The cramped, spartan passenger spaces of the earliest helicopters, like those in their fixed-wing brethren, have evolved into relatively comfortable, attractive and functional environments. Still, helicopter interiors pose unique demands. Apart from the largest cabin civilian helicopters, the executive helicopter cabin is often a snug fit compared to other cabin-class business aircraft. Nevertheless, helicopter cabin designers have achieved a fair degree of parity with the interiors of fixed-wing aircraft.

How many customers choose to upgrade from the basic factory standard passenger cabins? Bell Helicopter Communications Manager Sara Monger told us approximately 20% of their customers choose some form of upgrade from the company's standard passenger cabin offerings. However, those upgrades vary widely depending on the customer's mission and use for the aircraft.

Meanwhile, all Sikorsky executive helicopter clients' interiors are custom projects. “The customers also want a value proposition,” says Sikorsky's Marianne Heffernan, communications manager. “We do this by trying to keep the infrastructure of each of the interiors common, including the basic seating arrangements, of which there are several, [as well as] wall panel systems, acoustic systems, [environmental controls] and basic electrical systems, as these elements require highly developed engineering solutions. The customization takes place with the decorative coverings, seat upholstery, cabinetry layouts and entertainment systems. This combination of standard and custom elements allows the designers to create a unique interior system solution for each customer.”

Helicopter operators have far more cabin options available than even 10 or 20 years ago. OEMs say they are employing newer and better quality fabrics, such as leathers, composites and Kevlar for seats, headliners, sidewalls and flooring, as well as numerous custom one-off products and specialty devices paralleling closely the overall cabin completions marketplace.

Updated cabin options for executive helicopter interiors also include greater emphasis on customer conveniences, such as cabin management, communication and entertainment systems. Customers also are ordering satcom phones, external cameras, HD video display systems, moving maps, LED lighting and flat-screen monitors, all controlled from a single position. Safety upgrades include the introduction of energy attenuating seats and armor protection systems. And, from a passenger comfort standpoint, there is greater use of highly engineered internal noise reduction systems. (See “Managing Cabin Noise,” BCA, June 2012, page 38.) Another major cabin design development that isn't an option at all is the growing use of 3-D design and rendering tools that enables the designer to rapidly create custom solutions while allowing the customer to better visualize the completed product. These new tools lead to a precision design, more effective decision-making, fewer design changes and happier customers.

The Final Frontier

But there are some limits. Given the space, weight and mission constraints of a helicopter, some fixed-wing cabin wish-list items haven't yet found their way into helicopters — sleeping accommodations, or large galleys, 40-in. monitors, high-speed Internet, and the like. And since executive helicopter missions typically are under an hour, the mission is apt to be an extension of a ride in a limousine. Customers want a comfortable seat; a quiet, smooth ride; convenience. flawless systems; a drink; a snack; and the ability to stay connected.

Nevertheless, the abilities of helicopter cabin engineers are remarkable — and probably underappreciated — given what they are able to squeeze into the cabins of air ambulance, law enforcement and offshore service cabins.

Helicopter cabin style tends to be inspired by automotive design trends, says Sikorsky's Heffernan. “The overall interior aesthetic is trending toward automotive. [We're seeing] more comfortable seats in terms of contour and vibration attenuation, utilizing new foams and gels. Interior materials use more sophisticated coatings that offer modern finishes for less weight. All [our] customers desire some level of cabin management for communications/moving maps/video/entertainment, and Sikorsky provides several levels of options.

“Window shading has trended toward electro-chromatic due to system simplicity and weight constraints,” continues Heffernan. “Lighting is all-LED. Safety equipment would include energy attenuating seats, passenger armor protection and higher crash loads. Soundproofing has become highly helicopter specific, using more sophisticated measurement tools, airframe isolation, tailored limp mass barriers and lighter weight/higher strength composite construction.”

Some of the most unusual, challenging, costly or ground-breaking helicopter interiors encountered by OEMs include installing a shower in a Sikorsky S-92, as well as granite table tops, complex entertainment and audio systems, and beverage cooling and heating hardware. While these may be common in fixed-wing aircraft interiors, they are more unique items in helicopters.

Ergonomic Design 101

It should come as no surprise that engineers around the world are devoting more time to the advancement of helicopter cabin design. For example, a Eurocopter Vehicle Interiors Department study sponsored by France's DGAC (Direction Générale de l'Aviation Civile) found —to no one's great surprise — that helicopter cabins are sometimes cramped, especially when the passengers are burly oil rig roughnecks. Indeed, the aim of the study was to optimize the fit of helicopter interiors to a specific cabin population: offshore workers. Both digital simulations and hardware models were part of the study: digital human mannequins (DHM) immersed in digital cabin mockups using computer-aided design (CAD), and flesh-and-blood subjects in a full-scale, flexible cabin mockup. The study's methods included anthropometric measurements, surveys, questionnaires and activity analyses. The results (it is hoped) led Eurocopter designers to improve ways to assess and predict comfort levels of helicopter cabins with greater reliance on real-world human size parameters, and better knowledge of cabin architectural parameters that may increase comfort, such as the link between seat pitches and legroom or postural comfort.

“Completion Design Practice and Research of VVIP Helicopter Cabins,” a paper prepared for the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics (CSAA) in the People's Republic of China, looked at cabin floor plans and human ergonomics. Evidently, the study's author, Hou Lili, of the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group, was given the task to emulate, as much as possible, the VVIP seat installed on the back of a white elephant used by Asian royalty. (We're not kidding.) Among many recommendations, the study maintains that “whirling seats” (we think this translates to “tilting power seats”) are excessively bulky and heavy for a helicopter cabin. But the author declares that a case could be made for installing heated- and/or massaging seats, articulating seat-back cushions and headrests (with presets). A limousine-style acrylic divider between the cabin and the cockpit also is recommended by the paper's author.

Stylish Upgrades

In response to increasing demand for a more unique traveling experience, American Eurocopter partnered with Hermès and Mercedes Benz in 2007 to create the EC135 Hermès (known as L'Hélicoptère par Hermès), featuring a four-place main cabin, a sliding glass partition, a corporate baggage hold, redesigned skid landing gear and other external changes.

Mecaer Aviation Group (MAG), an aircraft interior specialist in Borgomanero, Italy, has developed a new VIP interior for the AgustaWestland AW169 helicopter. MAG was previously selected by Eurocopter as the VIP interior system supplier for its EC145, Mercedes-Benz Style. The aircraft is a new high-end VIP version of the popular twin-engine turbine helicopter. Originally announced at EBACE 2010, the first helicopter equipped with the new VIP interior, conceived by Mercedes-Benz and completed by MAG, was unveiled in 2011 at EBACE in Geneva.

In Europe, MAG operates several interior installation facilities that are adjacent to, or co-located with, an OEM's factory. Under the MAG business model, its facilities have complete responsibility for the entire interior process from design and manufacture to final installation and certification on the OEM's assembly line. Current locations include Vergiate, Italy; Yeovil, U.K.; and Moscow.

In the U.S., MAG operates under a similar concept at its Philadelphia location and has recently opened a new facility in Hagerstown, Md., to service the interiors and MRO needs of East Coast rotary- and fixed-wing operators.

Additionally, American Eurocopter has installed and delivered the first Eurocopter EC145 with Flight Display Systems' Select Cabin Management System. With it, passengers can now control XM Radio, Blu-ray video, cabin lighting, air-conditioning and a moving map from the comfort of their seats. Components include 4.3–in. touchscreen control panels, a Blu-ray and DVD player, Flight Display Moving Map, 10.2–in. widescreen LCD with ceiling mount and a six-genre music player.

American Eurocopter's twin-engine EC145 combines a large cabin and extensive avionics offerings to make it the light utility helicopter of choice for the U.S. Army. Known as the UH-72A Lakota, its missions include carrying VIPs and high-ranking personnel. The EC145 can be configured either as a VIP helicopter with a sumptuous four-place interior, or alternatively used as a “sports utility helicopter” for an outdoor sports trip over the weekend.

In addition, Eurocopter has introduced the Stylence family of helicopters — “a combination of style and silence” — for which aesthetics, ergonomics and advanced technology have been merged. Stylence incorporates extra-thick interior insulation and special flooring to further lower noise and vibration levels, inflight office and telecommunications equipment, and an interior featuring high-quality leather upholstery. The Stylence package currently is offered on five Eurocopter models: the EC120, EC130, AS350 B2/B3, AS355 NP and EC145.

The EC225 long-range, rotary-wing aircraft is available with a range of VIP interiors that can accommodate eight to 12 passengers, plus an attendant. A range of galleys and washrooms also are offered, along with an extensive range of IFEC systems.

So it is apparent that operators no longer need to settle for spartan cabins after growing accustomed to comfort and productivity in their homes, offices and automobiles.