Since Eurocopter’s formation 20 years ago from the merger of helicopter producers in France and Germany, the company has steadily increased its market share, capturing and holding onto the coveted spot as the world’s largest civil helicopter maker. One product above all others deserves the credit for initiating this rise to prominence: the EC 135. Even Eurocopter admits it never would have reached such lofty heights so quickly were it not for the success of this model, long the industry’s best-selling light twin-engine helicopter and a machine that seems to excel at every mission it is pressed to perform.
When an aircraft manufacturer manages to deliver the ideal balance between utility and great looks, function wrapped in an elegant form, the result is likely to satisfy both the buyer and purveyor. Since its introduction in the mid-1990s, the EC 135 has been a top choice of hospitals and emergency medical services providers, owing mainly to the model’s spacious cabin, no-nonsense operating economics and exceptional payload carrying capability. Eurocopter’s factory in Donauwörth, Germany, near Munich has produced well over 1,000 EC 135s since the progenitor of the certified line emerged in the summer of 1996. The majority of these have been configured in various utility configurations, serving most often in aeromedical, search-and-rescue and police roles. Now, as this light utility helicopter approaches something akin to middle age, it’s bucking for a promotion to a corner office; Eurocopter is more than happy to oblige by putting a renewed focus on sales to corporate and VIP customers.
Chances are you’ve heard a great deal about Eurocopter, even if you aren’t intimately familiar with the company’s history. The manufacturer was formed in 1992 from the merger of the helicopter divisions of Aerospatiale in France and Daimler-Benz Aerospace in Germany. The new company was then folded into the global aerospace and defense giant EADS, where Eurocopter became a sister company of Airbus. Eurocopter’s main headquarters is in Marignane in the south of France just a short distance from Airbus in Toulouse. The executive teams of each manufacturer are completely separate, but a strong drive to succeed pervades at both companies. So too does an intimate familiarity with the corporate and executive aviation markets. Airbus has gained a firm foothold in business aviation with its ACJ line of converted airliners. Eurocopter, meanwhile, has made private aviation a focus from the start.
Still, the EC 135 has never really been thought of as an executive helicopter — at least not as its raison d’être. Judging by its sleek, modern lines, which look especially great in an executive paint scheme, you might think otherwise — but you would probably never guess that the model traces its design heritage to the 1970s. At that time, Aerospatiale and Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) were hard at work on a helicopter that would incorporate a compendium of advanced technologies in an aerodynamically streamlined package. Designers sought a modern continuation of the BO 105, which found great success in military and air medical services roles. The result was the BO 108, a prototype helicopter that incorporated a bearingless main rotor, new engines, all new transmission and — for the first time ever in a helicopter — full-authority digital engine controls (fadec).
At the start of the flight test program in the mid-1980s, the BO 108 was intended merely as a technology platform to investigate advanced systems. No one was sure whether the model would actually make it into production. By the early 1990s, after designers had spent considerable effort maximizing the interior space of the helicopter and incorporating advanced rigid rotor technology, a newly redesigned fenestron tail, anti-resonance isolation systems and composite main structures, momentum for a full certification test program began to coalesce around what many within Aerospatiale recognized could be a world-beating helicopter.