Airbus Helicopters plays a number of critical roles within the United Kingdom, supporting fleets that have delivered vital missions for decades. Managing Director of Airbus Helicopters in the UK, Lenny Brown, updates Rotor on the continuous expansion of the company’s UK footprint and reveals pioneering new projects that could enhance innovation throughout Airbus Helicopters’ military range.

“Every single military helicopter pilot in the UK is trained on Airbus H135s or H145s in the Military Flying Training System,” explains Lenny Brown as he highlights just how important Airbus Helicopters’ UK presence is. “There is also the facility supporting the Police Service Northern Ireland, a logistics footprint supporting the H175 helicopters flying oil and gas operations in Aberdeen and of course, our UK Headquarters in Oxford.” The UK operation has been based at Oxford Airport since the 1970s – offering a reliable stream of highly skilled jobs and local apprenticeships – and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

In June 2024 the company will move into a newly built state-of-the-art facility on the other side of the airport. This project is part of Airbus’ continual investment in the UK, which sees the Group make significant annual investments. “It is simply part of our strategy to grow and enhance our capabilities,” which according to Brown need to be expanded and refreshed in order to appropriately cater to the size of the UK market. “We’re the only OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) in the UK that provides aircraft for the civil market, national resilience, parapublic and defence.”  

The new facility will cut CO2 emissions by 50%, while the working environment will be more comfortable and efficient for colleagues. It will also improve things for other stakeholders by offering more room for student training, pilot training, customer visits and maintenance. "It will offer us the ability to work on more aircraft at any given time. In terms of hangar space, we’ll have approximately a third more. It will also unite all the Oxford teams under one roof,” notes Brown. 

Trainee hooking up an underslung load on an H145

Building on Airbus Helicopters’ strong UK presence

Oxford might not be the only place requiring new facilities. Should Airbus Helicopters’ bid for the UK Armed Forces’ New Medium Helicopter be successful, then the H175M will be assembled and exported from Airbus’ Broughton site – necessitating a new production line. As well as boosting the local economy by creating over 100 highly skilled jobs within Wales, a new production facility would be strategically important for both Airbus Helicopters and the UK. “This would be the first new helicopter production line in the UK for 50 years – which would clearly be a significant milestone in UK aviation but also a well overdue shot in the arm for the UK’s rotary wing industry,” reasons Brown. “It also supports Airbus Helicopters’ strategy of making the UK the fourth ‘core’ country of its strategic future and cements Airbus Helicopters in the UK’s position as part of the UK’s national security and national resilience architecture for the long term”.

The proposed new plant in Broughton adds weight to an Airbus’ bid which in total will create some 400 new jobs around the UK. With the proven template of the company’s Marignane H175 final assembly line, where the civil variant will continue to be made, supplemented by a team of production engineers working to further optimise a range of processes, it is clear that Airbus Helicopters is thinking ahead to ensure the potential deployment of an H175M fleet would go as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Brown commented, "In planning future investment, we looked at where the Ministry of Defence  spent most of its funding using the official Government surveys – the South West was a clear winner and by a significant margin. It was clear that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland demanded our immediate attention for investments, which we are addressing."

Employee working at Airbus Helicopters' UK facility

Catapulting military innovation

Airbus Helicopters UK’s defence portfolio has been increasing year on year since 2009. Such growth is attributable in equal parts to the quality of products and depth of support (with the SA 330 Puma MkII achieving particularly noteworthy operational performance) but also to the company’s continuous development. Brown highlights two projects that could significantly boost the already impressive culture of innovation - one supported by the UK’s Government-backed Catapult Network created to accelerate the application of research and development of new technologies in selected areas. “Firstly, we have joined a catapult, based in Wales called the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). We’ve started some innovation projects with a number of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), looking at things like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), ballistic protection for current and future aircraft as well as high end composite type materials and future technologies,” says Brown. 

This is the first time that Airbus Helicopters UK has been involved in a project like this and it has required an increased research and development budget, with the support of its headquarters in France. Though, declares Brown, this expenditure will be worth it in the medium to long term. “The advantages of the Catapult are that it will increase the intellectual property that we’re generating in the UK and also some of the projects are aircraft-agnostic so will be capable of being deployed across the entire fleet - a really efficient way to drive improvement and future capabilities.”

The H175M flying over the British countryside

The power to adapt

The second project that will fuel future developments hinges on Airbus’ bid to supply the H175M as the UK Armed Forces’ New Medium Helicopter, as the company plans to substantially increase its military design and innovation capability in the UK.

The enhanced activity would focus on developing technological advancements that could be deployed throughout Airbus Helicopters’ entire military range – not only for the H175M. “Naturally there would be recruitment opportunities for aircraft designers, but part of this strategy would be to further foster our closer ties to universities and give more opportunities to PHD graduates,” says Brown.

One feature that Brown is particularly excited about is a proposed Capability Integration Rig which would be a tool for the Design Office to rapidly develop, design, certify, and then incorporate new capabilities onto the aircraft.  Initially it would support the rapid development of the modifications of the H175M before initial delivery but later it would help Airbus – and indeed other companies in the H175M Task Force to implement new equipment on the aircraft throughout its life in response to customer demands and to exploit the digital design of all Airbus products.

The rig would enhance the prospective NMH but could be applied to other helicopters across the Airbus Helicopters range. According to Brown, the rig would speed up the integration of complex avionics systems and allow Airbus Helicopters to exploit open architecture systems both immediately and in the future – but with the most important benefit reserved for the operators themselves. “This ability to adapt quickly is what militaries are really after. As they deploy to an operational theatre and the threat changes or the operation changes, they would have the ability to improve the aircraft’s mission systems, Defensive Aid Suites (or Electronic Warfare Suites - EWS) much quicker than traditional processes have been able to deliver.”