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Airbus soars high with Japan's only helicopter simulator

Tokyo Olympics could mirror demand that surged post-2011 earthquake

Airbus' helicopter flight simulator in Kobe allows trainees to experience flying in the fog, the rain and cloudy skies.

TOKYO -- Strong demand for emergency medical helicopters after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has kept aeronautics giant Airbus flying high in the country, both as market leader and in the all-important area of pilot training.

Boasting Japan's only full-flight simulator, Airbus Helicopters Japan attracts budding pilots from different countries. Since 2012, the massive simulator located near Kobe Airport has allowed pilots and mechanics to train under simulated weather conditions that include fog, rain and clouds. Trainees can also "fly" helicopters in virtual emergencies.

The flight simulator from outside.

Kazuhiro Ando, head of the company's training and pilot unit, said the simulator attracts trainees from South Korea, India, Indonesia and Australia.

Previously, pilots and mechanics in Japan have had to train using actual helicopters, learning from veterans as apprentices. Olivier Tillier, managing director of the company, said the simulator could be the answer for easing the shortage of personnel.

Tillier stressed that although the cost per trainee is higher, training on land is convenient for clients.

Market king

Sales of aircraft to Japan Airlines and other airline companies have undoubtedly boosted Airbus' presence in the country, but the simulator has also helped the company maintain its share in the domestic helicopter market, which is expected to grow at an annual clip of 2% through 2037.

Japan is the second-largest helicopter market for Airbus in the Asia Pacific region, with the company claiming about 40% of market share. But it dominates in Japan at about 55% combined with that of Kawasaki Heavy Industries, with which it develops midsize helicopters.

Marie-Agnes Veve, head of the North Asia region at Airbus Helicopters, forecasts that demand for medical and rescue helicopters will increase.

Airbus operates more than 300 helicopters for 100 companies in the country. During a recent two-day symposium in Tokyo, which drew about 150 customers, the company explained future models and discussed ways to improve support.

Airbus Helicopters has partnered with Kawasaki for 40 years in developing midsize helicopters -- those that seat about 10 passengers -- and overshadows global rivals such as Bell Helicopter and Leonardo.

But the company has had its share of ups and downs. After a surge in demand for private helicopters from wealthy individuals and companies, the company saw a huge drop in orders during the 2000s.

After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, however, Airbus started receiving more orders for medical helicopters. The company expects increased orders for its state-of-the-art aircraft from local governments and the tourism industry in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

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