Helicopter cabin style tends to be inspired by automotive design trends, says Sikorsky's Heffernan. “The overall interior aesthetic is trending toward automotive. [We're seeing] more comfortable seats in terms of contour and vibration attenuation, utilizing new foams and gels. Interior materials use more sophisticated coatings that offer modern finishes for less weight. All [our] customers desire some level of cabin management for communications/moving maps/video/entertainment, and Sikorsky provides several levels of options.
“Window shading has trended toward electro-chromatic due to system simplicity and weight constraints,” continues Heffernan. “Lighting is all-LED. Safety equipment would include energy attenuating seats, passenger armor protection and higher crash loads. Soundproofing has become highly helicopter specific, using more sophisticated measurement tools, airframe isolation, tailored limp mass barriers and lighter weight/higher strength composite construction.”
Some of the most unusual, challenging, costly or ground-breaking helicopter interiors encountered by OEMs include installing a shower in a Sikorsky S-92, as well as granite table tops, complex entertainment and audio systems, and beverage cooling and heating hardware. While these may be common in fixed-wing aircraft interiors, they are more unique items in helicopters.
Ergonomic Design 101
It should come as no surprise that engineers around the world are devoting more time to the advancement of helicopter cabin design. For example, a Eurocopter Vehicle Interiors Department study sponsored by France's DGAC (Direction Générale de l'Aviation Civile) found —to no one's great surprise — that helicopter cabins are sometimes cramped, especially when the passengers are burly oil rig roughnecks. Indeed, the aim of the study was to optimize the fit of helicopter interiors to a specific cabin population: offshore workers. Both digital simulations and hardware models were part of the study: digital human mannequins (DHM) immersed in digital cabin mockups using computer-aided design (CAD), and flesh-and-blood subjects in a full-scale, flexible cabin mockup. The study's methods included anthropometric measurements, surveys, questionnaires and activity analyses. The results (it is hoped) led Eurocopter designers to improve ways to assess and predict comfort levels of helicopter cabins with greater reliance on real-world human size parameters, and better knowledge of cabin architectural parameters that may increase comfort, such as the link between seat pitches and legroom or postural comfort.
“Completion Design Practice and Research of VVIP Helicopter Cabins,” a paper prepared for the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics (CSAA) in the People's Republic of China, looked at cabin floor plans and human ergonomics. Evidently, the study's author, Hou Lili, of the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group, was given the task to emulate, as much as possible, the VVIP seat installed on the back of a white elephant used by Asian royalty. (We're not kidding.) Among many recommendations, the study maintains that “whirling seats” (we think this translates to “tilting power seats”) are excessively bulky and heavy for a helicopter cabin. But the author declares that a case could be made for installing heated- and/or massaging seats, articulating seat-back cushions and headrests (with presets). A limousine-style acrylic divider between the cabin and the cockpit also is recommended by the paper's author.
In response to increasing demand for a more unique traveling experience, American Eurocopter partnered with Hermès and Mercedes Benz in 2007 to create the EC135 Hermès (known as L'Hélicoptère par Hermès), featuring a four-place main cabin, a sliding glass partition, a corporate baggage hold, redesigned skid landing gear and other external changes.
Mecaer Aviation Group (MAG), an aircraft interior specialist in Borgomanero, Italy, has developed a new VIP interior for the AgustaWestland AW169 helicopter. MAG was previously selected by Eurocopter as the VIP interior system supplier for its EC145, Mercedes-Benz Style. The aircraft is a new high-end VIP version of the popular twin-engine turbine helicopter. Originally announced at EBACE 2010, the first helicopter equipped with the new VIP interior, conceived by Mercedes-Benz and completed by MAG, was unveiled in 2011 at EBACE in Geneva.
In Europe, MAG operates several interior installation facilities that are adjacent to, or co-located with, an OEM's factory. Under the MAG business model, its facilities have complete responsibility for the entire interior process from design and manufacture to final installation and certification on the OEM's assembly line. Current locations include Vergiate, Italy; Yeovil, U.K.; and Moscow.
In the U.S., MAG operates under a similar concept at its Philadelphia location and has recently opened a new facility in Hagerstown, Md., to service the interiors and MRO needs of East Coast rotary- and fixed-wing operators.