Driving Perfection

posted on 6th January 2020
Driving Perfection

Airbus Corporate Helicopters and Aston Martin have created the ACH130 Aston Martin Edition, an exceptional seven-seat, single-engined helicopter built with the sportscar-loving owner/pilot in mind

Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH) and Aston Martin revealed the ACH130 Aston Martin Edition at Courchevel in the French Alps, on 3 January. But the first aircraft, G-XAML, Edition Number .001, had already ventured out for selected members of the aviation and motoring press, during a preview event at London Heliport on 18 December 2019.

Frédéric Lemos, Head of Airbus Corporate Helicopters and Marek Reichmann, VP and Chief Creative Officer at Aston Martin, were keen to extol the virtues of the helicopter and the relationship between their companies, promising something that would impress and surprise. “At Airbus Corporate Helicopters we address the needs of private and business aviation. We’re dedicated to delivering amazing customer experience and beautiful products,” Lemos said. “These are common values we share with Aston Martin, which beyond building some of the finest machines you’ll find on the road – and off it now, with the DBX – has an outstanding heritage. That led us to engage in discussions with Aston Martin Creative Design about two years ago, to see how we could put what makes Aston Martin so special into a helicopter. We are very proud of the result!

“Although we make very different products, we share customer profiles. We serve those discerning individuals who love sportscars and are passionate about aviation. They’re typically hands on, they enjoy the thrill of piloting or driving. There’s no better helicopter to encapsulate that experience than the single-engined ACH130.”

Marek Reichmann placed considerable emphasis on the exclusivity of the Aston Martin brand. “We’re 106 years old and in that time we’ve manufactured between 90,000 and 95,000 cars, equivalent to about two days’ production for Toyota. Our cars are hand built and the helicopters assembled in much the same way, by highly skilled technicians building with passion and love. The inside of this helicopter takes on lots of our experience in comfort and materials.

“The DBX and our second production facility, in Wales, are taking us into what we call our second century business plan. The DBX has taken us away from sportscars for the first time and our partnerships are also important in that respect. We only partner with the best and Airbus Helicopters is arguably the best at what it does. We’re dealing in limited production, using our skill base in hand-built, hand-crafted cars, helicopters, bikes and so on.

“It’s important to who we are and our customers are the same. The pilot owners buying the ACH130 are the people driving the Valkyrie, buying the Zagato twin set and the DBS Superleggera. Two unbelievable brands have worked together to create a magnificent project, a very beautiful helicopter that’s appointed in an incredibly beautiful way.

“We began talking about this more than two years ago and the ACH130 project has taken a year. We have three years to run on our agreement – we only work with long-term partners – and we want to learn more and continue working together.”

Fundamental Change

All that said and even reinforced by the stunning DBS Superleggera parked outside, ACH already has a Mercedes-Benz Style ACH145 in its range; could a product styled by another luxury car manufacturer really be so different?

The ACH130 Aston Martin Edition approached the Battersea heliport flying along the Thames from the City, in company with an H125, lending an even greater sense of occasion to its arrival. The H125 continued on up-river, while the ACH130 approached to land. Even on a dull winter’s morning, the aircraft’s colour scheme was immediately noticeable, seeming to change subtly as it manoeuvred onto its landing spot.

Clearly thrilled at its arrival, a beaming Lemos spoke to EVA, first explaining exactly what an Aston Martin Edition helicopter offers that a Mercedes-Benz Style machine does not. “We have ACH Line, ACH Exclusive and ACH Editions in our range and felt we needed to raise the bar in the single-engined category. That’s where we found commonality with Aston Martin.

“Our ACH145 Mercedes-Benz Style customers are flown, just as they might be driven in an S-Class. The ACH130 Aston Martin Edition is more hands-on; a customer who drives an Aston Martin will also pilot the aircraft. That’s why we looked for a sports car manufacturer for this single-engined Edition.”

With accommodation for six plus the pilot, the Aston Martin Edition is not unlike a flying GT car, capable of transporting a family group, for example, swiftly and in comfort, complete with luggage, for an overnight stay or weekend away. “We see many customers who fly this way in our single-engined aircraft,” Lemos confirms. “They love piloting and often also drive Aston Martins. They like the single engine because the pilot really flies it, there is far less automation than with a twin.

“Customers looking at a twin check the cabin first, but with a single, they’re usually pilots and the first place they look is in the front. Likewise, if you own an Aston Martin, you don’t sit in the back. The ACH130 is already positioned at the high end of the single-engine market, but we’ve emphasised the detail and focused on enhancing its sleek lines with this Edition.”

Aston Martin has fundamentally changed the cabin, as Lemos explains: “The seats are particularly important. Everything that makes Aston Martin seats so special has been brought into the helicopter. We also modified the ceiling and doors for a completely different look and feel. We have a saddle-leather storage bag on the back of each front seat, tripling the ACH130’s usual storage capacity. The cargo compartment has also been given special treatment.

“And there’s a plate in the cockpit carrying the aircraft registration, edition number and Aston Martin ‘wings’. Depending on customer preference, the owner’s name can also be included. Like the cars, the cabin is made in the UK, and installed at our Oxford centre, just 50km from Aston Martin’s Gaydon headquarters. We’re using the best of what’s available in the UK to create a product 100% assembled in the UK for the global market. It goes with the soul of Aston Martin.”

Since the Aston Martin Edition owner is also likely to be the pilot, the cockpit is every bit as special as the cabin. Alcantara ultra-suede provides a luxurious feel to virtually every surface that isn’t leather-clad, there’s Ultraleather, perforated on the headrests in a manner for which only Aston Martin has the tools, the cockpit plaque and door panels. With its mix of Ultraleather, ‘classic’ leather and thick saddle leather, the cockpit has the traditional Aston Martin look and, Lemos reckons, even smells like the car.

While Lemos was talking, to his delight a pair of H155s landed. Soon an AW169 was also parked outside, dwarfing the diminutive ACH130 which nonetheless managed to stand out, in part thanks to that special scheme, much as a sports car parked in a row of limousines might. Edition .001 is finished in a stunning combination of Aston Martin’s Stirling Green, with Skyfall Silver and Jet Black. Inside, the trim is Pure Black ultra-suede with Oxford Tan leather, but since this is specialist product geared to customer preference, further Editions are available, featuring Xenon Grey, Arizona or Ultramarine Black on the outside and choices of Pure Black, Cormorant or Ivory leather.

The Experience

Stepping out to the helicopter, the ACH130’s extensive glazing is obvious. The cockpit is more or less surrounded by a transparent ‘bubble’ – imagine sitting in the toe of a giant see-through shoe – providing an excellent view out and filling the cabin with natural light. A large window in each of the rearward-sliding cabin doors further adds to the spacious, airy feeling, while each forward-hinged cockpit door is also generously glazed.

This is not a large helicopter and the prospect of seating four adults side-by-side in the cabin seemed ambitious. And yet there is space between the beautifully crafted seats and width enough to seat the passengers in comfort. Upfront there is easily space for the pilot and two passengers, seated side-by-side to his right.

The impressively complete instrument panel is subtly enhanced by the Aston Martin Edition plaque and the seats are divine. Each is equipped with a four-point harness and supplied with a headset socket. They are firm and supportive, yet extremely comfortable, not unlike those of a sportscar…

Leg room is good front and back, but especially so in the front, while the brogue detailing running down the centre of the front seat backs is taken directly from the DB11 and ought to provide sufficient distraction even for the tallest rear passenger. The seat-back storage, complete with gold-coloured polished buckles, is sensational.

Many helicopters have glazed panels low down in the cockpit and the ACH130 is no exception. For front-seat passengers the novelty of being able to look down past one’s feet is momentarily outdone by the joyous carpet detail. The edges of the ultra-suede are trimmed in beautifully sewn saddle leather, bearing the same ‘gold’ buckles as the storage bags. It’s all the more impressive for the difficulty of working with the thick leather and cries out to be looked at; this is a cabin that entertains the senses through sight, touch and smell.

With six adult passengers and the pilot onboard, G-XAML’s sprightly departure from the heliport proves the ACH130 is no slouch either. Acceleration and climb to around 800ft is rapid. There’s inevitably some vibration, but it is not intrusive during cruising flight. There’s also some noise, which the Bose headsets in this aircraft did an exceptional job of reducing, but the mild combination of vibration and noise in the background gives the impression of this being a living, breathing animal. It’s an impression enhanced by the natural and faux natural materials employed in the cabin and cockpit, the whole creating a sensation not unlike that of riding in… a sportscar.

Service

Between them, Airbus Corporate Helicopters and Aston Martin have produced something very special. But it’s a machine designed to be appreciated in use, rather than as a collectible show piece. Hand building a product in Oxford for a global market might lead to customers suffering an unfortunate mishap – imagine spilled coffee staining seat leather and carpet – thousands of miles away from the individuals with the skills and materials required to solve the problem.

“As we do with our other helicopters,” Lemos explains, “We take the customer request and work out a solution. If we can manufacture a component in Oxford and deliver it to the customer we will. If it’s a problem where we have to work on the aircraft, then we’ll identify the materials we need and then send our people to the aircraft, because the people who built the cabin will need to restore it. These things are handcrafted and the knowledge and skill resides with these experts. It’s the detail they achieve that makes the product so special.”

And what is the cost of so exceptional a machine? Neither Lemos nor Reichmann was willing to reveal a price, although Lemos confirmed there would be a premium above the ACH130’s starting price of €2.8 million. Reichmann added context with the Valkyrie, which has a base price of £2.5 million. Airbus Corporate Helicopters and Aston Martin appear to have found the perfect match.