Eurocopter EC 135

A helicopter born for EMS duty vies for a promotion to the corner executive suite.

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.

With the formation of Eurocopter in 1992, the BO 108 design again underwent modifications and the name changed to EC 135. The fine-tuning that went into the design at this stage set the tone for what Eurocopter would strive to accomplish across its model range, which today encompasses six civil helicopter lines, all of them new or newly upgraded in the last two decades. The product portfolio starts with the diminutive single-engine EC 120 introduced in 1998 and continues with the AS 350, EC 130, EC 145, EC 155 and, finally, the EC 225 Super Puma, the largest helicopter in the Eurocopter family with room for up to 19 passengers and crew. (Two new models, code-named X3 and X4, are in the works — check out the June iPad edition or visit flyingmag.com for more on these projects.)

Overnight Success
At the program’s outset, Eurocopter wisely chose to offer two engines for the EC 135, the Turbomeca Arrius 2B and Pratt & Whitney Canada PW206B. These engines have since been upgraded to the more powerful Arrius 2B2 and PW206B2 versions, and the helicopters are now known as the EC 135 T2+ and P2+. The Pratt engines are the preferred choice of buyers in the United States, where Eurocopter in some ways is still seeking to establish itself against the likes of Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky. When the EC 135 made its first public appearance at the 1995 Heli-Expo convention in Las Vegas, potential buyers were immediately impressed. Not only did the new helicopter look drop-dead gorgeous with its aggressive stance, flowing lines and shrouded fenestron tail rotor, but the economy and performance figures were eye-openers as well. Any doubters who still had misgivings about the future of the newly formed Franco-German helicopter manufacturer undoubtedly came away from the show with a much more positive impression of the company. It was the start of something very, very good.

Buyers who lined up to be the first to add the EC 135 to their fleets were delighted with their decisions. The helicopter was stable in flight, performed great and, most important, was a big-time moneymaker for those who laid early bets on it. To be able to provide more space in the cabin, the designers pushed the transmission deck, oil sumps and other mechanical equipment as far outboard as possible. Locking rails were fitted into the EC 135’s flat floor, offering unmatched versatility for the arrangement of seats and medical stretchers. As the final touches, Eurocopter added huge clamshell doors at the rear of the cabin and oversize sliding doors on each side of the fuselage, completing a package that clearly was meant to meet the expectations of EMS operators first and foremost. But the new model was attractive to a wide cross section of buyers, whether they carried oil workers to offshore oil rigs, hunted down criminals from above or ferried executives. Sales of the EC 135 exploded out of the gate.

What those Heli-Expo show attendees couldn’t have known but which they came to realize quickly enough was how quiet the EC 135 is in flight compared with many other helicopters. The remarkable reduction in noise footprint that today is an EC 135 hallmark was achieved in several ways, the most important being the technology incorporated into the helicopter’s fenestron tail. Sud Aviation, later bought by Aerospatiale, developed fenestron technology (like many aviation terms, the word fenestron comes from French — translated, it means “small window”). The EC 135 made use of an all-new type of shrouded tail rotor with 10 unevenly spaced anti-torque blades and additional fixed stators positioned in such a way that they reduced takeoff and overfly noise that can be measured in decibels. Eurocopter was able to achieve further gains by commanding the EC 135’s fadec to operate at variable main rotor speeds. The result is the quietest helicopter in its class, with a noise level that is 6.5 dba below current International Civil Aviation Organization standards.

In fact, when an EC 135 flies overhead, people on the ground barely take notice. The sound is a whisper compared with the window-rattling thrumming of some larger helicopters. Likewise, the acquisition and operating costs of the EC 135 compare favorably against the competition, and the exceptional handling qualities and single-pilot IFR capability contribute to a helicopter that, quite simply, can do everything it is supposed to do and more. These are the reasons Eurocopter has high hopes for a rebirth of sorts for the model in the United States as a powerful player in the VIP helicopter market, which traditionally has been dominated by bigger helicopters. It will be a tough market to crack: Of all the EC 135s produced to date, only about 17 percent of them have been outfitted with executive interiors. Of the 235 EC 135s operating in the United States, only a small percentage of them are configured for VIP use. But with the right marketing, Eurocopter believes this number can rise — perhaps significantly so — allowing the manufacturer to capture perhaps 30 percent or greater of the executive VIP market across its product line.

Flying the EC 135
During a recent demo flight around Manhattan, I came away impressed by the EC 135’s stability and maneuverability, both thanks to its Bolkow-inspired rigid main rotor. Eurocopter pilot Dave Burchill first took me through the engine start procedure, which is about as easy as pushing a button thanks to the fadec, which reduces the pilot’s primary job to monitoring the gauges while the computers do the rest. The main avionics suite is supplied by Thales, with GPS navcom receivers from Garmin and a three-axis autopilot with stability augmentation. On takeoff, Burchill demonstrated an interesting technology Eurocopter has incorporated into the EC 135. To enable the helicopter’s high useful load, the EC 135 includes a takeoff and landing mode called HI NR (for high rotor speed), which automatically raises the rotor rpm to 103 percent. To activate the HI NR capability, the pilot simply presses a button on the panel. When carrying a lot of weight, this faster rotor speed gives the fenestron more effectiveness by turning the tail rotor faster, allowing the pilot to maintain control at higher weights than would otherwise be possible. Above 50 knots, the HI NR system automatically shuts off. On approach to landing, it re-engages when speed drops below 50 knots.

Climbing out from our starting point at the newly opened Kearny Heliport in New Jersey, Burchill headed for the Statue of Liberty before handing over the controls to me. As I negotiated the busy Hudson River corridor along Manhattan’s western edge at about 700 feet, the helicopter was supremely stable, even given the bit of turbulence we were experiencing. As we approached the George Washington Bridge, Burchill suggested I make a few turns to get a feel for the helicopter. I made a gentle bank to the left and another to the right.

“Here, let me show you something,” Burchill said, taking the controls.

With a smooth but quick motion, he cranked the helicopter over to the left — the horizon was suddenly tilted at a sharp angle. Just as briskly, Burchill hauled the EC 135 to the right and into a hard bank the other way.

“This is why pilots love the EC 135 so much,” he said with a grin, ceding the controls to me.

Next I made a 180 to the south, heading back along the other side of the river. Again, my turn was benign, although a bit steeper than the ones before. Flying in the EC 135 was a blast, and all I could think of as we cut past the megalithic New York City skyline off our left side and headed back for Kearny was how lucky guys like Dave Burchill are.

With ample space for passengers and their baggage, a flat floor and those big sliding doors, the EC 135 can fly you and your guests in supreme comfort a straight-line distance of 340 nautical miles — the distance from Washington to Boston — or somewhat less at its high-speed cruise of 137 knots. That doesn’t sound very fast considering that the Agusta 109E has a top speed of 154 knots while the Bell 429’s top speed is 155 knots. The EC 135 is also smaller than both of these competitors, with an interior volume 60 cubic feet less than the Bell 429’s. But even though it has the smallest outside footprint and the tightest cabin of the three, the EC 135 weighs less and can actually carry more. The EC 135’s basic executive interior has room for five passengers and pilot, while the corporate version can seat seven passengers — meaning you truly can take it all.

And that’s part of the equation that Eurocopter is betting will allow it to make a smooth transition from a leader in utility markets to the first choice in executive-configured helicopters as well. Especially if you need to land in a tight space or on the deck of a yacht, it’s hard to argue there’s any better choice. Small and quiet suit many buyers just fine. When deciding whether to opt for an EC 135 opposed to a more traditional VIP transport, the tradeoffs really aren’t as great as many buyers might think — and the money saved, indeed, is money earned. Once people start to realize this, it’s a good bet that the EC 135 will leap over other qualified candidates and land the corner office job it’s seeking. That’s when the real fun starts.

View our Eurocopter EC 135 photo gallery.

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