A final assembly line (FAL) for Airbus H135 helicopters officially began operations in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province on Wednesday, making it the manufacturer's first H135 FAL outside of Europe.
"It opens a new chapter for the cooperation between China and Europe," Wolfgang Schoder, CEO of Airbus Helicopters Deutschland, said at the opening ceremony on Wednesday.
The opening of the FAL follows a cooperation agreement signed between Airbus Helicopters, a division of Airbus, and China in 2016 for the purchase of 100 H135s destined for the Chinese market. From this year forward, 95 of these 100 helicopters will be assembled on the FAL.
The first aircraft roll-out from Qingdao is expected to take place in the second half of 2019. Operations will start with an annual capacity of 18 helicopters.
Major components, including the main fuselage, main gearbox kits and rear fuselage, will be shipped to Qingdao from Germany and Spain and then assembled on the Qingdao FAL.
Marie-Agnes Veve, general manager of Airbus Helicopters China, told the Global Times in an interview late Tuesday that despite the fact that the assembly line is now established with a limited capacity, the company has left enough space for future expansion.
Veve said that once the FAL is put into operation, more suppliers are expected to set up operations near the assembly line, and more activities will be conducted in Qingdao to build it into an aviation hub, Veve said.
Veve noted that despite the US and Europe remaining the company's top two markets by far, China will become its focus due to its great potential as the US and European markets mature.
The company said it expected China's helicopter industry to grow at an annual rate of around 50 percent in the next few years, largely driven by demand in government public service and commercial transportation.
An industry insider told the Global Times on the sidelines of the ceremony on Wednesday that China's helicopter industry is like "an undeveloped gold mine" that is still in its infancy.
"Demand will be huge, especially in sectors such as search and rescue, forest firefighting and tourism under the country's push for its general aviation industry," the insider said.
According to an industry guideline released by the State Council, China's cabinet, in May 2016, China aims to build more than 500 general aviation airports, possess a fleet of more than 5,000 general aviation airplanes and reach a scale of more than 1 trillion yuan in the industry by 2020.
The H135, a light twin-engine helicopter, is mainly used for helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), search and rescue, law enforcement, firefighting and tourism.