Continued weakness in the oil and gas market has left Airbus Helicopters uncertain of how quickly it will be able to ramp-up output of its new H160 medium-twin.
In 2018, the airframer took 15 orders for the 6t-class helicopter, which was in line with its internal target. “Our objective was to sell more, but the difficult situation in oil and gas market impacted sales of the H160 last year,” says head of the programme Bernard Fujarski.
Airbus Helicopters currently plans to produce 30 H160s annually, from around two years after first delivery in 2020.
However, Fujarski says the lack of oil and gas sales could impact that schedule. “If we are not able to sell into oil and gas it will probably change our plan regarding the industrial ramp-up.”
Last year’s bookings included an initial commitment from launch customer Babcock, but the operator has yet to decide whether those aircraft will be configured for offshore transport or emergency medical services (EMS) missions. Apart from that deal, none the 2018 orders were from the oil and gas sector.
But Fujarski is confident that oil and gas sales will emerge as operators look to replace a large pool of ageing aircraft, including Leonardo Helicopters AW139s and Sikorsky S-76s. “We believe it will come, it is just a question of when.”
In the short term the manufacturer is focusing specific attention on the sector “to catch sales in this market segment”.
In addition, there has been growing interest from EMS operators, says Fujarski, as they look to larger, more capable aircraft.
“To tell you the truth, when the programme was launched, the EMS segment was not really identified as a target,” he says.
“But in in fact the operators are looking for bigger and bigger machines with more medical equipment, and the size of the [H160] cabin is an asset. We are working on tenders that were beyond our expectations a few years ago.”
In the longer term, output should be closer to the manufacturer’s upper rate of 50 per year once it begins to build the H160M military variant for launch customer France.
However, production of these aircraft will not begin until 2027-2028. Until then, it will “have to live with the existing civilian market”, says Fujarski. “That is why we are working hard to develop segments such as oil and gas that have been so calm up to now.”
Certification of the H160 is on track for late this year, with a handful of tests still to be wrapped up. In addition, European approval of the Safran Helicopter Engines Arrano powerplants should be achieved in April, Fujarksi says.
So far, the manufacturer has accumulated slightly more than 1,100h across three prototypes, against a target of 1,500 by certification.
Meanwhile, discussions are already under way with Safran regarding potential future performance increases for the platform, says Fujarski, largely driven by the requirements of its military customer.
Currently rated at 1,300shp (970kW), the Arrano has growth room, he says. “There are a number of technological bricks available that may increase the power available, and we will assess with Safran in the coming years when we will push the button and introduce such a modification.”
But he cautions that any enhancements to the airframe or engine will not arrive for around a decade.