Helo owners want bizjet-style interiors

 - September 21, 2007, 5:59 AM

Business/VIP helicopter owners are increasingly demanding more cabin comfort and equipment. Helicopter manufacturers enjoying a booming market for their products are thus endeavoring to make their interiors look more like those of business jets.

“We are now involved right from the design phase. The idea no longer is to make a ‘general purpose’ helicopter and fit it with luxury options,” Patrice Royer, Eurocopter’s director for market development in the business and private segment, told NBAA Convention News. The Marignane, France-based company (Booth No. 4351) received 88 orders for such applications in the first half of this year, more than for all of 2005.

Eurocopter marketing manager Christine Fraud insisted most customers are choosing expensive interiors for legitimate professional purposes. However, Royer noted that some just want to have them because they look good. “They want to show them to their friends and people they do business with,” he said.

To help meet customers’ changing expectations, AgustaWestland (Booth No. 7767) and fashion house Versace have announced a collaboration to create a line of haute-couture executive cabins. Versace will design them and AgustaWestland will build them.

Seats have been one of the most challenging areas for a few years because
of increasingly stringent safety requirements, which mandate that they be capable of absorbing much more energy, up to 16-g decelerations. Only foam has been able to offset the loss of comfort caused by more rigid structures. “But there are restrictions on adding foam, so there is no room for customization,” Sikorsky interior and furnishing engineering specialist Tom McTaggart pointed out. He deemed seats “as comfortable” as 10 years ago. (Sikorsky is exhibiting at Booth No. 114.)

A significant comfort gain, nonetheless, has been achieved in seat mobility. Helicopter manufacturers now offer seats that can swivel and recline.

Another design driver is ensuring seats do not amplify vibrations. Noise and vibrations have long been major comfort issues in helicopters. Passengers would like their helicopter to be as quiet and as vibration-free as their business jet, but helicopters will always trail jets in this area. Nevertheless, designers attempt to alleviate the problems by improving main and tail rotor blades and finding new noise-absorbing liner materials and resonators. “We have studied active noise control but have not implemented it in production,” McTaggart added.

What kind of electronic equipment do owners want? “Helicopter owners now expect both business and entertainment electronic equipment such as a hi-fi audio system, CD-DVD player with high-resolution screen, mp3 player or iPod connection, power for laptops, satellite telephone, refrigerated cabinet, movable reading lights and so on,” an AgustaWestland spokesman said. Eurocopter’s Fraud added that a hot option is an Airshow-style map display where passengers can see the helicopter’s position, speed and time to destination.

Using the Sikorsky S-92 as an example, McTaggart emphasized the high level of comfort customers are now demanding. “When he walks off his business jet, the owner wants the same kind of accommodation in his helicopter,” he said. This includes a wide cabin, a lavatory and food.

So are cabin interiors getting heavier? “Not necessarily,” the AgustaWestland spokesman answered. “If you compare today’s cabins to those cabins that we were doing 10 years ago, the weight is the same.” A lot of engineering on materials has offset the heavier liners and additional equipment, according to McTaggart. For example, more composites are used to make furniture structures lighter.

Eurocopter’s Royer had a slightly different view. He acknowledged there is a trend to heavier interiors. “But this is not as compelling as in a commercial aircraft because the average load is only 2.5 passengers,” he said. So a heavier interior rarely is a show-stopper in a business/VIP mission.