‘AStar’ is born in the USA

Features - Manufacturing

Airbus Helicopters Inc. produces its H125 AStar rotorcraft on its Mississippi final assembly line.

August 15, 2016

Airbus Helicopter's H130 configured for VIP transport.

A prominent occupant of IMTS 2016 Booth #W-20 – GIE Media’s Today’s Technology Center – is an Airbus Helicopters aircraft, a model popular with civilian operators worldwide. Airbus Helicopters offers a comprehensive range of civil turbine helicopters, ranging from the five-seat H120 light single to the 19-seat H225 heavy twin. To date, more than 500 U.S. operators fly more than 2,300 Airbus Helicopters rotary-wing aircraft. And a growing system of regional support centers and network of technical representatives serve Airbus Helicopters customers and operators across the United States.

U.S. production

Airbus Helicopters Inc. (AHI), formerly known as American Eurocopter, is the U.S. affiliate of Airbus Helicopters and a subsidiary of Airbus Group. AHI has headquarters and a completion center in Grand Prairie, Texas, with responsibilities for training, engineering support, testing, customization, sales, and marketing. Columbus, Mississippi’s Golden Triangle Regional Airport is home to AHI’s U.S. final assembly line. Repairs, upgrades, and customization for various Airbus Helicopters rotorcraft types also are performed in Columbus.

Established in 2003 to produce UH-72A Lakota helicopters for the U.S. Army, the Mississippi plant also has been assembling high-performance, single-engine turbine H125 AStar civilian helicopters since 2014. With an initial capacity of 30 airframes per year, the facility can ramp up to assemble 60 H125s per year if demand warrants. Not just a customization and completion center, the Columbus line fully assembles AStars from U.S. and foreign-made parts. The U.S. built and certified AStar helicopters accommodate six passengers and are popular as corporate/VIP transports, for tourism, and with air medical services and law enforcement agencies.

“Airbus Helicopters have been No. 1 in the U.S. for 15 years for civilian and military helicopter deliveries,” says Mike Spears, vice president of production, who has more than 30 years of rotorcraft manufacturing experience. “We have had more than 50% market share in the last decade in most markets, with high percentages in tourism, air medical, and law enforcement.” In addition to the light, single-engine H125 and H130 models, these sales also include the H135 and H145 light twins and the larger AS365 models.

Mitchell Carter, senior manager of commercial helicopter production, describes the Airbus Helicopters Inc.operation as “a people-oriented company focused on customers and how you support them.” A 15-year industry veteran, Carter says the Mississippi facility was employee-driven from the beginning, and draws dedicated workers, a few commuting as far as 50 miles each way.

An Airbus Helicopter Inc. H125 AStar on the assembly line in Columbus, Mississippi.

The Columbus factory has about 220 employees, compared to Grand Prairie’s more than 500. About 41% of the Texas facility are military vets, guard, or reserves, and about 43% of the workforce in Mississippi have served in the U.S. military.

The Columbus crew working on the H125 line has 273 years of combined experience, an average of 13.6 years per employee. Prior to launch of H125 AStar production in the new assembly line in Columbus, the Mississippi crew trained for three months in Marignane, France. Carter says, “Our first aircraft being on schedule would not have been possible without the experience of our workers and the great leadership of their supervisors.”

The tooling arrived in July 2014, and the first Columbus-manufactured H125 was flight-tested in January 2015.

The 350,000 ft2 facility has four stations devoted to Lakota production and three for H125 assembly. Because of its lean design, techs can produce a large number of aircraft in a relatively small floor space, Carter says. Partially completed H125s move from station to station for different assembly and test procedures about every 15 days – with the ability to halve that time frame if more production is needed – with 50 days the average time for complete assembly for each aircraft. Carter walks the line every day with the supervisor and lead technician, discussing everything that needs to be done that day. In his interaction with employees, he says they always have a voice in what happens. The 12 technicians assembling H125s are constantly cross-training, which not only provides the employees with more training and opportunity for advancement, but also cuts down on monotony and makes the workforce more flexible to keep the line moving.

The final assembly station is devoted to 2-to-3 days of quality checks. If problems are found, they are communicated to the station where they occurred, so they can be corrected and electronic drawings updated.

“We capture and document that knowledge. Every tech has a laptop – there are no paper drawings,” Carter notes.

The final assembly line is supported by an equally impressive warehouse and sub-assembly shop where wires are laser marked and carefully assembled into intricate harnesses on wooden jigs. A three-booth paint shop occupies another building, and nearby is a flight-test hangar where vibration analysis, rotor tracking, and balance checks are performed.

Global but local

Carter says that while Airbus is a global corporation that sources components from Japan, Europe, and the United States, he is always looking for more local suppliers.

“It makes us more competitive.” The same goes for services, from non-destructive testing to paint, he adds. “There’s an opportunity in the supply chain. We’re just starting.”

He is bullish on Columbus, citing its proximity to automotive and industrial manufacturers as a potential source of people trained in technology, sales, and support.

Airbus Helicopters Inc.


IMTS 2016 Booth #W-20

Eric Brothers is senior editor of Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He can be reached at 216.393.0228 or ebrothers@gie.net.