With HCare Classics, Airbus Helicopters offers a solution that will ensure  older ranges of helicopters can continue to perform at the highest level. More than 2,500 aircraft worldwide from the Dauphin, H120, Puma, Gazelle and Alouette families are potentially eligible. Yet military users with large, often older fleets, already recognise upgrades and retrofits as a key lever to ensure an aircraft lives its fullest possible life.

Panther in flight

Military fleets pave the way

Among the recent modernisation programmes, examples include the United Kingdom Royal Air Force’s Puma and the Fennecs and Panthers (36 and 34 aircraft respectively) of the Brazilian Army Aviation (AvEx). 

Led by Airbus Helicopters’ Brazilian subsidiary, Helibras, the project means the Fennec and the Panther have gained new avionics, more powerful and fuel efficient engines, and some on-board equipment, offering at least 20 years of additional life. The final batch of retrofitted aircraft was delivered in December 2021, but the renovated versions have been proving their worth since first deliveries began in 2014.

"In its new K2 standard, the Dauphin has adapted to our needs in a remarkable way," says Captain Teles Freire of the 3rd Campo Grande Helicopter Battalion. “During the catastrophic fires we experienced in 2020, the aircraft demonstrated its new capabilities in numerous rescue missions. Thanks to the added power, we are able to carry an additional passenger on board.” 

In the same spirit, a major retrofit can completely change the life of a modern aircraft, such as the oil industry’s H225s repurposed by Airbus for U.S.-based Air Center Helicopters Inc.’s governmental missions, or the current modernization offers for the Ecureuil and H135, which provide these aircraft with new operational capabilities.

EC 120 B FLF 001 Photo used for brochure EC120 B ref 01-11-E

Extending to the civil world

The success of these programmes has shown there is clearly added value in extending modernisation opportunities to civilian operators of out-of-production aircraft. And this is how the recently launched HCare Classics service offer got off the ground at the start of 2020, with the aim of improving support for “legacy” ranges, i.e. helicopter models whose production is now finished, from spare parts supply all the way up to upgrades that can ultimately lead to new uses.

“Our customers were telling us that their older fleets required a level of support we were not providing,” sums up Guillaume Ramirez, head of programme support for light & medium helicopters. "So it became essential for us to find solutions to make sure these customers can continue to operate these platforms for as long as they wish, with the peace of mind they deserve." 

The offer launched in November 2021 with two distinct phases: the first, in progress, concerns the support of the Puma, Gazelle, H120 and Dauphin helicopters. A second phase, which will begin this year, will concern the oldest versions of aircraft still in production, such as the twin-turbine Ecureuils or the old versions of BK117 and EC135 (not equipped with Helionix).

Like other Airbus Helicopters HCare programmes, HCare Classics is a partnership between the company and the operators, offering tailor-made support. The à la carte service offer can include flight hour contracts, performance commitments, and obsolescence treatment including upgrades, with a dedicated contract manager overseeing all aspects of the relationship. 

“In particular, we are committed to securing the supply of spare parts,” explains Nicolas Simon, head of legacy programmes, “which involves re-industrialising them, or supplying second-hand spare parts via qualified wholesalers. The traceability of these parts is essential.” 

An innovative approach to sharing the cost of new upgrades

HCare Classics can also include continuous improvement programmes that evaluate potential modifications to extend the life of the in-service fleet or improve operational performance, fleet safety and supportability. One example is an ongoing project aimed at offering new fully digital avionics to the H120 via a cost-sharing approach. “We’re currently proposing the idea to operators and the development will be launched when enough customers commit – a so-called community upgrade offer,” says Nicolas.

Another ambitious programme concerns the MLU (Mid Life Update, or mid-life renovation) of the Dauphin. The helicopter’s production has just ended in Marignane, but 800 units are still flying around the world. This means the Dauphin has an important future in the hands of its operators, provided that it is kept up to date, which involves, for example, the modernisation of the avionics and the dashboard of the N3 models to make it the equivalent of Dauphin N3+.

Nicolas also mentions the creation of user forums specific to Dauphin and H120 users. “These monthly video conferences, accessible live or in replay via the AirbusWorld collaborative customer platform, are an opportunity to communicate on our product policy and to exchange directly with a community of passionate users.”