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Airbus Marks 50 Years in North America

Posted 3 years 143 days ago ago by Admin

What is now Airbus Helicopters came to life in North America 50 years ago. 

Perhaps they didn’t realize how big a deal they would become, because at the time, there were only 17 Airbus helicopters operating on this continent, and the new company had just 43 employees. To put it mildly, the company was not much of a force.

How things have changed: Today, there are over 3,100 Airbus helicopters flying in North America;  2,600 of them are commercial and the rest are military. Airbus Helicopters has also grown to become the predominant player in the North American commercial/utility (65% market share), corporate/VIP (86%), EMS (71%), and parapublic (62%) markets.

All of these Airbus helicopters and their nearly 800 operators are supported by a North American manufacturing, sales and services base with main locations in Grand Prairie, Texas; Columbus, Mississippi; and Fort Erie, Ontario. More than 1,000 employees work at Airbus Helicopters’ North American facilities.

“Market share-wise, last year was a great year for us, especially on the commercial side,” said Romain Trapp; president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. and head of North America region. (He was speaking to media during a September 24-25, 2019 celebratory event encompassing both of the company’s U.S. facilities. Trapp took over from Chris Emerson in July 2019, with Emerson becoming president of Airbus U.S. Defense and Space Inc.)   “Our market share of aircraft above five seats was 76%. And on the delivery side, we achieved a record share of 72%,” Trapp said.

Airbus Helicopters’ journey to this market dominance is a tale of achievements and accomplishments – and it is one that started very, very humbly.

A 50-Year Journey

On July 18, 1969, the French helicopter manufacturer Aérospatiale (later Eurocopter, then Airbus Helicopters) formed a partnership with the U.S. aerospace manufacturer firm Vought. 

Under the partnership, Vought Helicopters Inc. (VHI) was charged with assembling, customizing, marketing, selling, and supporting Aérospatiale’s Alouette II, III, and SA-341 Gazelle light helicopters in North America; starting with helicopters already operating in the United States and Canada. The aircraft were built as ‘green helicopters’ in the Aérospatiale plant in Marignane, France. They were then shipped to the U.S. to be customized/completed, delivered to customers, and supported afterwards. The ultimate goal was for Vought and Aérospatiale to work together as a team, designing both commercial and military helicopters for the global market.

These were challenging times for VHI to bring European helicopters to North America. The 17 Aérospatiale helicopters then in use by eight operators in Canada and the U.S. was hardly an overwhelming force in the market. 

Nevertheless, VHI’s 43 employees did their best to turn the tide — and they succeeded. According to www.vought.org, “The first new sale was made in January 1970, an Alouette II to United Helicopters of Vancouver.” By the end of 1970, VHI had delivered 43 new helicopters and had 30 customers for total sales of $7 million. This was all done by 83 employees. It was a significant achievement for a new company competing with established helicopter companies in North America.

In 1974, Aérospatiale took full control of VHI. Two years later, the company had grown to 110 employees and was rebranded as Aérospatiale Helicopters Corporation (AHC). By 1978, AHC  delivered its first AS350, SA341 Gazelle, SA315 Lama, SA330J Puma, and SA360C Dauphin helicopters to the North American market.

In 1979, things really took off for AHC with the company’s sales to the U.S. Coast Guard of nearly 100 Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphins (a version of the AS365 Dauphin helicopter). This is when AHC went from being a small player to a serious contender in North America.

Beginning service in 1984, the Dolphins are now the backbone of the Coast Guard’s search-and-rescue capability. New engines were installed in the HH-65As in 2007. With further upgrades such as all-glass cockpits, they are expected to keep flying well into 2035.

In 1980, AHC opened its plant in Grand Prairie, Texas, which is now the headquarters of Airbus Helicopters North America. Four years later, the German aerospace company Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (now part of Airbus and designer of the BO105 light twin-engine helicopter), set up a facility in Fort Erie, Ontario which means that in addition to being in the U.S. for 50 years, the manufacturer has maintained a footprint in Canada for 35 years. (Note: AHC became American Eurocopter after Aérospatiale merged with the German firm DASA in 1992.) In 2004, American Eurocopter opened a new production facility in Columbus, Mississippi.

In 2006, the military variant of Airbus Helicopters’s H145 light twin helicopter was selected by the U.S. Army to be the force’s next light utility helicopter (LUH) with an initial order for 345 helicopters of that model. Rebranded as the UH-72A Lakota, more than 450 UH-72As have been delivered to the U.S. Army so far, all of which have been delivered on time and within budget. Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is operating over 100 Airbus H120/H125 helicopters; solidifying Airbus Helicopters’ place in the North American military and federal market spaces.

In 2014, American Eurocopter and Eurocopter Canada (the Fort Erie plant) were combined and rebranded as Airbus Helicopters. Today, this North American operation has produced more than 1,400 helicopters locally and trained more than 12,000 pilots. Across all divisions, Airbus has spent more than $58 billion with U.S. and Canadian suppliers over the past five years alone, and Airbus also directly and indirectly supports more than 275,000 U.S. jobs in 40 states, and over 17,000 jobs in Canada.

Looking to the future, Airbus Helicopters is now signing orders for its next generation H160 medium twin helicopter. With five North American (U.S. and Canada) orders on the books as of this writing, it’s awaiting EASA/FAA certification this year, with entry into service planned for 2020. 

“The H160 is a completely new aircraft,” said Trapp. “With the H160, we have the perfect aircraft to replace all the medium aircraft, which are aging in the United States, and generally in North America.”  

Production Facilities

The three facilities previously noted are the foundation of Airbus Helicopters’ North American operations. To maximize efficiency and productivity, each facility specializes in various aspects of the helicopter manufacturing, sales, and service process.

“Grand Prairie is the headquarters of Airbus Helicopters, and our Support and Services Center of Excellence,” said Will Fulton, the company’s head of marketing, during the September 25, 2019, media briefing at this location. “We also do dynamic component repair and conduct pilot and technician training here.” More than 500 people work at this facility.

Grand Prairie is also home to Airbus Helicopters’ 84,000 square-foot parts warehouse. It has a $170 million inventory, with Airbus offering 24/7 access to customer support. 

In 2020, Airbus Helicopters will be opening a state-of-the-art helicopter simulation center in Grand Prairie in partnership with Helisim and Thales. The facility will add the first-ever H145 Level D simulator in North America to the current training systems that include an H125/AS350 full flight simulator and H135/H145 flight training device. An H160 full flight simulator is also planned to arrive in the new building once the helicopter enters service in North America. 

Airbus Helicopters’ Columbus, Mississippi, plant is where the company manufactures the H125 and UH-72A for the North American market. This plant also manages most of Airbus Helicopters’ aircraft completions and customizations for new helicopters as well. 

Columbus is Airbus Helicopters’ Industrial Center of Excellence with more than 250 employees on staff, with 40% being U.S. veterans. Since opening, more than 1,400 aircraft have been either built or completed on time or ahead of schedule in the Mississippi plant for delivery to customers.

The third Airbus Helicopters facility in Fort Erie, Ontario, is the Center of Excellence for Engineering and Composite manufacturing, and the sole source manufacturer of 50 parts used on Airbus helicopters around the world. More than 280 employees are based at the Fort Erie operation, with half of them working on products destined for export. This facility supports more than 700 Airbus helicopters flown by 200 operators, and is backed by an 11,700 square-foot parts and logistics warehouse in Richmond, British Columbia (near Vancouver).

It’s worth noting that the legendary Royal Canadian Mounted Police – the ‘Mounties’ – fly a stable of seven AS350s, two H120s, and one H145 helicopter in Canada.

Proud Legacy

Since starting out in 1969, Airbus Helicopters has grown from a relatively small company to one that dominates the North American market.

“We’re extremely proud to be the largest manufacturer of helicopters in the world and to hold the largest market share inside of North America in the helicopter industry,” said Fulton. “We’re very proud to be a part of airborne law enforcement, emergency medical services, the business and private aviation market; as well as supporting our utility operators.”

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. But step by step, Airbus Helicopters has made its way to the top through a combination of cutting-edge technology, reliable and tough aircraft, and solid service. 

Trapp credits this success to Airbus Helicopters’ employees; some of whom have been with the company since the beginning. “At the end of the day we are not a company which is built on products, but on people,” he told reporters. “This is what makes me proud to work for Airbus Helicopters, and work with our people in Grand Prairie, Columbus, and Fort Erie.”

Looking forward, Airbus Helicopters seems poised for further expansion and innovation; despite the industry-wide weakening of helicopter sales to the embattled oil and gas sector. After all, a company that goes from 17 to 3,100 operational helicopters in just 50 years obviously knows what it’s doing.