The resurrection of the Super Puma

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It started with nightmare stuff and ended like the story of Lazarus – back from the dead.

On April 26, 2016, the main rotor separated from an Airbus Helicopters EC225LP (LN-OJF) traveling at 2,000 feet and 140 knots near Turoy, Norway while transporting offshore oil workers. All 13 on board were killed. Following the accident, the worldwide Super Puma fleet was grounded, much of it for over a year. Offshore unions moved quickly to demonize the machine, refusing to ride on it. One, Unite, threatened to strike if the helicopter continued to be used on passenger flights in the North Sea and vowed to keep the area “Super Puma-free”. A petition circulated by North Sea oil workers and their families to ban the Super Puma outright has garnered more than 27,000 signatures. A 2017 Airbus survey of the aircraft found that 62% of respondents would not fly on it.

Operators lined up to hit Airbus with potentially billions of dollars in litigation as the offshore market crashed. Era Group recorded a loss of $81 million in the third quarter of 2017, mainly due to an impairment charge of $117 million taken during the period, mainly based on its fleet of nine Airbus H225 helicopters belonging to the society. The company has marked down the value of its H225s to around $4 million each, a small fraction of its new 2016 retail price of $23 million. The Bristow Group (which merged with Era in 2020) parked its 27 H225s and would continue to extract a substantial, but undisclosed, settlement from Airbus. In total, H225 operators took hundreds of millions of dollars in write-downs related to the H225, guaranteeing 129 helicopters.

Airbus H225 helicopters are finding new life and new missions following a 2016 accident at sea in which the main rotor blade separated from the plane, killing all 13 people on board.

Turoy was just the latest in a string of high-profile Super Puma crashes dating back to 2009, involving derivatives such as the EC225 and AS332 L2, linked to gearbox issues. On April 1, 2009, all 16 people on board died when the main rotor gearbox failed on an AS332 L2 off Peterhead, Scotland, and in 2012 gearbox problems were linked to a pair of successful Super Puma ditchings off Scotland and the Shetland Islands.

But Turoy turned out to be the most terrible crescendo. Unsurprisingly, deliveries of new Super Pumas fell off a cliff, from 42 in 2015 to 19 in 2016 to just eight in 2017. Guillaume Faury, then CEO of Airbus Helicopters, felt compelled to perform a high profile flight to London in October. 2017, telling reporters, “It takes time to restore confidence after these accidents.”

He did, but today the Airbus Super Puma production line is full. It delivered 31 last year and the company “continues to invest in the product”, according to Regis Magnac, vice president of Airbus Helicopters and head of energy leasing and global accounts. The price of this 2016 Super Puma, which had plunged to $4 million, has since more than doubled. And used vouchers of any vintage are hard to come by, says Matt Lowe, director of special missions at Air Center Helicopters, one of the largest civilian operators of its kind.

So what happened? Behind the scenes, Airbus worked hard to resolve the technical issues that led to the accident, which the Accident Investigation Board of Norway (AIBN) found to be caused by “a stress fracture in one of the eight planetary gears of the second stage of the planetary gear train”. main rotor gearbox module. The AIBN concluded that the planetary gear failed without warning and that on-board systems were unable to detect its degradation before the failure. The board noted: “The mode of failure observed in this accident (initiation and propagation of cracks with limited spalling) appears to differ from what was expected or intended during the design and certification of the main rotor gearbox. The fracture has propagated in a manner unlikely to be detected by the maintenance procedures and monitoring systems fitted to the LN-OJF at the time of the accident.”

More troubling was the AIBN’s discovery that less than 10% of all planetary gears on the aircraft’s second stage had reached their useful life and needed to be removed during inspections and/or overhauls.

Airbus has implemented a variety of new safety measures designed to alleviate gearbox safety issues on the H225, including the move to a single-source design for the main planetary gear and the installation of a Full-flow magnetic plug designed to collect metal particles before they reach the gearbox. Oil cooler. He also acted quickly to settle customer complaints related to mandatory groundings after Turoy. Magnac said most, but not all, of those claims are resolved.

The OEM worked with customers to remarket and modify their existing aircraft while taking other steps to rehabilitate its reputation, many of which endure today. Ahead of this year’s HAI Heli-Expo, VIPs arrived at the Dallas Convention Center aboard a Super Puma.

“The 225 can do much more than just transport people,” Magnac noted, citing other missions it is suited for, including cargo, external load carrying and aerial firefighting. He also said that about 15% of the old offshore fleet had been sold to various armies. “We helped our owners find new rooms” for the helicopters, he said.

But perhaps the actions of a Burleson, Texas operator, Air Center Helicopters, did more to restore confidence in the plane than anything else. With the temporary collapse in used Super Puma prices, the company saw an unprecedented opportunity in acquiring 27, many from lessor Milestone Aviation Group. Some had been sitting around for quite a while, requiring a full main gearbox overhaul to the tune of $1 million each. Air Center uses its fleet for a mix of diverse, but sometimes high-profile missions. They include ocean capsule/astronaut recovery for Boeing, NASA and SpaceX; special missions in Africa that can travel up to 600 nm without refueling; vertical replenishment on board longlines for the US Navy; and aerial firefighting, including night operations. Navy missions include delivering 9,600-pound F-35 jet engines to aircraft carriers. For firefighting, Air Center can outfit its H225s with forward-facing infrared cameras, night-vision goggles, and a Helitak FT4250, a 1,000-gallon external tank that fills from a snorkel. in just 48 seconds.

Air Center’s Lowe said the company began acquiring 225s four years ago after operating a handful of H215s and AS322s. “It’s just a machine that flies well. It has a four-axis autopilot. It flies like an airliner instead of using trim release and getting tired, and it cruises at 135 knots. He praised the helicopter’s durability, particularly its ability to be operated and maintained in austere conditions. “The aircraft is very sturdy.”

Lowe said Airbus “bends over backwards to help us. They were very good at communicating what the problem was and what the solution was” when it came to maintenance issues on the 225, he said .

Air Center organizes its own pilot training. It employs more than 100 pilots, operates the only H225 simulator in North America, acquired from CAE in Norway, and launches a new pilot training course, for eight pilots, every two weeks. Lowe joked that the accelerated pace of pilot training is the result of Air Center’s “catastrophic success.” Company CEO Rod Tinney, a 24,000-hour pilot and FAA-designated pilot examiner, often accompanies crews on their missions “for quality control” and personally signs each new pilot hired for their type rating. , said Lowe. “There is no flatter organization in the world.”

The company uses a Dassault Falcon 900EX business jet to transport personnel and parts to many of its remote operations.

Bruno Even, Airbus

At Heli-Expo, Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even said the offshore market in China, India and Brazil had accepted the return of the H225.

Air Center’s success with the H225 is a powerful advertisement, but it is not a panacea. Despite considerable efforts to remarket and reuse the Super Puma, the reputational issues it left behind in the European offshore oilfield remain. Magnac said Airbus doesn’t see much of a future for itself in this market and Airbus Helicopters CEO Bruno Even agrees, saying the company plans to push its new technology, the super-medium H175. for these customers.

At this year’s Heli-Expo, he said the offshore market in China, India and Brazil had accepted the return of the H225. “If there is a need, we will always be ready to offer this helicopter [the H225]but when I look to the future, I see the greatest potential will be with the H175 in terms of mission optimization.

“The existing fleet will have to be replaced. We are ready with the H175 for the oil and gas market,” he said.

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