Lutz Bertling, CEO of Eurocopter, has a massive problem. One of his most faithful customers has decided to order 10 Sikorsky S92 aircraft with options for 15 more replacements for its current fleet of EC225 “Super Puma” machines, some of which are grounded because of two North Sea ditchings this year.
In May, and then again in October, an EC225 aircraft on a routine North Sea shuttle service was forced to land in the sea. Together, the incidents have served to open a Pandora’s Box for Eurocopter.
At the time of writing, 19 North Sea EC225’s are grounded, unable to fly until it is determined what lies behind main drive-shaft cracking and gearbox failure warning lights . . . neither directly related, as it turns out.
Thousands of North Sea workers are seriously inconvenienced because Bristow, Bond and CHC cannot run normal services, while offshore service companies and operators are spitting tacks.
Bristow isn’t hanging around. According to its website the company has 18 EC225 aircraft; that’s a big chunk of the 150 or so aircraft of this class built by Eurocopter. Bond is listed as operating four, while CHC has 28.
When Bertling visited Aberdeen last month, news of the Bristow decision had not reached public domain. The fear for him must now be that others will dump their EC225s.
He was already a worried man without a previously loyal company suddenly ordering a fleet of its main competitor’s EC225 equivalent machines.
As Bertling said in a press conference and later repeated to Energy, “The important thing is that we need to regain the confidence of the stakeholders, in particular passengers and the crews of the aircraft, and in the way we as a company are tackling the issues.”
Bertling said that it was vital to get to the root cause of the failures and to be transparent. The grounded aircraft would only be brought back into service when this had been achieved and a proper fix implemented.
He insisted that Eurocopter puts safety first.
“There is lots of pain and we are definitely sorry for that. With what we are doing, safety needs to be and always has been the number one priority.
“We will not come back to this industry without having a solution where we are 110% convinced that the safety level that is certified for the aircraft is fully restored. There cannot be any other number one priority than safety for an aircraft manufacturer.
“The way to do this is first of all to have clear identification of the root cause. This is the main point at the moment . . . root cause analysis. Why is this component (drive shaft) failing?
“Why is a component failing which, in the total (EC225) fleet has more than 4million flight hours.”
Bertling admitted to being baffled as to why a warning light associated with the aircraft’s emergency engine lubrication system had also failed in both instances.
This system is apparently unique to the EC225 and allows an aircraft to fly, even when the main gearbox loses oil/oil pressure.
“This system in both cases this year has actually worked but the monitoring system has indicated that it would not work,” said Bertling.
“And then the pilots followed a procedure according to the flight manual, which means they behaved absolutely correctly, going for what is called an immediate landing . . . a controlled landing on water.”
Bertling has been canny by inviting the UK North Sea offshore industry’s HSSG (Helicopter Safety Steering Group) to send representatives to Eurocopter to witness the investigation process, plus design, design verification, production and verification processes, and quality monitoring for the EC225 during manufacture and overhaul.
“We have, based on a proposal coming from Bond, decided to create a joint working group where experts from our customers and our people will work together.
“In a joint group we will then have joint verification of our root cause analysis and of the defined fix for the root causes, together with our customers, meaning customers like Bond, Bristow and CHC.”
Bertling warned that it could be many weeks before the UK North Sea service aircraft are back in action.
“Unfortunately, this will not be a short story. We cannot go in a rush. We need to come back with safe and reliable solutions.
“The best guess that we have at the moment based on the main hypotheses which we have for the root causes is that the aircraft will come back into operation around February.
“We are in an intensive investigation and test programme on test benches and on aircraft with flight test instrumentation.”
By the time this edition of Energy is published, Bertling hopes to have a much firmer grip on what is causing the drive-shaft cracking and warning system failures.
“Based on what we know at present, most likely the fix will not be a different mechanical design of the shaft. It’s a dynamic behaviour issue which probably cannot be fixed by changing wall thickness or whatever of the shaft; you need to fix it by avoiding conditions in the aircraft that are creating dynamic problems. That could be a certain combination of rotor speed, forward speed of the aircraft and so-on which is creating such an issue.
So will an audit of all maritime service EC 225s be run?
Bertling: “This depends on the final fix for the problems, which means either we do it on none or on all. If the final solution is that we need to have a deep check of the aircraft, then we will do that everywhere. If it means that we need to do a software change then we will do that everywhere, and so-on.”
And do all 225s have the same drive shaft?
“Yes. The shaft is manufactured in two pieces and then welded. But welding is not the issue.
“The lower part of the shaft, which is where the cracks are occurring, is under relatively low stress because the only thing it drives is the oil pumps. It is the upper section connecting to the rotor (blades) that takes the greatest loadings.”
As the investigations grind on, customers are clearly becoming more cheesed off with Eurocopter, and its happening on Bertling’s watch.