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Gear shift complicates SH09 progress

15th August 2019 - 12:43 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

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The long-running effort by Swiss manufacturer Kopter to gain EASA certification for its SH09 light-single engine helicopter has again hit turbulence.

Troubles associated with the 2.5t aircraft’s main gearbox have arisen once more as the company’s eight-year effort to break into the single-engine helicopter market continues.

An initial quality issue with the main gearbox had led to a three-month delay to Prototype 3 (P3) flight testing in 2018, which was soon followed by discovery of a second quality issue on the same component.

Fallout from those issues have since led the OEM to confirm to Shephard a certification delay of over 12 months, from the second half of 2019 to the end of 2020.

‘Kopter and the new supplier have underestimated the time required to fully re-industrialise the manufacturing of the [main gearbox (MGB)] housing, which has delayed the availability of the new MGB,’ a company spokesperson said in a statement. ‘The new MGB is only available now allowing [us] to fly the aircraft full envelope from September onwards.’

Pressure to meet the EASA certification target is growing with a substantial customer base, equating to 60 firm orders, expecting deliveries to be made. 

It is understood that customers have been kept abreast of developmental delays throughout the SH09 programme.

‘These cumulated delays have been extensively used in order to progress the development and mature the design of the aircraft thanks to all the flights performed in Mollis [Switzerland] and Pozzallo [Italy],’ according to the spokesperson.

From a technical point of view, a series of aircraft assessments are currently underway to address ‘refining the aerodynamic configuration of the fuselage, empennage and horizontal stabilizer,’ she explained. All of which are intended to improve directional stability and performance. 

At maximum capacity the SH09 can accommodate seven passengers plus pilot and offers a range of 800km with a cruise speed of 140kt. (Photo: Kopter).

Before the end of September 2019, the design of the first ‘pre-series’ SH-09, also known as the PS4, is due for completion and the aircraft will join P3 for flight tests. The P3 has now achieved flight above 11,000ft and at 135kts.

‘PS5 will follow shortly [after PS4] and be dedicated to the expansion of the envelope to the hot-and-high [tests] as well as the very cold operations,’ the spokesperson added.

Beyond short-term planning, unverified claims posted on social media by Martin Stucki, former CEO of the Swiss company under its previous Marenco brand, continue to frame developments at Kopter in a disparaging light. Accusations voiced by Stucki include the OEM being slow to pay supply chain partners and the company suffering from financial problems.

‘Martin Stucki used to be the CEO of former Marenco Swiss Helicopter AG, which he exited in 2016. He is not part of Kopter Group AG. His repeated statements are wrong and/or irrelevant,’ the spokesperson explained. ‘Kopter refrains from commenting any on-going legal actions against Mr Stucki under criminal or civil law.'

Putting that specific situation to one side, the end of 2019 was initially set to see a flurry of civil helicopter aircraft gain certifications with Bell’s 525 Relentless super medium and the Airbus H160 medium set for market entry alongside the SH09.

Whether the 525 hits that target remains to be seen with Bell declining to confirm if a certification delay is currently at hand – a matter first reported by Flight Global.

‘The 525-development program continues to make significant progress towards certification,’ a Bell spokesperson told Shephard in a statement.

On timelines, the 525 was unveiled at Heli-Expo 2012 - a year after the SH09 single engine helicopter - while the H160 was first displayed publicly in 2015. 

Doubts remain over a potential certification delay for Bell's 525 Relentless (Photo: Bell).

Acquiring certifications, whilst paramount to addressing safety guidelines, cannot detract from the fact that each new aircraft is set to contend with particularly difficult market conditions. For example, the H160 has yet to register a single oil and gas order.

The single engine market – in which the SH09 will look to create a significant niche – has been one that Leonardo has pulled away from. The helicopter OEM made a decision to freeze its AW009 programme off the back of highly competitive conditions and low market margins.

In addition, Sikorsky’s sale of S-300 and S-333 platforms in January 2018 to Schweizer RSG all but confirmed the OEM’s dim view of the market and lack of commercial opportunity.

However, Kopter looks to be positioning the SH09 at the higher end of the market, although the company has declined to disclose a unit price to date. Certainly there is a sense from industry competitors that the new boys in town, so to speak, still have to prove themselves.

Though civil H160 orders could be more difficult to acquire than originally anticipated, an old hand like Airbus can point to the strong H160M backing of the French Armed Forces to show the rotary defence market is at least rallying.

In total, 169 H160M helicopters are now on order for France's Armed Forces, broken down to 80 for the army, 49 for the navy and 40 air force types. 

For Bell, while 525 production first started in summer 2018, it is difficult to gain a firm reading of orders as the company remains guarded about exact numbers, but with a depressed oil and gas market unlikely to drastically change course, new sales of super-medium aircraft will be exceptions to a market otherwise overburdened by heavy-lift aircraft.

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