Airbus Super Puma

The airframer has sold more than a thousand copies of this helicopter, which offers rugged VIP transport at a bargain price.

More than 30 years ago, my old-school fixed-wing airplane instructor and I were flying back to the airport when a Coast Guard helicopter came into view. “I will never fly in one of those,” he opined. “Too many moving parts, too dangerous.” 

Today, many people still share his opinion, though their views are couched in varying degrees of ignorance. Helicopters are complex and costly—you pay a premium for the ability to take off and land almost anywhere—and, like any other aircraft, they require proper and sometimes costly maintenance. The bigger the helicopter, also, the more complicated that work can be, and the greater the chance for problems to emerge—especially after it has experienced thousands of hours of airborne vibrations, impacting everything from tail booms to main rotor blades. In the main, rotorcraft manufacturers do a good job of staying on top of any resulting problems before an accident can occur by issuing revised maintenance bulletins or making new parts, but nothing is perfect. 

Such is the case with Airbus Helicopters’ Super Puma, a large twin-engine aircraft that can transport 11 in VIP seating or 19 in utility configuration more than 600 nautical miles (with auxiliary fuel tanks) at 135 knots. 

Airbus delivered its 1,000th Super Puma in 2018 and the global fleet has amassed nearly six million flight hours. The almost-but-not-quite-stand-up cabin can be fitted with all the accoutrements of a modern corporate jet, including in-flight entertainment, a refreshment center, and an aft lavatory. A smallish cargo hold is externally accessible from the rear of the aircraft, beneath the tail boom. You can equip the aircraft with the most modern avionics, and it is certified for flight into known icing conditions. The five-bladed main rotor system is fitted with effective anti-vibration technology and ample soundproofing insulation can be placed within the cabin walls, delivering a comparatively smooth and quiet ride for a helicopter in this category. 

A Long History

The Super Puma that can trace its origins back to the early 1960s when the company that made it wasn’t named Airbus or Eurocopter or Aerospatiale but rather France’s Sud Aviation. The SA (for Sud Aviation) 330 “Puma” was conceived to meet a military requirement to carry up to 16 troops for the French army. Over the years, that solid, robust design morphed into a larger and more capable helicopter that was sold to military and civil customers worldwide, eventually as today’s Airbus H215 and H225 “Super Puma.”

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The Super Puma imprimatur actually covers six models produced since 1981, which are differentiated by slight variances in range, speed, and cabin size. Today, nearly 100 customers in 59 countries operate them. They use the helicopter for law enforcement, aerial work, search and rescue, offshore transport, and governmental missions, including VIP transport. The H215 is a lower-cost variant available with a slightly shorter cabin and demonstrably less range than the H225. Regis Magnac, Airbus Helicopters’ vice president and head of energy leasing and global accounts, points out that more than two dozen countries continue to use the helicopter for head-of-state conveyance. In the military sector, the airframer offers the H215M and H225M military variants for search and rescue, troop transport, special ops, and utility missions. 

While operators generally praise the model and its derivatives for their ruggedness and reliability, in the last decade and a half a handful of crashes and ocean ditchings were linked to design flaws in the helicopter’s main rotor gearbox and a limited number of replacement main rotor shafts. 

The worst of these occurred on April 26, 2016, when the main rotor separated from a Super Puma near Turoy, Norway, killing all 13 aboard. In the wake of the accident, the worldwide Super Puma fleet was grounded, a large portion of it for more than a year. Operators lined up to hit Airbus with potentially billions of dollars’ worth of litigation. One of them, Era Group, wrote down the value of its H225s to approximately $4 million each, a small fraction of their 2016 new retail price of $23 million. Altogether, H225 operators took hundreds of millions of dollars in H225-related write-downs, parking 129 helicopters. Not surprisingly, the number of deliveries of new Super Pumas declined precipitously. 

The fall was short-lived, however, as Airbus moved quickly to fix the main gearbox technical problems that caused the Turoy crash and assist customers in remarketing parked helicopters. At the start of 2022, Airbus’s Super Puma production line was full. It delivered 31 last year and the company “continues to invest in the product,” according to Magnac. 

A Hard-to-Find Model

The price of that used 2016 Super Puma, which had plunged from more than $23 million new to a low of $4 million, has since more than doubled. And good used ones of any vintage are now hard to come by, says Matt Lowe, director of special missions at Texas-based Air Center Helicopters, one of the largest civil operators of the type. 

Air Center rolled the dice and amassed its fleet of 27 Super Pumas in the wake of the Turoy crash, many at bargain prices. Today the company uses the aircraft for a variety of high-profile and mission-critical applications, including capsule/astronaut ocean recoveries for Boeing, NASA, and SpaceX; special missions in Africa that can run up to 600 nautical miles unrefueled; long-line shipboard vertical replenishment for the U.S. Navy; and aerial firefighting, including night operations.

“It’s just a good-flying machine,” says Lowe. “It has a four-axis autopilot. It flies like an airliner and cruises at 135 knots.” He praised the helicopter’s durability, especially its ability to be operated and maintained in austere conditions. “The aircraft is very robust,” Lowe added, noting that Airbus “bends over backward to help us. They've been really good at communicating what the problem was and what the fix was” with regard to maintenance issues. 

Airbus plans to keep the helicopter’s production line running through at least 2030. It’s still a complex machine. However, for those who need a large helicopter built to military-grade standards but can do without a full stand-up cabin, the Super Puma could be just the ticket. 

2016 Airbus Helicopters H225 Super Puma

Price: $8 million 

Crew: 2–3 

Engines: 2 Safran Makila 2A1 engines, 2,101 shaft horsepower each 

Passengers (VIP): 10-11 

Cruising speed (typical): 142 kt 

Range (standard): 452 nm 

Range (with auxiliary tanks): 602 nm

Maximum takeoff weight: 24,250 lb (24,603 with increased gross weight approval)

Cabin: 4 ft, 8 in high; 5 ft, 9 in wide; 19 ft, 5 in long