In March 2015, Airbus Helicopters delivered two upgraded Cougar helicopters to the French Army. Part of a group of 15 Cougars to be modernized by the company from 2013 to 2015 (the first eight of which were delivered in 2013 and 2014), these upgraded helicopters now benefit from a larger operating range, new avionics and improved all-weather capabilities. Flown by the French Army Air Corps (ALAT), the first of this group has already begun operational engagements in Mali.
Given its relative lightness, the Cougar offers an excellent power/payload ratio that is highly praised on the battlefield. The French Army Air Corps (ALAT) alone operates 26 of these aircraft today, all based in Pau (Southern France) and divided between the 5th RHC (Combat Helicopter Regiment) and the 4th RHFS (Special Forces Helicopter Regiment).
These powerful and valued workhorses flown by the ALAT had not been modernized since entering service in 1988, despite having logged a high number of hours. Their modernization became essential, both to prevent risks of obsolescence and to provide the Cougars with a larger operating range and improved all-weather capabilities.
For this reason, the French Army and Airbus Helicopters launched an ambitious modernization program focused on integrating a new avionics suite and an improved automatic pilot similar to that of the H225M (formerly the EC725), which is already a reference on the market.
Three Cougars were upgraded in 2013, followed by five more in 2014. In April 2014, the first of these upgraded Cougars participated in its first operational engagement in Mali as part of Operation Serval.
“Every day, the Cougar adds to its reputation in terms of excellent reliability and power,” reported the French Army.
The new autopilot has greatly improved the Cougar’s operational capacities along with the flight safety for takeoff and landing in marginal visibility conditions. The new version also provides automatic management of engine failure, flight envelope protection, state-of-the-art electronic counter-measures, and additional 650-liter fuel tanks.
These upgrades led to the AS532 AL+ model and, on the commercial side, which also benefited from this program, to the AS532 L1e.
“Our goal is to deliver seven Cougars in 2015”, said Thierry Vinson, head of helicopter maintenance at the Airbus Helicopters Military Support Center in France, an organization entirely dedicated to supporting these aircraft, plus the 550 others operated by French armed forces and various parapublic entities. Two of these Cougar deliveries took place in March 2015.
The ALAT isn’t the only one benefitting from the Cougar modernization program. Through the upgrades, Airbus Helicopters has rolled out new quality processes, one of the cornerstones of the company’s ongoing transformation.
“The Cougar upgrade program has become the focus for many of the initiatives we’ve introduced as part of our corporate transformation plan,” added Vinson. “Our main goals were to improve on customer satisfaction and to reduce the overall length of cycles compared to 2014, thereby guaranteeing maximum availability for our customer’s helicopters.”
Approximately 50 French rotorcraft are currently engaged in the African theaters, making the need for tactical helicopters and comprehensive support more pressing than ever for the French Armed Forces.
Airbus Helicopters’ Military Support Center concept has gathered under one roof the management of all support functions and all involved operational areas including technical, industrial, and material support. This represents close to 500 skilled workers, 10,000 square meters of workshop space, and 35 assembly and flight line slots, as well as dedicated manufacturing capacities.