Airbus Helicopters: high-flying European technology by Janice Lert

The city of Marignane, where the plane carrying you to Provence may have landed, is also home to one of the main industrial sites in the Bouches-du-Rhône, Airbus Helicopters. Located right beside the Marseille international airport, the plant is a city within the city, employing 8.500 persons in an unimaginable variety of jobs, all having to do with helicopters, of course.

Airbus Helicopters high flying European technology


Many people still refer to the plant as Eurocopter which was its name until 2014. Actually helicopter production on this site began after WWII under the name Aérospatiale. In 1992 it became Eurocopter which merged with EADS in 2000. EADS is a Franco-German conglomerate which produces the fabulously successful Airbus. In 2014, to take advantage of the success of the Airbus name, the Marignane company became Airbus Helicopters. It also maintains a production site in Germany at Donauworth. The company has three main activities carried out in three distinct entities: Airbus for airplanes, Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defense & Space for military production.


So what do all these workers do in Marignane? Actually about 50% of the helicopters produced by Airbus are sold to civilian clients, the other 50% being for the military. And about 50% of the staff is occupied by production itself, whereas the other 50% is working on maintenance. Airbus built 627 helicopters in 2015 for the civilian market representing about 45% of the world market in civilian helicopters. So they must be doing something right! They also built 886 helicopters in 2015 for the military, only about 9% of the world market for military machines, where competition is strong and politics can’t help but play a role...


Airbus civil clients in need of helicopters can range from a rich industrial executive to an oil company drilling offshore. Some are used for medical evacuations, others for transporting building materials in mountain sites where there are no roads. A helicopter can raise and carry up to 4.5 tons of weight. And Airbus produces helicopters tailor-made for a great variety of missions.


The smallest, like the H120, have only one engine, one pilot and can seat 4 people. A medium-sized helicopter like the Dauphin (H155) has twin engines. Then you get into the heavy-weights like the H175, certified in 2014, that can carry 18 passengers. However, Airbus Helicopters will not make machines which will carry more than 19 people, because with that many passengers the law requires the operator to hire a steward to look after them... Small is beautiful!


For military contracts, Airbus is often obliged to sign an agreement involving at least partial on- sight production. Thus the 50 helicopters sold to the 50 helicopters sold to Brazil will be “offset” by a production line established in Brazil itself, and the 400 Lakota H145s sold to the USA will be produced locally in the U.S.


Some countries refuse to “buy French” in spite of the quality of the machine, and others have laws that effectively forbid sales, such as China, where it is forbidden to operate a foreign helicopter over Chinese territory. So Airbus has launched a Franco-Chinese venture to produce the H175. In these foreign ventures, the production lines are abroad, but the technology is carefully controlled at home.


Selling helicopters is only part of the job of Airbus. The company employs 3,000 people for R&D and 250 for in-flight trials. These trials often take place at Marignane, where the work space is conveniently located right beside the airport. The personnel involved in the in- flight trials includes 40 pilots and 80 instructors. To remain competitive, Airbus has to constantly innovate: that is where the R&D department comes in. They have recently developed the Fenestron, a vertical tail rotor with unsymmetrical blades designed to reduce noise and fuel consumption.


The Support and Service section in Marignane provides 24/7 technical assistance for all its clients.


This involves on-line assistan This involves on-line assistance but also simulators located all around the globe to train pilots, including30 in the US and 30 in Europe. Airbus considers that each hour of flight time must be compensated by an hour of maintenance: security and client satisfaction are priorities.


When the helicopter is sold, the hours of flight time are already estimated so that Airbus knows approximately when they will call in the helicopter for maintenance and can thus prepare well in advance to have spare parts ready. They sign a maintenance contract with their civil clients. For example, a Super Puma will have a mandatory check-up after 3,000 flight hours.


The engines are produced by Turbomeca in Pau, but in the shops in Marignane 700 workers produce 55,000 parts per year, including many very sophisticated, that Airbus prefers not to produce overseas. It takes about a month to produce a helicopter on the Marignane production line, but each machine is special. Steps to climb into the cabin are not the same for a military or a civil helicopter, extra fuel tanks can be added outside, a sand filter or floats and lifeboats added, for example.


To intervene in emergency situations Airbus has even created a Foundation and with 31 associated companies around the world they are ready to help out wherever they are needed.


So one of the prerequisites for anyone wanting to work for Airbus: you have to be able to speak English!