Airbus Helicopters H120 Colibri (EC120)
Light Utility Helicopter
Introduced in 1998, the Eurocopter EC120 Colibri model series has filled niche roles in the light utility helicopter market - both military and civilian in nature.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
The helicopter market is just as diverse as any other in the world with companies determined to cut out their fair share of earnings and retain existing customers all the while attempting to win new ones. Additionally, design and development of helicopters runs deeper than traditional fixed-wing aircraft due to the different forces at play - a helicopter must be able to hover, fly conventionally, land in remote areas of the world and all types of weather and environmental situations while operating close to the ground. As such, the Eurocopter EC120 "Colibri" ("Hummingbird") was born through the contributions of three defense industry players scattered about the globe - Aerospatiale / Eurocopter of France (now Airbus Helicopters), Harbin of China and STAero of Singapore. The result has been a well-accepted light utility platform that has surpassed over 550 examples since production began in 1995.
Looking to succeed their lines of Gazelle and SA315 light helicopters, what was then-Aerospatiale began work on the "P120L" product. To help with the ultimately complex and expensive venture, the company reached out to international partners to help shoulder the load of development and manufacture. This eventually resulted in the addition of the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC - Harbin) and Singapore Technologies Aerospace (STAero). The official project launch arrived in February of 1990 and it was agreed upon that Aerospatiale would retain 61% ownership in, and lead of, the project with CATIC given 24% and STAero the remaining 15%. In October 1992 arrived the official go-ahead for the project while Aerospatiale was absorbed into the Eurocopter brand label. In January of 1993, the product was officially designated "EC120".
The program split was as follows: Eurocopter engineers worked on the main rotor and gearbox (among other facets) and CATIC was charged with manufacture of the fuselage, fuel system and undercarriage while STAero was left to formulate the composites, construct the cabin doors and complete the tail units. Final assembly would be done by Eurocopter at Marignane, France and include installation of the avionics fit, the hydraulics and electrical systems and other vital internal components.
The prototype was made ready in 1995 and achieved its first-flight on June 9th of that year. The design carried a most sleek appearance with its nose section heavily glazed for excellent vision for the flight crew. The fuselage was well-rounded and streamlined from nose to tail. The engine compartment sat atop the passenger cabin with the engine driving a three-bladed main rotor unit. The tail stem housed a drive shaft for the eight-bladed Fenestron-shrouded tail rotor buried within the vertical tail fin. The shrouded nature of the tail rotor provided much quieter operation at the cost of complexity. Horizontal planes were affixed along the tail stem's side near its midway point. A simple twin-skid undercarriage arrangement was used for landing actions. Internally there was side-by-side seating for a crew of two and passenger seating for up to four.
Selected power was from a Turbomeca TM319 "Arrius" 1F series turboshaft engine of 504 horsepower. Performance included a maximum speed of 172 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 138 miles per hour, a range out to 440 miles and a service ceiling of 17,000 feet.
With the first prototype doing well in the early test phase, the consortium moved ahead and added a second by late 1996. The product was revealed in February of 1997 to visitors at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) event held in Anaheim, California which led to first-orders. Certification was had in June of that year and service introduction arrived in 1998 - challenging the likes of Bell's Model 206, 407 and 505 systems in the field. The first EC120 was delivered in January of 1998. Additional production lines were arranged in Australia to help meet the market demand.
The helicopter has gone on to find homes in all key markets - civilian, governmental and military. Operators of civilian- and governmental-minded EC120s have been seen in Australia (Search & Rescue services), Brazil (police), Canada (police), Germany (Police), Iraq (police), Lithuania (border patrol), Spain (police) and the United States (Department of Homeland Security). The militaries of China, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Spain have all accepted the type into service (the Chinese version is designated "HC120" while standard global EC120 models are known as "EC120B"). Many services use the helicopter in its intended light utility role while others also press it into the helicopter training role.