A Blast From the Past

By Staff Writer | June 1, 2015


How long has Rotor & Wing International been bringing you, our readers, news from the Paris Air Show? Longer than we’ve all been using the term “Eurocopter.”

This year’s edition of the biennial show—the 51st—is ripe with potential news. Think, “A decision on Sikorsky Aircraft’s future ownership” or “First flight of Bell Helicopter’s 525.” Yet some big exhibitors indicate that they will have lower-key presentations at Le Bourget Airport than those at past air shows.

Airbus Helicopters is certain to update attendees on its ongoing transformation, including the benefits it will bring to customers in terms of new products and improved support. Nearly a quarter century ago, the conversation focused on a similar topic.


In an exclusive story published in R&WI’s June 1991 issue, distributed at the 39th edition of the show, then-Contributing Editor Giovanni de Briganti explored the planned merger of the helicopter divisions of Aerospatiale and Deutsche Aerospace’s MBB. The two firms on May 6 of that year established a joint marketing subsidiary: Eurocopter International.

Our longstanding coverage of the Paris Air Show has included an exclusive 1991 article reporting on the birth of Eurocopter and, in that same issue, a pilot report on Aerospatiale’s Super Puma Mk II.

There were other similarities to this year’s setting. Then, the aerospace industry was dealing with a global downturn and we were in the midst of Middle East combat.

In 1991, de Briganti illuminated the issues driving creation of the enterprise that would become Airbus Helicopters through his exclusive interview with two creators: Jean-Francois Bigay, head of Aerospatiale’s Helicopter Division, and Heinz Pluckthun, his MBB counterpart.

Their initial objective was for Eurocopter International to market the companies’ aircraft throughout the world, except for France, Germany and North America. (Existing subsidiaries would handle those markets.)

Then the two companies would spin off their helicopter divisions into autonomous companies to be known as Eurocopter France and Eurocopter Germany. Ownership of each would be transferred to the Paris-based holding company Eurocopter SA. Once the merger was finalized (by the end of 1991, they said), Bigay would be named president and Pluckthun vice president of the holding company. The plan called for MBB/Deutsche Aerospace to buy up to 40 percent of Eurocopter SA’s shares.

While the companies were not considering other European partners, Bigay said, bringing Sikorsky in was a distinct possibility.

“We’re also willing to buy a share of Sikorsky,” Bigay said. MBB had a small share in the Boeing Sikorsky First Team formed to develop and produce a new family of light helicopters to replace U.S. Army utility and attack aircraft. “It’s a pragmatic way of doing something together,” Bigay said. It is not a very spectacular cooperation, but “maybe we’ll enlarge it.”

The Eurocopter plan called for each national subsidiary to specialize. Eurocopter Germany would be in charge of new helicopter designs up to 7,700 pounds, with Eurocopter France working designs heavier than that. “I mean starting from market studies, new projects, development and manufacturing,” Bigay said, and each would have to finance its projects. The other subsidiary “will also take part in all projects of the leading one, and will pay its share of development.”

While avoiding duplication, Bigay said, “we want to keep the capability for each one to develop a complete helicopter by itself.”

De Briganti asked how the combined operation would avoid foreign exchange risk, and whether Eurocopter would transfer production to Japan and the U.S. to avoid it. Pluckthun said MBB faced such a problem in its cooperation with Kawasaki, under which the BK-117 was produced in Japan. “I contracted one-third of the subcontracting work given to Kawasaki in deutsche marks, one-third in dollars and one-third in yen. So that’s one way to stabilize the exchange situation.”

Also in R&WI’s June 1991 issue, Shawn Coyle authored a pilot report on Aerospatiale’s new AS-332/532 Super Puma Mk II. “A major task in the Mk II’s development,” he wrote, “was to reduce pilot workload in every way possible, from limitations presented in the flight manual to operations in the cockpit.”

In other news surrounding the Paris Air Show 24 years ago:

●  Webb Joiner was named to succeed Leonard “Jack” Horner as president of Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. Horner had overseen expansion of Bell’s commercial product line, including its move to Mirabel, Quebec in Canada and the R&D effort to develop the V-22 for the U.S. Marine Corps. Joiner would become the fifth president in Bell’s 40-year history.
●  In addition, Bell named Walter Sonnenborn senior vice president and general manager in charge of engineering, operations, programs and materiel and management information services. John Murphey was named SVP for government business. Troy Gaffey was named VP of research and engineering and Tommy Thomason VP of programs.
●  The Bell-Boeing V-22 team had been honored with the prestigious Collier Trophy for its flight test and development work. But on June 11, days before the show, V-22 prototype No. 5 crashed three minutes into its first flight from Boeing Helicopter’s Wilmington, Del. flight test base. (It was the first of what would be four crashes in the development program.)
●   In another development, the U.S. Army had selected the Boeing Sikorsky First Team to develop and produce 1,300 light helicopters (LHXs) to replace its Bell AH-1 Cobras, OH- 58 Kiowas and UH-1 Iroquois and Hughes Helicopters. (The program became the RAH-66 Comanche; it was canceled in March 2004.)
●   McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co. approached a planned design freeze for its eight-place, twin-engine, no-tail-rotor MDX. (In 1994, the FAA issued the type certificate for the aircraft, the MD-900.)
●   Heliswiss of Switzerland had begun flying chartered Kamov Ka-32Ts in an assessment of whether to buy that coaxial helicopter for its fleet.
●   A small St. Louis-based insulation manufacturer, Thermo-Rap, had produced 344 engine-inlet filters to protect every U.S. Army Boeing CH-47D flying in Operation Desert Storm/Shield.
●   HS Logistics, a joint venture of Air Logistics of Lafayette, La. and Norway’s Helikopter Service A/S, was supporting Shell Oil’s oil operations in Papua New Guinea with a Bell 212 and two Bell 214Bs. It also had three Bell 206Ls flying geophyscial missions for Brazil’s HeliJet and an Aerospatiale AS332L Super Puma under contract to Amoco flying workers to offshore oil rigs in India’s Bay of Bengal.

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