Future Of The Super Puma In Doubt?

The world of heavy helicopters is relatively small with just a handful of OEMs making them for the civilian market. Airbus Helicopters is a large player in this niche market, but is the Super Puma's future production in jeopardy?

If we look at operators of the Super Puma family, a large percentage of them are with offshore and military operators, and this lack of diversity is leading to poor sales for Airbus Helicopters' current production heavies (H215 & H225).

Several EC225s currently being stored at Aberdeen, UK.

The heavy helicopter market started to struggle when the price of oil began to drop drastically, from over $100/barrel in mid 2014, to below $50/barrel today. Airbus Helicopters were dealt a further blow to their future production when a Polish order for 50 examples was canceled when a new Government took over, leaving the company left with some 'white tail' helicopters. To make matters worse, Airbus Helicopters have suffered even more with the recent loss of a EC225 near Bergen, Norway leading to a grounding of the EC225's & AS.332L2's in Europe and many other parts of the globe.

The above tri-factor of circumstances has led to a huge slow down in production at Marignane, France, with the line almost coming to a standstill.

At the same time that oil revenues are declining, a number of OEMs are bringing products to the market that are directly aimed at taking a piece of the offshore pie. Leonardo-Finmeccanica (AW189), Bell (Bell 525) and even Airbus Helicopters themselves (H175) are producing 'super-medium' helicopters that have the range of a heavy helicopter but are much more efficient.

To make the product a little more competitive Airbus Helicopters decided to move the H215 production line to Romania in late 2015, with the first production example to roll off their line in 2017. Cutting manufacturing costs will help the H215 sales, but a lack of confidence in the product whilst still awaiting the outcome of the accident investigation from the Norway crash, is not helping sales.

H215 destined for the Bolivian Air Force.

With the recent announcement of the CHC Group entering Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings, the second hand helicopter market has been flooded with heavy helicopters that have been removed from the CHC fleet and returned to lessors. These very same lessors are responsible for a good percentage of the aircraft currently on order, so they will be trying to re-negotiate delivery slots and even cancel orders.

The only up-side to the heavy helicopter market has been for Sikorsky, whose S-92s have been shipped across the Atlantic to cover the gap in the market that has been left following the grounding of the Super Pumas.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel though for Airbus Helicopters, who are developing the X6, which is due for entry 'in the 2020s'. By the 2020s it is expected that the price of oil will have returned to over $100/barrel and operators will be looking to replace their aging helicopter fleets.

Photos by Nigel Howarth & Mike Hopwood

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