With a business version due in 2020, Airbus Helicopters’ H160 Chief Test Pilot Olivier Gensse describes the type’s test programme to date and reveals something of the aircraft’s extraordinary capability
Airbus Helicopters revealed its H160 next-generation medium twin at Heli-Expo in Orlando during March 2015. The aircraft effectively takes the place of the Dauphin and EC155 models in the company’s line-up, sitting between the H145 light twin and larger, 7-ton class H175.
The initial H160 prototype (known as PT1) completed the type’s maiden flight in June 2015 and a third prototype joined the campaign on 13 October this year. The latest aircraft incorporates several modifications introduced as a result of trials experience and is the first to feature a production-representative cabin.
According to an Airbus Helicopters spokeswoman, none of the alterations represent radical design changes. “They’re optimisations resulting either from the development process or the industrial and support evaluation processes, including the ‘ring’ and ‘operator zero’ campaigns, which enable design improvements for increased maturity before entry into service.
“Other modifications incorporated on PT3 include the relocation of avionics equipment from the rear of the aircraft to its nose, improving its centre of gravity and enhancing accessibility and maintenance. Further change has been implemented following customer feedback, affecting the way the cargo door opens, for example. It now opens to the side rather than upwards, making it less sensitive to rotor downwash. There’s also been airframe optimisation to save weight.”
She explains that the H160 is far more than a simple EC155 replacement. “It incorporates around 68 dedicated patents aimed at bringing value to customers. The Blue Edge blades, for example, reduce sound levels by 50% and bring 100kg of additional payload. The canted fenestron and horizontal stabiliser contribute to higher performance and enhance pilot and passenger comfort, with easier handling qualities at low speeds. Applying the latest Airbus processes to its development, manufacturing and support, the H160 is also setting new standards in helicopter production.”
“We have already accumulated more than 500 flying hours, more than halfway through the campaign, in the two years since the first flight and the entire flight envelope has been opened and tested. Flight activity will accelerate with the introduction of the third prototype, with trials spread over all three aircraft. Development activities yet to complete include complementary hot weather trials, and work on antennas and optional equipment. Maturity testing will also be conducted and certification activity will ramp-up significantly over the coming months.”
Compared to a fixed-wing trials campaign, 500 hours at the halfway point seems somewhat tardy, but the endurance of individual helicopter missions compared to those of fixed-wing machines tends to be considerably shorter, as H160 Chief Test Pilot Olivier Gensse explains: “Helicopter test flights are typically around an hour long, but with the H160 we’ve found 90-minute sorties are possible, because it works so well and we have new flight test processes in place. We use the autopilot during test flying, which enables us to give some focus to other tasks and helps us capture extensive data very quickly. In a one-hour flight, I reckon we’re able to perform test work for around 50 minutes. We also operate close to the airport, minimising transit time.
“So for us, 500 hours represents major progress. We’re very happy with it and proud to say we’ve achieved it in only two years. We’ve had a few issues during development and the fact that we’ve solved them, albeit through extremely hard work, and still accumulated 500 hours, shows you how successful we’ve been.”
The test process varies with mission. Telemetry is always used for a first flight, including PT3’s, and any flight where the number of parameters to be recorded exceeds crew capacity. But it requires considerable infrastructure and a large personnel footprint on the ground and Gensse says autonomous missions are the preferred option whenever possible.
“We have extensive recording equipment on every flight, but focus on specific test points. It’s Airbus Helicopters’ policy that test pilots never fly alone; we always have two flight test engineers with us and they have computers, tablets and other equipment with them to run the trial and record data. And there’s plenty of space in the cabin, so it’s comfortable even when we have to fly with a larger crew to record and observe more parameters essential to a particular test. Additional data is recorded on every flight, for review afterwards.”
On average, Airbus flies one H160 test mission every day, each requiring around an hour to brief and another to debrief, on top of the considerable time spent planning and ‘writing the test card’ for each sortie. “And then there are conversations with specific development departments if we find an unexpected result. If we found the air conditioning wasn’t behaving as expected, for example, we would speak to the engineers to understand the problem.
“If we do detect an issue, we gather as much information on it as we can, to give the engineers as big a picture of it as possible. Sometimes a fix takes a little time, and then we go and flight test it again. We have to be sure the modified system works properly with all the other equipment and we need to be certain that it operates correctly in the real world and not just in the lab.”
In the cockpit, the H160 inherits the Helionix integrated avionics system already winning plaudits on the H175, and latest H135 and H145 models. It’s now well understood, so what benefits does it bring to the new helicopter? “There are many glass cockpits on the market,” Gensse says, “and most of them are excellent. Our basic Helionix configuration includes an automatic flight control system, helicopter terrain awareness system, TCAS II and so on, but I believe its primary advantage is its vehicle management functionality. It monitors all the helicopter’s parameters so the crew don’t have to, managing them and only generating alerts if there’s a problem.
“One instrument shows the crew that the system is functioning during normal flight, but if there is a problem, the alert is very clear and the system helps manage it. Everything on the aircraft is dual, the alerting system is simple, and problems easily managed. The difference between Helionix and legacy systems is that Airbus Helicopters builds Helionix and the helicopter together. For me, as a test pilot, the interface between crew and cockpit is essential and ours is so easy.
“We have a ‘dark cockpit’ philosophy, with no indicator lights unless there’s a problem. So imagine there was an engine fire: One blinking light would indicate the problem and the pilot only needs to push that blinking light to activate the correct extinguisher. If the problem is resolved the light goes out, if it isn’t, it continues to illuminate.”
The View Beyond
Increased cockpit automation, like that exemplified by Helionix, is commonly criticised for reducing piloting skill and detracting from the piloting experience. In truth, cleverly used automation enables pilots to apply far more of their focus to one of the most essential elements in safe flying – looking out of the window. Gensse agrees and explains: “For this reason, at the very beginning of H160 development we requested that it have very large windows. The glass cockpit also saves space and we wanted to use some of that to give pilots the maximum view out, because obstacles are a major risk to helicopter flight safety, since helicopters tend to fly closer to the ground.
“We worked hard to make sure the windows remained large throughout the development process and we’re very happy with the result. Every pilot who flies the H160 is impressed by the outstanding field of view. It’s the view from a light aircraft, with all the functionality of a heavier machine. The cabin windows are also very large, which is great for passengers and useful for the crew, because you can look through them and see behind the aircraft.
“Passenger comfort has been a primary focus too, with large windows and a spacious cabin, excellent air conditioning and low vibration. All three prototypes have cabins installed, but PT3 is the first with fittings that represent a series aircraft – it’s beautiful! We have some flights dedicated to further cabin trials and there’ll be specific testing on the final series configuration and on VIP fits.”
Mirroring the familiar ACJ brand, the H160 for the business and VIP market will be designated ACH160 as an Airbus Corporate Helicopters product. The spokeswoman explains how the system will work: “Serial production aircraft are normally delivered with some degree of completion, while business and VIP customers have serial and bespoke customisation options through the ACH offering. Completion will be in-house or through approved third parties following ACH specifications. The end-to-end ACH ownership experience from first enquiry, through aircraft selection and design, to support through HCare First, offers customers the widest choice and flexibility, alongside global, 24/7 support.”
First deliveries, equipped for passenger transport and the offshore support role, are scheduled for 2019, with a business configuration following in 2020 and a VIP version in 2021.