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Confident in Twin-Engine Pitch, Airbus Readies For Navy Trainer Production

By Dan Parsons | May 9, 2019
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Airbus H135.

Airbus H135. (Jonny Carroll/Airbus Helicopters)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — Conspicuously absent from the show floor at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space Conference was the Airbus H135, given that its main competitors to build the Navy’s next training aircraft both brought helicopters to the event.

Bell’s 407GXi, painted shiny black with red-and-white striped rotors sat opposed to Leonardo’s TH-119 military trainer painted white with red stripes with “Marines” printed on the tail boom. About 100 yards away, Airbus displayed only a model of the H135, but with good reason.

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The company’s two demonstration aircraft are at the Columbus, Mississippi, facility performing demonstration flights for the Navy source selection process, said John Roth, senior director of military strategy and corporate development at Airbus Helicopters. One H135 as a ground test bed for familiarization and ground test. A second aircraft is configured for flight test.

Following the performance demonstrations — both Bell’s 407GXi and Leonardo’s TH-119 will undergo identical shakedowns by Navy pilots and engineers — each company will give oral presentations to walk Navy officials through their proposals and answer questions. Source selection is planned for November, a timeframe from which the Navy has not deviated.

Airbus is confident its H135 better meets the Navy’s requirement for a commercially available helicopter that is IFR certified from the get-go.

“One of the things in the draft RFP when it came out that we thought was appropriate was to have a platform IFR certified at time of proposal. The Navy did adjust that slightly to give some others some opportunity to see if they could get there from here. … This is where we believe the H135 is the lowest-risk solution.”

Of the three aircraft, the H135 is the only one certified to fly under instrument flight rules in inclement weather, also called instrument meteorological conditions, where pilot vision is limited. As a twin-engine aircraft, it has held that certification for decades. Leonardo says the 119 will have certification in just a few weeks. Bell is farther behind but confident it will have the 407GXi certified before the Navy’s August deadline.

Both the TH-119 and 407GXi are gunning to become the first single-engine helicopter to achieve IFR certification in decades. In fact, the last time the FAA granted IFR clearance to a one-engine aircraft was when the TH-57 Sea Ranger become the Navy’s helicopter trainer.

So, Airbus is less focused on the competition than on its own plans to fill the Navy’s production requirement when and if it wins the contract.

“The Navy is asking for a pretty hard ramp,” he said.

Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) anticipates awarding a single firm-fixed-price contract for a total procurement of 130 commercial aircraft through a base and up to four options. Contract award is anticipated in the first quarter of fiscal 2020. Plans are to start buying new trainers in fiscal 2020 and have the entire TH-57 fleet divested by 2023.

Airbus is situated to deliver on the Navy’s desired timeline, having delivered 430-plus UH-72 Lakotas — based on the H145 — to the Army on time and on budget, he said. If Airbus secures the work, plans are to build the H135 at the same Columbus, Miss., plant where it builds the Army’s H145. Additional capacity is available at the facility without having to expand, he said.

“We’re posturing to do the same to make sure we reduce all the risk for the Navy from a production perspective and obvisouly from a safety and certification perspective,” he said. “We have capacity today, from a facility perspective. At some point along the … ramp, we may have to increase the workforce slightly, but really there’s no significant risk elements for us at all.”

“It’s nearly identical, in terms of the build-station process” to the H145, he said. “So, there is a lot to leverage from the workforce down there to help ensure that we stay on track.”

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