By Frédéric Lert / Pictures © Airbus

First introduced at EBACE 2017, ACH is an Airbus Helicopters brand created to meet the demands of private and business customers looking for the best in customer experience and accommodation solutions. The ACH160, the latest addition to the Airbus Helicopters range, is now central to this strategy of excellence. 

Six years after the launch of the ACH, we have been very successful,” says Frédéric Lemos, Head of ACH. “In 2017, we sold around fifty helicopters in this market segment. In the context of a shrinking market, we have in fact doubled this volume of business with around one hundred helicopters sold per year since then, from the ACH125 to the ACH225“. 

To meet different levels of demand, ACH has developed three comfort and finish offers (ACH Line, ACH Exclusive and ACH Editions), each with different layout solutions. In this extensive and diversified range, a new entrant was eagerly awaited: the ACH160. The latest addition to the Airbus Helicopters range, assembled at Marignane, near Marseille in the South of France, is seen as a game changer not only by the helicopter manufacturer but also by all the customers who have had the opportunity to fly on board. From an industrial point of view, it was also urgent for Airbus Helicopters to offer a replacement for the Dauphin/H155 range. The Dauphin/H155 range has had its moment of glory, dominating the medium helicopter segment with its head and shoulders. But its star had dimmed in recent years and it had been struggling to compete.

The ACH160 allows us to start a new cycle and to regain control of the medium segment,” says Frédéric Lemos. “The PBA (Private Business Aviation) medium helicopter market represents about 25 helicopters per year. With the ACH160, our ambition is to conquer about half of this market, i.e. a dozen aircraft per year“. 

With its aesthetics, performance, comfort and economy, the ACH160 promises to be a game changer in a highly competitive market.  The H160 now includes two ACH offerings: the ACH Line and the ACH Exclusive. The ACH Line is synonymous with the corporate cabin and is aimed at users who want an interior design that offers the right balance of comfort, ergonomics and functionality. Available across the entire range, from the ACH125 to the ACH175, ACH Line provides a higher level of fit and finish with premium upholstery and more comfort while maintaining optimized performance, including low empty weight. The color schemes are also adapted to match the codes of an environment combining dynamism and refinement. The Lounge package can be added to this Line level: this essentially involves integrating the seating solutions specifically developed for the Exclusive range. On the other hand the windows and sliding doors remain unchanged from the standard H160.

The ACH160 Exclusive belongs to another world. The interior is even more luxurious, with the highest standards of refinement, elegance and comfort, bringing the helicopter a little closer to a business jet. A privilege shared only by the ACH175 and ACH225 in the Airbus Helicopters range.

The search for advanced soundproofing is reflected in the replacement of sliding doors by swinging doors: This is a solution that had already been chosen in the past for the Dauphin. Because of its architecture, the swing door allows the installation of upholstery and furniture that would not fit in a sliding model. The same applies to the windows, which are doubled for better insulation. They are also electronically dimmable windows, where electro-chromic technology allows the opacity to be varied electrically. The cabin management system allows passengers to control the lighting and air conditioning at their fingertips, and special interfaces for communication systems are available to them. For example, a satellite telephone handset is immediately accessible from the seats.  

The exclusive ACH160 is like a cocoon,” says Frédéric Lemos. “The interior is fitted out with specially designed paneling, which gives a cabin within a cabin, with complete isolation between the cockpit and the passengers. The very low noise level obtained, with a sound level close to 70 decibels, allows us to talk to each other without headphones.” The ACH160 Exclusive also benefits from electric activated footboards to facilitate on-board installation and special storage solutions.

The Line and Exclusive offers are complementary and it is really the customer’s needs that separate them,” continues Lemos. “Some people will see the helicopter as a rational way of saving time and will be satisfied with a standard layout, sufficient to get from point A to point B. Others will want to have a more sophisticated layout, which is not always possible. Others will want a more refined interior but still want to save time, and will switch to ACH Line. And then, in the highest segment, some will simply want a helicopter that is a continuation of their Mercedes or business jet, and they will naturally go for the Exclusive trim.

In both cases, interaction with customers is essential for the precise definition of the cabin layout.  “We are always looking for ways to improve, which involves constant exchanges with our customers,” insists Lemos. “For each product range, we offer a catalogue of available materials. However, for each level of finish offered, customers can choose their own materials outside the catalogue to create a customized cabin. They come with their own vision of beauty, sometimes it’s just a matter of matching their office or jet…

The ACH customization team then works with them and their designers on something very personalized giving the helicopter a particular identity. Materials, fittings, but also color schemes, lighting, specific equipment, etc.: the elements to be taken into account when designing a VIP cabin are numerous and closely combine functional and aesthetic analysis. Sometimes it is even more complicated, with the use of materials that require technical analysis to verify their compatibility with aeronautical use. The ACH team relies on the design office, which thanks to the design of physical and 3D models arbitrates the choices by finding the right balance between design proposals and weight and certification constraints. Manufacturing is then entrusted to workshops specializing in VIP fittings and the production of sophisticated parts. But Airbus Helicopters always keeps control of the perceived quality level and ensures that the final product, which remains exclusive, fully meets the customer’s requirements.

A commercial career off to a good start

The ACH160 promises to win back business for Airbus Helicopters, and it is well on its way. For 2023 alone, the Franco-German helicopter manufacturer has announced a firm order for six aircraft, including four from the Saudi operator TCH, in addition to the six already ordered in 2021. This brings the total to ten aircraft in Line finish for this operator, as well as four other aircraft as options. Two more aircraft, this time in the Exclusive version, have been placed on the Indian market for an unnamed corporate customer. “This is a reference operator that already uses helicopters and knows business aviation well,” hints Lemos. “For both Saudi Arabia and India, these are very demanding countries, with often difficult flying conditions, which demonstrates the operators’ confidence in this new aircraft.

In January, the first ACH160 in Exclusive configuration was delivered to Europe. The aircraft is operated by HBG and flies from Switzerland for a private customer. Another aircraft, this time with a standard cabin, has been operating in Brazil for several months now for a corporate customer. 

Beyond these few examples, we have a strong order book of more than thirty aircraft to be delivered, on all continents,” says Lemos. “The ACH160 has a very successful career ahead of it and the start of deliveries will boost its commercial success.”

During French President Macron’s visit to China, Airbus Helicopters has signed a contract with GDAT, one of China’s most prominent helicopter lessors and operators, for 50 H160 helicopters. This contract is the largest single order for the H160 on the civil and parapublic market since the helicopter was unveiled in 2015. 

The aircraft will be used notably for the energy sector, including offshore transportation for oil and gas platforms, wind farms and harbor piloting, as well as emergency medical services and other municipal public service missions. The companies also signed a strategic cooperation agreement related to topics such as support and services capabilities, amongst others, in order to ensure the long-term success of the H160 in China.