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Eurocopter Canada

Eurocopter Canada is marking its 25th anniversary this year. Based in Fort Erie, Ontario, Eurocopter Canada’s 240 employees work in a 135,600 square foot manufacturing facility; finishing and customizing proven Eurocopter rotorcraft like the EC120, EC130, EC135 and AStar AS350 B2/B3. As well, Eurocopter Canada services the approximately 530 Eurocopters currently flying in this country.


March 23, 2009
By James Careless

Topics
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The Eurocopter Astar and EC120 are included in the fleet of Hudson Bay Helicopters of Churchill, Manitoba, the oldest helicopter company in the Canadian sub-Arctic.


 

Eurocopter Canada is marking its 25th anniversary this year. Based in Fort Erie, Ontario, Eurocopter Canada’s 240 employees work in a 135,600 square foot manufacturing facility; finishing and customizing proven Eurocopter rotorcraft like the EC120, EC130, EC135 and AStar AS350 B2/B3. As well, Eurocopter Canada services the approximately 530 Eurocopters currently flying in this country.

Taken as a whole, this is pretty impressive ‘success story’ stuff. But what makes Eurocopter Canada’s story more compelling is that the company very nearly didn’t make it.

Roots
The year was 1984, and Canada did not have a domestic helicopter industry. To rectify the situation, the Trudeau government began reaching out to foreign helicopter manufacturers, to see if they could be lured to Canada with the promise of work here. Bell was one company that accepted; MBB was another.

Short for Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, MBB was a German aerospace company that designed the now-legendary BO105 light twin engine helicopter. First flown in 1967, 18 BO105s were purchased by the Canadian government starting in 1984, as part of the deal that attracted MBB to Fort Erie. “The Coast Guard BO105 project was the first major deal for what was then MBB Helicopter Canada,” says Bob Manson, Eurocopter Canada’s Engineering Manager. In fact, the first BO105s ever delivered by the company went to the Coast Guard.

In the early days, the scope of the company’s work was rather limited: they basically received airworthy BO105s built and shipped from Europe, to which the Canadian plant added some options and finishing touches. However, as the years passed, the Canadian staff gained expertise researching an extended cabin version of the BO105 that led to the eventual creation and certification of the BO105LS. Meanwhile, the helicopters coming from Europe were being shipped in progressively less-assembled condition, with the Canadian plant taking on more and more of the assembly work. Completed BO105LSs that required servicing started coming to Fort Erie as well.

As the 1980s continued, MBB Helicopter Canada began working on MBB’s BK117 medium/twin engine helicopter. But despite this additional model, business was not going well in Canada. In fact, things had dwindled so much that “Our workforce, which had grown to nearly 200, was down to 35 in 1992,” says Mike Merritt. “People were still accustomed to buying Bells or MD Helicopters when they needed helicopters. It was hard to get them to buy an MBB, despite the fact that the federal government and two operators had purchased our machines.”

Making matters worse is that the BO105 and BK117 were twin engine helicopters, in a country known for preferring less expensive, cheaper-to-run single engine models. This, plus the comfort level customers felt with the competition’s products, made the future look quite bleak for the contracting MBB Helicopter Canada.

1992: A Change for the Better
In 1992, MBB and Aerospatiale merged to create Eurocopter … and MBB Helicopter Canada became Eurocopter Canada. With the deal, Eurocopter Canada got access to the full range of Eurocopter’s product lineup, including the increasingly popular AS350 light/single engine helicopter. The AS350 is known as the “Ecureuil,” which translates into ‘squirrel’ in English. Both names posed problems for North American customers: “English people couldn’t pronounce ‘Ecureuil,’ while the name ‘squirrel’ didn’t have the right cachet,” says Richard Airlie, Eurocopter Canada’s Eastern Canadian key account manager. “AStar was the result of an invitation by Aerospatiale in the USA to ‘name the helicopter.’ AStar was chosen in reference to the Starflex rotor head – an innovative concept in flight systems.”

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Based in Fort Erie, Ontario, Eurocopter Canada’s 240 employees work in a 135,600-square-foot manufacturing facility.  
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Marie Agnès Vève, Eurocopter Canada president and CEO.


 

The AS350’s popularity with North American utility services helped Eurocopter Canada. So did the company’s willingness to take its AS350s to potential customers in the west, to let them see it in person. “We offered free training to operations managers and chief pilots” said Airlie. “Every session would result in a new sale.”

Clearly, this strategy paid off. So did the availability of affordable entry-level single engine aircraft like the EC120. Add ongoing service and maintenance, and the workforce at Eurocopter Canada began to grow again as sales increased.

Some milestones of note: In 1993, the first AStar 350 B2 was delivered to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (it bought the company’s first Canadian-sold EC130 B4 in 2004). Eurocopter Canada started manufacturing composite parts three years later, for use worldwide. The first Canadian AS355 F2 was delivered to Nova Helicopters in 1997, followed by the EC120 in 1998. 2001 saw the company deliver its first four EC120s to the Baltimore Police Department. In 2006, Great Slave Helicopters received the first AS355 N (New technology) helicopter delivered in Canada. A year later the EC145 and EC135 were certified for sale in Canada.

The Company Today
In contrast to 1984, the Canada of 2009 has become a loyal consumer of Eurocopter products. In fact, over 500 Eurocopters of varying types are supported here by Eurocopter Canada! To keep up with this demand, the company’s Fort Erie facility was doubled in size to almost 135,000 square feet in 2008.

Functionally, today’s Eurocopter Canada covers three core markets. The first is aircraft sales and completions. Customers come to the company to buy a full range of Eurocopter helicopters, have the basic aircraft built in Europe and shipped to Canada, and then have the aircraft finished at the Fort Erie plant where they are picked up.

The second activity is manufacturing. Eurocopter Canada manufactures composite helicopter parts that are sent to Europe, for use in assembling aircraft there. In fact, most of the 62 people Eurocopter Canada hired in 2008 were for the company’s composite manufacturing division. “We also develop options here in Canada,” says Henri Houzet, Eurocopter Canada’s communications manager. “Over 30 options have been developed here in Canada by our Fort Erie engineers, such as the ‘Squirrel Cheeks’ storage pods that increase an AStar’s baggage capacity by 40 per cent.”

The third market is customer support. This covers everything from repairs and overhauls, retrofits and conversions to technical support, Aircraft Maintenance Engineer education and pilot training.

Where Eurocopters are Flown
Eurocopters are being selected for many kinds of missions in Canada. For instance, in the Northwest Territories, Great Slave Helicopters is buying an AS350 B3, an AS350 B2 and a single engine EC130 B4 to support its mining exploration business. Great Slave already has 24 Eurocopters in its fleet. “We’re hoping that these state-of-the art helicopters will help us continue to meet the demands of our diverse customer base,” says Adam Bembridge, president of Great Slave Helicopters. “All three models of aircraft have proven reliability and performance.”

In Quebec, Villeneuve Hélicoptères has purchased two AS350/B2s, and taken an option on two more, to use in its aircraft leasing business. “All of us within the company are thrilled to be acquiring these helicopters from Eurocopter,” says Régis Villeneuve, president of Villeneuve Hélicoptères Limitée. “Not only does Eurocopter produce a superior product, but their service excellence is unmatched in the industry.”
As for the 500th Eurocopter delivered in Canada? It was an AS355 NP light/twin sold to Phoenix Heli-Flight in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Phoenix Heli-Flight provides medevac, wildfire suppression, survey and exploration, passenger and cargo transfer, and other helicopter-based services. “This model of helicopter was attractive because it has superior performance and is more maintenance friendly,” says Paul Spring, president and chief executive officer of Phoenix Heli-Flight. “The fact that Eurocopter continually upgrade its aircraft providing improved performance for our customers is a real bonus to us.”

The Next 25 Years
With 25 years passed, Eurocopter Canada has truly come of age. The lean days of the MBB era are gone. Meanwhile, even in today’s economic downturn, the demand for helicopters is so great that the economic slowdown will not threaten the company’s future. If anything, a slowing in orders will help Eurocopter Canada reduce its backlog and deliver new products sooner than in years before.

Looking ahead, “We are trying to see what the next generation of helicopters is going to be,” says Richard Airlie. “We will continue to tailor our aircraft to Canada and provide full support, and that’s where we will be putting our efforts. But whatever happens, I expect that the core group who have been with this company for many years will stick around, at least until we retire. There’s a great camaraderie at Eurocopter Canada, plus a sense of pride in what we produce and what we have accomplished to date.”


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