Recently, I had an opportunity to fly the latest addition to Airbus Helicopters’ venerable line of Puma variants, the H215. The aircraft was being shown to various public safety agencies in California, both in law enforcement and the fire service.
The aircraft was in the midst of an Americas tour, which had begun with its reappearance at Heli-Expo in Louisville, Kentucky. The helicopter made a showing at Heli-Expo two years earlier in Anaheim, California, in 2014, before Airbus again rebranded its products. It was known as the AS332 C1e.
The demo H215 flew from Louisville to Huntsville, Alabama, for a visit with the U.S. Army and others, then west to for demonstrations in the Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, California, areas.
After the visits that gave me a chance to fly, the H215 flew to Airbus Helicopters, Inc. in Grand Prairie, Texas, before moving on to southern and western South America via the Caribbean Sea and Brazil. Down south, the Airbus team highlighted the H215’s capabilities for two key sales target groups: government and defense agencys and non-governmental organizations flying humanitarian missions.
By coincidence, the team was presented with the opportunity to demonstrate the H215’s disaster-relief capabilities in a real-world scenario. As they headed north back to the U.S., a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Ecuador west of the capital of Quito. The H215 team spent several days flying water and other critical supplies to affected regions in that country’s northwest.
For my flight, I met the two Airbus factory pilots, Del Livingston and Brian Neuhoff, at Signature Aviation (North), on the Van Nuys Airport, in Van Nuys, California.
Livingston gave me a very in-depth preflight briefing, to include the history of the Puma series, the differences between the models and specific characteristics of the H215. Since I had never flown any version of the Puma, this was most helpful and informative.
Once the preflight briefing was complete, we climbed aboard, I flew right seat, in the pilot-in-command position, and Neuhoff flew left seat. Livingston, the ship’s mechanic and two videographers rode in the passenger cabin.
The demonstrated aircraft was in a utility configuration with a cargo hook installed but without a rescue hoist.
Neuhoff demonstrated the ease with which the H215 is started and run up, a very nearly automated start. Even though it is not required on a through start, he put the dual automatic flight control systems (AFCS) through their self-check procedure, which only took a minute or so.
With both throttles in the flight gate, it was my turn. As Neuhoff coached, I found the aircraft very easy to taxi, with just a small amount of collective and very slight forward cyclic required to get the ship moving.
The Key Upgrade
We taxied out to the ramp area in front of the Los Angeles City Fire Dept.’s hangar, performed the pretakeoff checks and departed on the tracks departure, a standard one for helicopters at Van Nuys.
The aircraft accelerated smoothly and quickly at a climb power setting of 16 deg of pitch. Upon reaching 140 kt, Neuhoff instructed me to reduce to a cruise setting of 14.5 deg of pitch and the aircraft settled into an easy cruise at 140 kt and that pitch.
Now it was time to engage the autopilot and see some of its features. The avionics are the key upgrade for the aircraft; the H215 has the same basic airframe as the AS332 C1 or L1, the same four-bladed main rotor system and the same two 1,877-shp Turbomeca Makila 1A1 turboshaft engines as the AS332 C1 or L1.
The H215 is equipped with a four-axis autopilot, with some extra safety features. For example, with any higher mode engaged, overtorque, overtemp and NG overspeed are automatically prevented.
The AFCS is part of the same Advanced Helicopter Cockpit Avionics System (AHCAS) that Airbus has incorporated on the H225. Neuhoff explained the controls, which I found to be very user-friendly. There are two ways to effect changes in flight profile. The first is via cyclic-mounted trim, while the second is by control knobs right below the flight instrument multi-function display (MFD).
After just a few minutes of maneuvering, I found the H215 quite easy to place in the flight profile desired. A true advance in reducing pilot workload has been obtained with the sophistication of the AFCS system.
The next thing Neuhoff demonstrated was the H215 stability and maneuverability in an out-of-ground-effect (OGE) hover. We flew up to a helipad in the mountains north of Van Nuys, where I shot an approach to an OGE hover at about 60 to 70 ft over the pad. We engaged the groundspeed mode on the autopilot, and the aircraft remained virtually motionless.
Then Brian instructed me to perform a 360-deg pedal turn. Even with a wind of approximately 10 kt, the helicopter didn’t drift more than a foot or two, certainly better than I could do and better than most pilots I know could do. The stability in an OGE hover was impressive and would be a great aid in any kind of hoist rescue operation, especially in an offshore environment.
After the hover demonstration, we took off and practiced some more in-flight maneuvers, changing modes on the AFCS and using the various methods of effects changes in flight profile. As I mentioned earlier, I had never flown any Puma variant, but after only 30 min I was starting to feel quite comfortable.
The cockpit is all glass, with two MFDs in front of each pilot station (one for flight instruments and one for systems monitoring). The flight instrument information can be flipped to the systems MFD for redundancy in displaying critical information.
The sight line to the MFDs was clear and unobstructed, with all the info displayed in a logical and easy pattern. The pitch angle tape on the left side of the flight instrument MFD was something I’d never used, but even that only took a few minutes to get used to. I found the cockpit to be very ergonomic and comfortable.
The performance numbers on the H215 are also quite impressive. The aircraft we flew was the “short” H215, tailored for aerial work. It had an empty weight of 10,800 lb, with a maximum all up weight of 18,960 lb internally and 20,613 lb externally. The cargo hook is rated at 9,920 lb, and Livingston said that in certification he lifted the full capacity, something that not every helicopter can do.
With a fuel burn of 140 gal/hr, the H215 is also fuel efficient, certainly getting more pounds per mile per fuel burned than many of the older aircraft in the system.
In summary, I found the H215 to be an advance over most aircraft currently flying. The new-generation autopilot (though a generation behind Airbus’ latest Helionix system) was the most impressive aspect.
But the sheer performance numbers are also impressive. With a footprint not much bigger than the medium helicopters in use by many public safety agencies, the H215 more than doubles their lifting capacity. In addition, that performance only increases fuel consumption 30 gal/hr over the mediums.
The H215 was a pleasure to fly, with some very well thought out safety systems and workload reducing improvements. It should give the Russian-built utility platforms popularity among Third World government agencies and nongovernmental organizations a run for their money and also increase the competition a bit for older utility aircraft like the Sikorsky S-61.
Airbus aims to keep the H215’s costs competitive with those of Russian Helicopters’ Mi-171. Central to that effort is its production of the helicopter in Romania, with its labor costs lower than those of Marignane, France. Airbus’ goal is to have the first H215 produced from the line in Brasov next year.
But a selling point may be the Western standard of reliability of the H215. On the tour of South America, the aircraft was deployed for 28 days. It conducted more than 20 demonstration flights in Buenos Aires; Santiago, Chile; and Cusco and Lima, Peru, plus the quake relief flights from Manta, Ecuador. Airbus reports the H215 underwent no unscheduled maintenance in more than 115 flight hours. R&WI