PARIS --- Eurocopter expects a decision this quarter on French government funding related to its future X-4 helicopter, which it will launch this year as the successor to the Dauphin/EC155 family of medium-sized, twin-engined helicopters.
Company chief executive Lutz Bertling was however careful to note that the funds, which would be provided as part of the French government’s economic recovery plan, would be used to finance technology related to the X-4 rather than the helicopter itself.
“We intend the X-4 to be a game-changer….its way of flying will be completely different to anything that is flying now,” adding that “it will not be a Eurocopter product but a Eurocopter / Thales / Turboméca product,” with many medium and small companies having signed agreements to cooperate in its development and production.
The X-4 will also be the first program on which Eurocopter will implement its goal of reducing the development phase of its new helicopters by 30%, both to reduce costs and bring products to market faster.
Bertling made these comments during the company’s annual New Year press conference, at which here he announced that Eurocopter delivered a record 527 new helicopters in 2010 (down from 558 in 2009) and posted a turnover of over 4.8billion euros (up 6% over 2009).
Significantly, these deliveries included 28 NH90 helicopters – double the number delivered in 2009 – including the first for the Dutch and French navies, which had suffered long delays because of production difficulties and certification issues. Also delivered were 15 Tigers – again, double the previous year’s number – thanks to resolution of a disagreement with the German Army which had suspended deliveries.
Eurocopter also booked new orders for worth 4.3 billion euros, broadly comparable to its average intake over the previous six years if the exceptional, 1.8 billion euro order of 50 EC725 helicopters by Brazil is discounted.
Foreshadowing a trend that Bertling expects to amplify in coming years, new helicopter orders (for 346 helicopters, compared to 344 in 2009) only accounted for 49% of the total order value, while services (training, MRO, R&D, etc.) accounted for another 42%, and miscellaneous activities for the remaining 9%.
Other points of interest made by Bertling include:
-- The three Tiger combat helicopters deployed by the French Army to Afghanistan have flown over 1,600 flight hours, and their availability has never dipped below 90%. Dismissing reports that this high rate was due to a huge contingent of Eurocopter support personnel, he said that the company has only two people in Afghanistan. (The Tigers logged their first 1,000 hours in Afghanistan in July 2010, so they are flying a combined total of over 120 hours/month—Ed.)
-- The X-3 hybrid helicopter unveiled by the company is not intended to participate in a race for speed; “the point of the design is productivity, in other words to allow more revenue to be generated with a moderate cost increase.” He added that the idea is to offer the hybrid propulsion being developed on the X-3 as a performance-enhancing option (more range, more speed) on future helicopter models, such as the successor to the EC225 successor.
The X-3 demonstrator will fly at June’s Paris air show, by which time it will have comfortably exceeded level speeds of 200 knots.
-- Bertling estimates that 20% to 30% of the US Army’s future fleet of Armed Scout Helicopters, for which Eurocopter’s modified UH-72 design is competing, will be able to operate in unmanned configuration. In this respect, Eurocopter has alredy “demonstrated a helicopter that can fly a mission from take-off to landing while the pilot keeps his arms crossed,” he said.
-- Eurocopter is talking to Boeing about a possible joint development of a Future Transport Helicopter which will have more capabilities than the current generation of heavy transport helicopters. It is also talking to the European Defence Agency, which is preparing a common European requirement for such a helicopter, as “European countries will run out of heavy lift capability in the 2020s,” Bertling said, adding that “discussions among partner nations… could start this year.”
Ideally, cooperation would be based on a joint program combining US, NATO and European staff requirements, as neither the US nor European countries have the financial capacity to develop such a large helicopter on their own.