When former Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling first described the X4 in 2011, he said it would represent a “different way of flying an aircraft.”

In his grandiose vision, he saw the technologies on the new helicopter akin to the revolutionary fly-by-wire and side-sticks introduced on the Airbus A320 airliner in the 1980s.

But four years later, the reality is rather different.

If Bertling had hoped the new commercial helicopter would leap over competitors into a new generation with its radical new cockpit and fly-by-wire controls, then without those elements, the X4—now called the H160—is about halfway there, introducing new technologies that are more evolutionary than revolutionary.

The H160 is Airbus Helicopters’ €1 billion ($1.12 billion) gamble to try to retake a firm hold on a market long monopolized by AgustaWestland. But while the aircraft’s sleek design harks back to the AS365 Dauphin, which the H160 ultimately will replace, it is also supposed to represent a substantial change in direction for Airbus Helicopters, with new development processes and production techniques benchmarked against those of its colleagues building airliners down the road in Toulouse.

Airbus Helicopters will pitch the H160 into the medium helicopter market, one currently dominated by AgustaWestland’s AW139 and, to a lesser extent the Sikorsky S-76 and Bell 412. Airbus wants the H160 to appeal to the oil and gas support mission, search-and-rescue (SAR) operators, the emergency medical service community, and corporate and VIP transport customers.

The H160 will be able to carry 12 passengers to an oil platform 120 nm offshore, complete a missed approach and return to land on the same tank of fuel. Cruise speed will be around 160 kt. and maximum takeoff weight will be 5.5-6 metric tons. However, the company believes it can do all of this with a 1 ton lighter empty weight than the AW139 and improve fuel economy and direct operating costs by 15-20%.

“The key to this helicopter is efficiency,” says Aurelie Gensolen, marketing manager for the H160 program. “Like we did with the EC175, we are delivering an aircraft with the same level of performance as the AW189, but with a weight of 1 ton less.”

Key to the weight savings are extensive use of new materials and technologies—Airbus has taken out 68 patents on the H160 alone. The use of composites is featured widely in the aircraft, with a carbon-fiber airframe produced in-house at facilities in Germany, while the tailboom and tailrotor housing are built by Daher-Socata.

Composite Blue Edge blades, distinguishable by their hockey-stick-shaped tips, were revealed by the company in 2010 and  had been flying since 2007, but the H160 represents the first use of this technology in an Airbus product. Improved since their public debut, the blades have been designed to reduce blade-vortex interactions and cut external noise by 3-4 dB. But they also have improved aircraft performance. Engineers say their use on the H160 delivers an extra 100 kg (220 lb.) of payload over what current-generation composite blades.. They are fitted to a Spheriflex main rotorhead made from composite thermoplastics.

Using an idea first adopted on Sikorsky’s RAH-66 Comanche, the H160’s fenestron shrouded antitorque system is canted by 12 deg., which improves the type’s lift performance and allows the aircraft an additional 40 kg of payload, compared to the standard configuration. While canted anti-torque systems are fairly common on platforms from other manufacturers, Airbus introduced it on the EC175, and the feature is now likely to become commonplace on Airbus products.

Combined use of the five-blade main rotor with the fenestron, along with the separation of the gearbox from the main structure, means there is no need for heavy active vibration-control systems.

Under the tailboom, the biplane-configuration horizontal stabilizer is another unusual feature that has been designed to improve the H160’s stability at low speeds. Airbus says this addition gives the helicopter another 40 of payload capability. Further weight savings are found under the cabin floor, where there are no hydraulic components. Instead, Airbus has opted for electrical landing gear actuation and braking systems—the first of their kind on a helicopter.

Above the cabin and taking lessons from the gearbox issues that affected the EC225, engineers designed a simplified main gearbox, incorporating redundancy for the oil pumps by adding a second independent system within the gearbox itself. In the event of failure of one, the other can continue to provide the necessary lubrication and eliminate the need for an emergency system. Meanwhile, thermal effects caused by friction between components have been countered by lowering the velocity using reduction gearing that limits the potential for cracks and fatigue. To prove the concept, the engineers built a gearbox and then 3-D-printed a transparent gearbox case. They then ran the gearbox to see how the oil would be distributed.

Despite initial plans for two engine options, Airbus has decided to go it alone with Turbomeca’s Arrano engine, shelving the Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PW210E partly on the grounds that it does not deliver the required levels of power and because the addition of the second engine increases complexity and cost to the program.

In the cockpit, pilots will find the Helionix avionics suite, which is already installed on the company’s EC145 T2 and EC175 helicopters. Flight information will be displayed on four 6 X 8-in. multifunction displays that can be manipulated by touchscreen or  with a cursor..

Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS) will be installed as standard on every H160, but because of its wide range of missions, Airbus is developing a series of tailored options so customers with just one helicopter can benefit from the system, a capability that has only been fully appreciated by those operating larger numbers of rotorcraft.

“We are trying to democratize the use of HUMS,” says Bernard Fujarski, senior vice president and head of the X4/H160 program. “This is important because there are all types of operational segments that the H160 will be used in.”

The H160 will transfer its HUMS data wirelessly. Basic customers will be able to check exceedances on a tablet device that will give the operator a “go, no-go” on the measured components, while larger operators will be able to download all the HUMS data from the helicopter. Eventually, Airbus wants to be able to transmit exceedance data inflight so engineers can be ready to begin work once the rotorcraft lands.

Compared to other helicopters from Eurocopter and its predecessors,, significant work is being undertaken on test rigs with the aim of maturing the design and accelerating the development process. Benchmarking itself against Airbus at Toulouse and the speed and progress of the development of the A350 airliner, Airbus Helicopters has invested in new infrastructure to support this transformation. A huge €10 million concrete whirltower has been built at the Marignane plant so all the H160’s dynamic components can be tested there on an iron bird called Dynamic Helicopter Zero (DHCO). Testing of DHCO is due to begin in March.

Meanwhile, the complex electronic systems onboard the H160 are being tested on a second rig, called System Helicopter Zero (SHCO), in a building nearby. All of the helicopter systems are being wired on the SHCO as they would be on the real rotorcraft. Since the rig entered operation in January 2014, the team has tested the majority of systems needed for a first flight and has troubleshot some 500 software snags, including production and compatibility issues.

These efforts are part of a drive to ensure reliability and availability the moment the  helicopter enters service with customers. CEO Guillaume Faury has put a heavy emphasis on maturity of the rotorcraft systems, with the aim of exceeding the already high availability rates of the EC175 of around 85% in the weeks after it entered service in December 2014.

The H160 flight-test program will begin possibly as early as April or May. Three prototypes, PT1/2/3, will be used along with pre-production PS1.. A company-owned EC155 demonstrator has been used to test the aerodynamic elements, including the blades, biplane stabilizer and canted fenestron. The company will begin taking orders in 2016, and the first delivery is planned for 2018.

But will Airbus’s gamble pay off?

The company would like the H160 to capture around 40% of the medium market, but it will be up against some stiff competition.

AgustaWestland’s AW139 has virtually monopolized the medium market for almost a decade. More than 800 helicopters are in service, and deliveries should exceed the 1,000 mark in early 2017. Its success comes from bringing new technology into a market that had lacked innovation for many years, while the power from the AW139’s two P&WC PT6s allows it to perform well in hot and high conditions.

Fujarski argues that H160 should deliver similar performance with less powerful engines by weighing 1 ton less. Market assessments carried out toward the end of 2014 might have suggested that customers were demanding greater power from their helicopters, ultimately leading to the shelving of the 1,100-shp P&WC PW210 after an apparent reluctance to develop a growth version. Turbomeca says the Arrano will produce up to 1,300 shp in its initial version.

Weight-saving was also cited as the reason for not installing a deicing system, although wiring provisions have been made for one.

Engineers are now beginning to design the equipment packages needed for other missions. A SAR mission-equipped aircraft would feature an electro-optical camera under the nose, rescue hoist fitted to the starboard side and mission console in the cabin.

Airbus also envisions a military version—H160M—but it has not formally launched such a program.

Meanwhile, the futures of the AS365 Dauphin and EC155 are less clear. The two types will remain in production at least until 2018. But the EC155 may live on in South Korea if selected to form the basis of that country’s LCH-LAH (Light Civil Helicopter and the Light Armed Helicopter) program.

What is clear is that the H160 is less of a gamble now than it would have been had it continued on the course set by Bertling. Shortly after his arrival in May 2013, Faury reviewed the X4 program and found that the envisioned technologies were not ready or did not add value for the accompanying weight gain.

The next-generation cockpit had not advanced beyond technology readiness level (TRL) 5, and while fly-by-wire would have saved a small amount of weight, the additional complexity and cost made it impractical. While the idea of a high-technology, advanced helicopter with a new-generation cockpit might have appealed to corporate and VIP customers, it might have proved a training and maintenance headache for larger operators.

“We are essentially driving the product where our customers expect to see it,” Faury says. “Our customers want us to be focused on the reliability, availability and safety.”


Airbus Helicopters H160 Specifications

Maximum Seating 12 + two crew
Maximum Takeoff Weight 5.5-6 metric tons
Cruise Speed 160 kt.
Powerplant Two 1,100-1,300-shp Turbomeca Arrano 1As
Source: Airbus Helicopters