New venue, resurgent sales spell success for Helitech

 - October 8, 2007, 5:13 AM

Although the shadow of the September 11 atrocity in the U.S. was evident at Helitech, the major American companies participated fully, and some praised both the exhibition and its new venue. Previously held at Redhill Aerodrome, conveniently close to London Gatwick Airport but all too often waterlogged, Helitech  moved this year to Duxford Airfield’s hard runway and concrete apron–a switch that was widely welcomed. This year’s event was held September 25 to 30.
A former Battle of Britain fighter base, Duxford is now home to the Imperial War Museum’s aircraft collection (said to be the largest in Europe) but it easily accommodated the temporary structure housing Helitech exhibitors. With little traffic around the airfield, helicopter demonstration flights posed no problems, and Eurocopter made the most of this–its EC 130B4 demo flights were in great demand during the show.

The EC 130 is currently being placed into service with launch customer Blue Hawaiian, and 15 of the helicopters will have been delivered to various operators by the end of this year. The single Turbomeca Arriel 2B that powers the EC 130 is claimed to be the first to incorporate a dual-channel full authority digital engine control (Fadec), while an automatic rotor-speed control system adjusts the engine to match flight conditions. This system ensures a minimum noise level at cruise speed.  
With 400 helicopter deliveries planned for this year, Eurocopter is having to pull out all the stops to meet demand, according to senior executive vice president Dr. Siegfried Sobotta.  “With about a 50-percent market share [excluding military models], our position is very strong,” he told AIN. “There is no competitor with such a broad product range,” although he expects “some reaction” to this before long.
In Europe, Sobotta expects the law-enforcement and EMS markets to grow, though the EC 120 is attracting “lots of customers who buy them for fun” and is penetrating down into Robinson-held markets among private fliers.  However, he  believes there is a need to increase acceptance of helicopters in general among those who currently perceive them to be noisy and a nuisance.   “The industry also needs to improve the all-weather capabilities of helicopters,” he added.

The BK 117 manufactured by Eurocopter in cooperation with Kawasaki has been in production for some 20 years, and although the new EC 145 derivative follows in its footsteps, the basic model will remain in production.  However, to make room for series production of the larger and more capable EC 145, assembly of the BK 117 will be transferred to Italy, where Elilario Italia has expanded its facility. Single-pilot IFR certification for the EC 145 is expected soon.

Having won the competition to supply some Nordic countries with a total of 69 military NH 90s, and with Tiger combat helicopter production now under way, Eurocopter is going to be busy into the foreseeable future. In the civil sector, John Osmond, marketing manager of UK distributor McAlpine Helicopters,  told AIN that he sees a lag cycle of about a year and noted that “the number of inquiries peaked six months ago.”

This will ensure that Eurocopter’s completion center will be kept busy for next year, and Osmond sees no sign of any change to the average delivery rate of one helicopter per month. “But the strength of the British pound is a factor that can have a negative effect on sales,” he warned. A similar view was expressed by Bill Schweizer, one of the brothers managing the Elmira, N.Y.-based company that bears their name.
Exchange Rates a Factor
“The euro versus the U.S. dollar can make quite a difference in securing sales,” Schweizer told AIN, but his UK distributor, CSE Aviation, is encouraged by the success of the 300CB in securing orders from helicopter flying schools. Some seven schools have converted to the robust little helicopter, on which, Schweizer claims, students average 20 percent  less time to solo and gain their license since the 300CB became preferred over the R22 for ab initio training. Challenging Robinson’s R22 head-on in price, Schweizer’s 300CB sales could increase as a result of student familiarity with the type on which they trained.  

Frank Robinson was to have participated in a seminar organized by UK distributor Sloane Helicopters,  but his plans were stymied by problems arising from the September terhalted for a while, and there was a backlog of work for Robinson at his Torrance, Calif. headquarters. But Sloane’s sales and marketing director, Mike Creed, told AIN that about 1.5 Robinsons are sold every month in the UK, and that R22 owners are moving up to the R44.

For some years, Sloane has been Robinson’s top distributor in the world outside the U.S., with current sales averaging 15 to 20 new models per year in addition to moving a further 20 pre-owned examples of the light helicopters.

The company is also Agusta’s UK distributor and made Helitech the occasion to announce the first sale of an A109E Power ‘Elite’ outside Italy.  This rotorcraft–which features a larger interior, and improved vibration-absorbing system, better range and higher speeds–is to be delivered to Air Harrods early next year, supporting Sloane’s claim that the UK is one of the largest markets for Agusta corporate helicopters.
With a cruise speed of 156 kt, the Elite version is claimed to be the fastest corporate helicopter in the world, yielding added flexibility to the Air Harrods charter fleet, which includes two Sikorsky S-76s and an EC 135TI (the only VIP version of the EC 135 in European service). Having recently acquired London Battersea Heliport from GKN Westland, Metro Business Aviation (part of the Harrods Group) has begun the process of upgrading the facilities, adding to cosmetic changes already made.

Noting that certification rules will oblige the phasing out of BO 105s for EMS operations by 2004, Sloane’s Creed sees a market opportunity for the A109 Power, some examples of which are operated in this role in the UK. But competition is heating up in the EMS sector, with both the EC 135 and MD Helicopters MD 902 vying for orders. Indeed, Specialist Aviation Services (SAS) displayed an MD 902 with a medical interior that it designed and installed.

Owned by RDM Holdings, the company that acquired and revitalized MD Helicopters Inc. (MDHI), SAS is in turn the parent of Police Aviation Services (PAS) and Medical Aviation Services (MAS), both briefly owned by Bombardier. SAS is the UK distributor for police/EMS variants of the MD 902, and Henk Schaeken, chairman and CEO of MDHI, has said the aeromedical market is important to his company. But like other industry leaders at Helitech, Schaeken also sees the value of the dollar against the euro as  something of a challenge in winning orders.
However, for corporate and private markets, Shoreham-based Eastern Atlantic Helicopters has been appointed UK distributor for the entire MDHI line, recently adding the Explorer to its existing single-engine line-up. Eastern Atlantic is also the UK distributor for Enstrom models, some sales of which have been to former R22 owners. The company reports that a few owner-operators have upgraded from an Enstrom to the MD 600, while in turn some owners of the latter have acquired an Explorer for their personal use. Within the last six months, three Explorers have been sold to private individuals.
Definitely One for the Record
But Eastern and MDHI grabbed the Helitech headlines by exhibiting a travel-stained MD 900 that had lifted off from Shoreham on September 4 to make an attempt on the round-the-world helicopter speed record. Flown by Simon Oliphant-Hope, owner of Eastern Atlantic Helicopters, the MD 900 followed an easterly course through Europe and into Russia. There he was obliged to carry a Russian navigator/interpreter, although his companion also proved to be an invaluable ‘fixer,’ helping with accommodation and to deal with officials.
Alas, airspace restrictions in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks put an end to the record attempt, although Oliphant-Hope did finally circle the globe by flying across the Bering Strait into Canada through Greenland and back to the UK. While he was naturally disappointed that five months of planning, training and expense ended without success, Oliphant-Hope dedicated the flight to the victims of the terrorist attacks and their families.
Asked if he would make another attempt, he said he would, although he was fearful of having to land where there are bears and vowed to   take a gun next time.  He praised the helicopter, which proved to be a “very stable platform that would cruise all day long at 120 knots.”  Oliphant-Hope was also appreciative of the support given by Pratt & Whitney Canada, which somehow managed to have a technician at all his five stops across Russia. Furthermore, the Honeywell avionics suite ensured that he never got lost, although he was worried when one of the three GPS inputs went offline when flying in darkness and low over water.

Donny Atkins, Bell Helicopter’s executive director for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, told AIN that sales this year are better than for the past four years. “Last year, sales in Europe amounted to $31 million, but we passed that mark in May this year and have never looked back. This is going to be a $100 million year, and it will be achieved by a smaller sales force than before.”
With the exception of the Model 430, all Bell types have sold in larger numbers this year. Atkins sees both Africa and the former Soviet Union to be “great tilt-rotor territory.” But some unexpected markets are opening–a sale of six Bell 206B3s to the Bulgarian air force recently led to the first order for a civil Bell 407 in that country.

He is clearly frustrated that the lack of single-pilot IFR clearance for the Bell 427 is costing orders. “The Stockholm police had been an all-Bell operator, but when replacements were needed it selected the EC 135 because the 427 was not yet ready.”  However, Atkins is proud of a police-equipped 427 that has been delivered this year to Bahrain, claiming that it is “the most sophisticated police helicopter in the world.”  Meanwhile, the Czech Republic will take delivery of an EMS-configured Bell 427 next month.

“The market has been flat,” admitted Tommy Thomason, Sikorsky vice president of civil programs, but he too is waiting–waiting for the S-92 to achieve certification and enter production. As well as seeing the S-61 and older Puma replacement market as ideal for the S-92, Thomason is optimistic that the current S-76 will increasingly gain EMS market share, while still replacing earlier models used in offshore oil industry support.

Kazan’s deputy general director,  Valeri Kartachev, told AIN that the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207K-powered Ansat light multipurpose helicopter is well into its flight-test program, with 220 flights to date.  The second prototype will fly toward the end of this year, and series production should begin next summer.  Kartachev said contracts covering some 15 aircraft have been signed.

First flown in 1967, the clean lines of the Gazelle have given it an appearance belying its vintage, and MW Helicopters has been selling ex-military examples as fast as it can acquire them. In 1999 the company obtained JAR 145 approval, later becoming one of the first shops to gain approval for the maintenance of ex-UK Ministry of Defence Gazelles. Three examples were exhibited at Helitech, and the Gazelle has clearly become a popular mount for owner-pilots.
Finally, Heli-Dyne’s executive vice president, Jerry Mullins, spoke highly of Helitech, saying he met more quality contacts at this event than at HeliExpo, the HAI show. That could be because there were fewer specialist completion companies at Duxford, but nevertheless Mullins had no doubt about the value of being there. Specializing in SAR, EMS and VIP configurations, Heli-Dyne has proposed an SAR and avionics package for the eight Bell 412s that Atkins hopes to sell to the Egyptians, while eight Dutch Police MD 902s are to be provided with new instrument panels, rescue hoists and radios supplied in kit form by the company.