525 Relentless — would be equally depressed.
Just as these helicopters are aimed at the long haul when it comes to their deepwater mission objectives, so are their respective manufacturers aiming at the long haul — 15 to 20 years — for these aircraft, which fall into the 16,000- to 20,000-pound (7,257- to 9,072-kilogram) class.
Certified in January 2014, the first H175 deliveries didn’t take place until December that year, to Belgian operator NHV. Anthony Pecchi Photo
Having had the privilege of flying both the H175 and the AW189, as well as taking multiple turns in the 525 simulator in Bell’s systems integration lab, I can objectively say that all three helicopters are fine examples of multi-mission, get-the-job-done medium machines. But with the current dip in oil-and-gas prospects, how are they faring? And where are they in their respective evolutionary paths?
First to market
Let’s begin with the AW189, which was the first of the three aircraft to market. Beginning commercial operations with Bristow over the North Sea in July 2014, the 18,258-pound (8,282-kilogram) maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) helicopter is the big daddy of the helicopters in the AgustaWestland “family” concept, which also includes the time-proven AW139, and the new light-intermediate twin, the AW169.
In March 2015, soon after Vertical flew the AW189, it attained Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification, thus allowing deliveries to begin to U.S. customers. Era will be the first customer in the U.S. to operate the AW189 — and the first to fly it in the Gulf of Mexico — with plans for two of the type to enter into service by December 2015.
The AW189 was the first of the three aircraft to market, beginning commercial operations with Bristow over the North Sea in July 2014. AgustaWestland Photo
The aircraft received a significant advance in September, when its limited ice protection system (LIPS) gained certification — the first for a helicopter in its weight category. The LIPS system will allow the AW189 to further enhance its all-weather capabilities by permitting flights within known and defined envelopes of icing conditions. However, the option to descend into a known band of positive temperatures must be possible throughout the intended route. This is typical of conditions encountered, for example, over the North Sea. Icing trials are continuing in Alaska, as AgustaWestland moves closer to certification of a full ice protection system for the AW189.
With nearly 20 AW189s operating around the world, including in the unique climates and environments of the North Sea, Middle East, and Southeast Asia, the fleet has had palpable success in its initial entry into service. Bel Air Aviation, an offshore operator based in Denmark, is the AW189 fleet leader, having recently reached the 2,000-hour mark with its two aircraft. A third will soon be delivered. The global AW189 fleet is now nearing 7,000 hours.
Although clearly aimed at the oil-and-gas market, AgustaWestland reported that its first VIP AW189 is nearing delivery. And, with over 150 helicopters now sold (including firm orders, options, and framework contracts), the longevity of the AW189 appears quite secure.
AgustaWestland designed the cockpit of the AW189 to share operational similarities with its “sister” aircraft, the AW139 and AW169, enabling quicker and easier training for pilots converting between types.
As the fleet has expanded, the manufacturer has focused on bringing support, training, and logistics solutions closer to its customers’ operations. For example, to support the growing fleet in Northern Europe and the North Sea (including the 11 AW189s that are due to enter service as part of Bristow’s delivery of the U.K.’s search-and-rescue capability), AgustaWestland opened a regional supply center in Aberdeen. This facility currently has more than 2,000 parts in stock, with expansion to 6,000 planned by the time you are reading this.
The cabin of the AW189 can be configured to carry up to 19 passengers.
An AW189 Level D full flight simulator (FFS) is also located in Aberdeen (AgustaWestland expected it to be in service by the time Vertical went to press). The manufacturer has another AW189 flight training device and one FFS operational in Sesto Calende, Italy. One FFS has been ordered by Gulf Helicopters, and another is under evaluation at AgustaWestland Malaysia.
Focus on the H175
Next we have the Airbus Helicopters H175. I first flew this aircraft in March 2013, while it was still in the process of receiving FAA certification. However, it wasn’t until December 2014 that the first two 16,534-pound (7,500-kilogram) MTOW aircraft were delivered to Belgian operator NHV. The aircraft entered into service in the North Sea just one week after delivery. NHV recently received a third H175, and will be accepting five more before the end of 2015.
Russian oil-and-gas operator UTair also received an H175 in December 2014. After delivery, the aircraft was placed on long term lease with Airbus Helicopters for marketing and training purposes. This helicopter was exhibited at Heli-Expo in March 2015, before initiating a three-month demonstration tour through Mexico, the U.S., and Brazil.
Bell released this image to show how a VIP 525 cabin could look. Larry Thimmesch, VP of commercial programs at Bell, said his biggest surprise with the program so far is the amount of interest from the corporate/VIP sector.
As of August 2015, the two H175s in service with NHV had accumulated more than 1,000 flight hours and completed more than 750 flights, with an average cabin occupancy of approximately 11 passengers. A number of these missions were conducted in challenging North Sea weather conditions, with loaded non-stop flights performed to distances of 175 nautical miles.
“We are very pleased with the H175s,” said Eric Van Hal, the CEO of NHV Group. “Our pilots appreciate their excellent handling characteristics, plus the speed and range; while passengers are impressed with the cabin comfort, smooth ride and low noise levels.”
Airbus Helicopters enjoyed a productive Heli-Expo 2015 with the H175, with Bristow signing for 17 of the aircraft, Milestone Aviation Group signing for 28, and Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service (GFS) ordering seven. This took the H175 order book (including firm and options) to a total of 101 aircraft. The H175 has just received certification from the Mexican aviation regulation authority, DGAC, paving the way for deliveries to the first Latin-American customer — Mexican oil-and-gas operator Transportes Aéreos Pegaso — early next year.
The H175 order book, including firm orders and options, now stands at 101 aircraft. Marcio Jumpei Nakatsu Photo
Now that the oil-and-gas configuration is firmly in service, Airbus is enlarging the H175 mission capacity with two additional configurations. First is the VIP version, which will be certified next year, with deliveries to the first two customers also to take place in 2016.
Next is the public services version, with first deliveries to the version’s launch customer, GFS, to begin in the fourth quarter of 2017. The public services configuration is to offer multi-role capabilities, including search-and-rescue operations, emergency medical services, firefighting, law enforcement and land/maritime border security patrols.
The 525 Relentless will be the first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter when certified. At a maximum gross weight of 20,000 pounds, it will be the heaviest of the three. Bell Helicopter Photo
Also in the works is the certification of an extended MTOW — to 17,196 pounds (7,800 kilograms) — that will offer customers an extra 300 kilograms of payload. Flight tests are in progress and the certification should come next year, along with the certification of an 18-passenger cabin, also planned for 2016. As of November 2015, four H175s were in service around the world.
Putting the 525 to the test
Last, but certainly not least, is the Bell 525 Relentless. This brand new “clean sheet” design was first announced at Heli-Expo 2012 and will be the first commercial fly-by-wire helicopter. The heaviest of the group with a maximum gross weight of 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms), the 525 will be a Category A helicopter at MTOW.
The AW189 is set to become a major presence off the U.K. coastline, following its selection by Bristow to service the U.K. SAR contract. AgustaWestland Photo
At press time, aircraft No. 1 had accumulated 50 hours of ground time and over 40 hours of flight time. So far, the helicopter has proven to be very stable with no surprises. “It flies very close to the analytical predictions,” Larry Thimmesch, VP of commercial programs at Bell, told Vertical.
One surprise that was reported was that the five-blade rotor hub (a first for Bell) needed no adjustments from the factory settings — no tracking and balancing or readjustment was required to fly it. The demonstrated stability of the rotor system was a nice surprise given that it was one of Bell’s biggest risks in the design.
There are nearly 20 AW189s now operating around the world. They have accumulated about 7,000 flight hours between them. AgustaWestland Photo
The aircraft’s fly-by-wire control laws have worked out so well that Bell is now playing with the physical aspects of the helicopter. This is part of the discovery process and includes tasks such as making changes to the horizontal stabilizer — removing it, changing its length and mass — to tweak the design. Following this process, the fly-by-wire specs will be locked down along with some minor tweaking and fine-tuning of the control laws.
The flight test aircraft is now in envelope expansion and has validated the 525’s predicted air speed capability of 165 knots true airspeed at 8,000 and 12,000 feet. The test pilots are expanding all corners of the envelope.
Bell also reported that the Garmin G5000H system has been working well, with only minor software tweaks required. Clearly, this is an advantage realized by both the avionics integration in the systems integration lab, as well as information provided through fellow Textron company Cessna’s experience with its Citation. My “flights” in the 525 sim revealed an incredibly user-friendly impression of the G5000H.
Belgian operator NHV clocked 1,000 flight hours in just the first eight months of operation with its two H175s.Airbus Helicopters Photo
The aircraft weights have been coming in at about two to three percent lighter than expected. Accordingly, Bell is anticipating an 8,200-pound (3,719-kilogram) useful load for the 525. The kit weights have also been coming in close to their design weights.
Aircraft No. 2 should be ready to fly by the time you are reading this, with ship 3 to closely follow. Ships 1 and 2 will be busy with envelope expansion until Heli-Expo 2016. Ship 3 will begin certification testing by April 2016.
Certification is expected to occur by the second quarter of 2017 — but Bell is already beginning work on the first customer aircraft. “The early aircraft will take time,” stated Thimmesch. “We will be installing kits as the aircraft are built, and we want to have them ready to go at the time of certification.”
While the 525 is clearly focused on the oil-and-gas market, Thimmesch reported that his biggest surprise thus far is how much interest the 525 has garnered from the corporate/VIP sector. “We’ve had to make adjustments on the kit side of the project to accommodate this more even distribution of orders between oil-and-gas and corporate/VIP,” he said.
This new medium twin segment is highly competitive. The H175, AW189, and Bell 525 are similar enough in their mission capabilities, yet different enough to fit a range of customer-specific niches and budgets. And with the three manufacturers all going after the traditionally order-rich oil-and-gas market segment with these aircraft, one can be sure they will all be putting their best foot forward to grab their fair share of the pie.
Guy R. Maher | A 16,000+ hour dual-rated pilot and flight instructor for helicopter, airplane and instrument ratings, Guy recently retired after 24 years as a HEMS pilot. He continues to run his aviation services company — Lanier Media — established in 1978, and in addition to being a FAASTeam representative, Guy is frequently called upon to provide consultation on aircraft sales, operational, and safety issues, and litigation support. He can be contacted at email@example.com