Over 30 years ago, my old-school fixed-wing airplane instructor and I were returning to the airport when a Coast Guard helicopter appeared. “I’m going never fly in one of those,” he said. “Too many moving parts, too dangerous.”
Today, many people still share his opinion, although their opinions are expressed in varying degrees of ignorance. Helicopters are complex and expensive – you pay a premium to be able to take off and land almost anywhere – and, like any other aircraft, they require proper and sometimes expensive maintenance. The bigger the helicopter, the more complicated the job can be and the greater the chance of problems developing, especially after enduring thousands of hours of airborne vibration, affecting everything from the tail booms to the main rotor blades. . Overall, rotorcraft manufacturers do a good job of staying on top of any resulting issues before an accident occurs by issuing revised maintenance bulletins or making new parts, but nothing is perfect.
This is the case of Airbus Helicopters’ Super Puma, a large twin engine that can carry 11 VIP seats or 19 in utility configuration over more than 600 nautical miles (with auxiliary tanks) at 135 knots.
Airbus has delivered its 1,000e Super Puma in 2018 and the global fleet has accumulated nearly six million flight hours. The nearly stand-up cabin can be outfitted with all the amenities of a modern business jet, including in-flight entertainment, a refreshment center and an aft lavatory. A small cargo bay is accessible from the outside from the rear of the aircraft, under the tail boom. You can equip the aircraft with the most modern avionics and it is certified for flight in known icing conditions. The five-bladed main rotor system is equipped with effective anti-vibration technology and sufficient sound insulation can be placed in the cabin walls, providing a relatively smooth and quiet flight for a helicopter of this class.
A long story
The Super Puma whose origins date back to the early 1960s when the company that made it was not called Airbus or Eurocopter or Aerospatiale but rather the French company Sud Aviation. The SA (for Sud Aviation) 330 “Puma” was designed to meet a military need to embark up to 16 men for the French army. Over the years this solid and robust design evolved into a larger and more capable helicopter which was sold to military and civilian customers around the world, eventually as the Airbus H215 and H225 “Super Puma” .
The Super Puma imprimatur actually covers six models produced since 1981, which are differentiated by slight variations in range, speed and cabin size. Today, nearly 100 customers in 59 countries use them. They use the helicopter for law enforcement, aerial work, search and rescue, offshore transport and government missions including VIP transport. The H215 is a lower cost variant available with a slightly shorter cabin and noticeably less range than the H225. Regis Magnac, vice president of Airbus Helicopters and head of energy leasing and global accounts, points out that more than two dozen countries continue to use the helicopter to transport heads of state. In the military sector, the aircraft manufacturer offers the H215M and H225M military variants for search and rescue, troop transport, special operations and utility missions.
While operators generally praise the model and its derivatives for their ruggedness and reliability, over the past decade and a half a handful of accidents and ditchings at sea have been linked to design flaws in the box. helicopter main rotor speeds and a limited number of replacement main rotor shafts.
The worst of these occurred on April 26, 2016, when the main rotor separated from a Super Puma near Turoy, Norway, killing all 13 people on board. Following the accident, the worldwide Super Puma fleet was grounded, much of it for over a year. Operators have lined up to hit Airbus with litigation potentially worth billions of dollars. One of them, Era Group, has marked down the value of its H225s to around $4 million each, a small fraction of their new 2016 retail price of $23 million. In total, H225 operators took hundreds of millions of dollars in write-downs related to the H225, guaranteeing 129 helicopters. Unsurprisingly, the number of deliveries of new Super Pumas dropped precipitously.
The downfall was short-lived, however, as Airbus acted quickly to resolve the main gearbox technical issues that caused Turoy’s crash and help customers remarket the parked helicopters. At the start of 2022, the Airbus Super Puma production line was full. It delivered 31 last year and the company “continues to invest in the product”, according to Magnac.
A hard to find model
The price of this used 2016 Super Puma, which went from over $23 million new to a low of $4 million, has since more than doubled. And it’s now hard to find good used models, regardless of vintage, says Matt Lowe, director of special missions at Texas-based Air Center Helicopters, one of the largest civilian operators of its kind.
Air Center rolled the dice and amassed its fleet of 27 Super Pumas following the Turoy crash, many at bargain prices. Today, the company uses the aircraft for a variety of high profile and critical applications, including ocean capsule/astronaut recoveries for Boeing, NASA and SpaceX; special missions in Africa that can travel up to 600 nautical miles without refueling; vertical replenishment on board long lines for the US Navy; and aerial firefighting, including night operations.
“It’s just a machine that flies well,” says Lowe. “It has a four-axis autopilot. It flies like an airliner and cruises at 135 knots. He praised the helicopter’s durability, particularly its ability to be operated and maintained in austere conditions. “The plane is very robust,” added Lowe, noting that Airbus “bends over backwards to help us. They were really good at communicating what the problem was and what the solution was” regarding the issues of maintenance.
Airbus plans to maintain the helicopter production line until at least 2030. It is still a complex machine. However, for those who need a big helicopter built to military-grade standards but can do without a full stand-up cabin, the Super Puma might be the perfect ticket.
2016 Airbus Helicopters H225 Super Puma
Price: $8 million
Engines: 2 Safran Makila 2A1 engines of 2,101 horsepower each
Passengers (VIP): 10-11
Cruising speed (typical): 142kt
Range (standard): 452nm
Range (with auxiliary tanks): 602nm
Maximum take-off weight: 24,250 lb (24,603 with increased gross weight approval)
Cabin: 4′, 8″ tall; 5′, 9″ wide; 19 feet, 5 inches long