In April, Airbus Helicopters ushered in a new era of Chinese helicopter manufacturing with the inauguration and start of operations of its H135 final assembly line (FAL) in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China. The act was not only an achievement for Airbus Helicopters—for whom China is a key emerging market and strategic partner where the manufacturer already enjoys a 37 percent market share—but also a step forward for Chinese industry and knowhow: the Qingdao H135 FAL is the first helicopter FAL to be opened in China by a Western helicopter manufacturer.
The inception of this FAL followed a framework agreement signed between Airbus and China in 2016 for the production of 100 H135s over 10 years, mainly to meet the growing demand for light civil helicopters that is expected in China in the next decade.
An Airbus bestseller, more than 1,300 light twin-engine H135s are in operation around the globe today with around 300 customers, accumulating more than 5 million flight hours. Of these, 27 are flying in China for emergency medical services (EMS), search and rescue, law enforcement, firefighting and tourism missions – segments that are expected to further develop as China’s low-level airspace continues to open up.
“The H135 is seen as a formidable contender for these growing market segments,” said Marie Agnes Veve, head of North Asia region and head of Airbus Helicopters China, “and its success in the country today is mainly due to its excellent safety record and safety features, its low operating costs and its performance in service.”
An awakening market and the genesis of a FAL
Today China’s skies are home to around 1,000 civil helicopters (turbine and piston), with around 300 of these being Airbus rotorcraft serving 83 customers. It is estimated that the country’s civil turbine helicopter fleet could exceed 1,500 aircraft by 2022—an expected 50 percent increase. Moreover, the Chinese rotorcraft market has experienced annual growth of 20 percent in recent years, a trend that is expected to continue.
Airbus has enjoyed success in this environment. In 2016, China became Airbus’ largest market in terms of total annual bookings. Some of the credit for this performance is due to the manufacturer’s long presence in China dating back more than 50 years. This includes cooperation agreements around the development and manufacture of the H120 Colibri and the H175/AC352 helicopter programs, of which the H135 FAL is a natural extension, and the setting up of a subsidiary and a network of offices across the country.
“The setup of the very first Chinese helicopter FAL was the logical next step given our long-standing relationship this country,” said Veve. “Our main objective here is to support our customers locally in all aspects of helicopter flight, and this FAL is a big step towards achieving this goal.”
It’s a model that has worked well for Airbus Helicopters in other major markets, such as the United States with its H145 Lakota UH-72 and H125 FALs in Columbus, Mississippi, and the H225M and H125 FALs in Brazil. In the United States, nearly 500 Lakotas and 68 H125s have rolled off the FALs, all destined for local operators.
The perfect machine for saving lives
The H135 is the global benchmark in the EMS sector, with 25% of all EMS flights worldwide today being performed with an H135 (more than 600 units).
Features that make this helicopter the preferred choice for rapid interventions include its compact footprint, versatile cabin design with dedicated EMS interiors (including single-patient, dual patient and intensive care transport), and its Helionix avionics suite, as well as a performance upgrade to increase its performance in high and hot and one engine inoperative (OEI) situations.
In China, HEMS began to gather momentum starting in 2014 when the government began relaxing its military-controlled airspace. This has since led to more helicopters entering specialized segments like EMS, with the H135 being a trailblazer. In 2014, Beijing 999 Emergency Rescue Center (a Beijing Red Cross Foundation subsidiary) took delivery of took delivery of an H135 helicopter, becoming China’s very first EMS-dedicated helicopter.
Of the 100 H135s to be delivered from the Qingdao FAL, a large portion are expected to end up in China’s nascent EMS industry, where 200 EMS helicopters are anticipated over the next 10-15 years.
The first of these 100 helicopters was built at Airbus’ helicopter plant in Donauwoerth, Germany, and was delivered to the Health Commission of Qingdao in September 2018. The first H135 to be built in China is expected to exit the FAL in late 2019.
A Sino-European collaboration
Owned 49 percent by the Qingdao United General Aviation Company (UGAC), and 51 percent by Airbus Helicopters, the Qingdao site features office buildings, the FAL area containing four stations and a paint booth, a flight line for ground and flight tests, and the delivery center area for final inspections and delivery to the customer.
Equipment integration takes place on the first station, involving the main gearbox, engines, instruments and avionics, ventilation system and cockpit windows. The doors and tail boom are added on the second station, followed by adaption and adjustment of cowlings, inner panels, the main rotor system and fenestron.
From there the helicopter would move to the paint booth to be painted in the customer’s livery, and then on to the third station for systems check, adjustment of the flight controls, and installation of interior panels and cowlings.
The last station before moving to the flight line and testing involves installation of batteries, seats, wipers, as well as tests such as fuel gauging and rain leakage.
The main component assemblies (MCAs) for the H135 will be produced in Europe and then sent to Qingdao for final assembly, providing the same quality and standards as Airbus’ European FAL and adhering to European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations. The cabin and main gearbox will be shipped to China from Airbus facilities in Donauworth, Germany, with the rear fuselage coming from Albacete, Spain.
About 40 employees will work on the Qingdao FAL, with 23 Chinese employees having already received extensive training in Donauwoerth alongside their German counterparts. The FAL will have an annual capacity of 18 H135 helicopters, which could be extended for future growth (for example, 36 units per year assuming two shifts).
“We’re looking forward to continuing to contribute to the development of China’s aviation industry, working hand in hand with Chinese administrations, private operators and industrial partners in a wide range of activities, in order to serve the interests of the Chinese people and society,” Veve said.
China’s strong will to boost its public services capacities, such as homeland security, search and rescue (SAR), emergency medical services (EMS), disaster relief and firefighting, no doubt opens the door to significant fleet growth in the coming years.
Edited by SME Media, using information provided by Airbus.