From the genesis of the H160 project, Olivier Gensse has been on board, logging in more than 800 flight hours testing the aircraft since the first prototype made its debut. As the H160 gears up for its entry into service in 2020, we sit down with the experimental test pilot to hear what he has to say of this next generation helicopter that is poised to lift the bar for the new generation of rotorcraft flight.
You have flown demo flights with a significant amount of customers, almost 200 during the U.S. demo tour. What is their reaction after flying in an H160?
Olivier Gensse: The look on their face when we’re done with the flight is really the best compliment you can receive when you develop a new helicopter. We see passengers and really experienced pilots come back having seen that this is really a very modern aircraft. Everything we had said beforehand at the flight briefing was true. Everything is oriented towards improving safety.
What are some of the safety features on the H160 that have been improved?
O.G.: Often, when accidents happen in the air, there is an element of human error involved. In stressful situations, mistakes can be made especially if the avionics on the helicopter are not intuitive. As a pilot myself, I also wanted to know: how can we make a helicopter that limits the possibility of human error? Reducing the pilot’s workload is really important if you want to increase safety. And so we made a specific effort to make the cockpit as simple as possible for pilots and to create an autopilot that really brings an added value to the pilot. Even with all of the new auto features, if we still had 100 different buttons in the cockpit, that wouldn’t help. It’s about simplifying and bringing the necessary information to the pilot’s attention only when he or she needs it.
What about the autopilot features? How has this been improved?
O.G.: I can say that at Airbus Helicopters we have an exceptional level of development for the autopilot, and this is unique in the industry. With the new autopilot features, you can fly the helicopter almost autonomously… which really reduces the risk of human error. It’s really the best example of collaboration between the design office and the test campaigns. We knew that in order for the autopilot to be successful and really be used by pilots, it would have to be exceptionally good at knowing exactly what the pilot wanted to do.
For example, if another aircraft nears the helicopter in flight, the TCAS* kicks into action, and lets the pilot know, informing him or her of the other aircraft’s position and, if it gets too close, can take over if needed to safely avoid a collision. Or, if a pilot is surprised by bad weather or is trying to land in an area that has a lot of snow or sand, which blocks visibility in what we call a “brown out” – it can cause the pilot to lose their external references and can be quite dangerous. With the push of a “recovery mode” button directly on the control stick, the autopilot will immediately take over and regain stability. Even the most experienced pilots can find themselves in difficult conditions where it’s extremely challenging to manage and it’s a relief to have an autopilot system that allows you to regain stability quickly and safely.
What has been done to improve passenger comfort?
O.G.: Along with safety, we have really tried to put a large focus on the passenger experience. For example, both sound and vibration levels have largely been improved for the H160. It’s a helicopter that is very comfortable with very little vibrations. We were concerned with improving sound levels for both inside and outside the helicopter and we worked really hard on this, which explains the new curved blade shape as well as the larger Fenestron on the tail of the helicopter.
Improved visibility was also very important and on the H160 we’ve included the largest windows we could. Aside from the safety advantages, windows have a big impact on our feeling of well-being while flying. We feel closed in and a bit uneasy with small windows. With large windows, we tend to feel better and more at ease.
Lastly, the temperature environment for passengers was of crucial importance. Ensuring passenger comfort while in the air means making sure they’re not too hot or too cold. We used the experience from the H175 which has an excellent air conditioning and heating system and we built on it for the H160. The results have been impressive.
What impact will the H160 have on how our customers perform their operations?
O.G.: Maintenance really comes to mind as the H160 has been developed to simplify maintenance activities as much as possible and should have a real impact on the helicopter’s availability for our customers.
Another, is our avionics system, Helionix. There is usually quite a heavy workload for the pilot involving standard monitoring procedures, before and during the whole flight, which with Helionix is done automatically and in real time by the system. For example, with the H160 you can take off in just two minutes after the power up. There’s no more of the time-costly checks of the aircraft, of its motor and vehicle parameters, like we used to do. The pilot will receive an alert only if there is an issue. For our customers, this means they can focus more on the mission at hand. For EMS missions, it means they can take off faster and spend more time analyzing the often unknown landing environment rather than focusing on the aircraft. As a pilot, I find this to be a really differentiating factor!
Any last words that you would like to leave us with about the H160?
O.G.: I’ve been lucky to have worked on this programme from the very beginning so I’m rather biased in my feelings about it, so my answer is a perhaps more of a poetic one. I think about the reflections of Marcel Dassault who once said, “for an aircraft to fly well, it must be beautiful.” And well, the H160 is a beauty. We focused on all of these different technical and operational factors to really make this a next-generation aircraft and the result also ended up being an aircraft that, aesthetically speaking, really takes your breath away. I’m convinced that any pilot who flies an H160 will never want to fly any other aircraft again!
*Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System