Heli-Expo 2009

 - March 27, 2009, 12:18 PM

The helicopter industry isn’t immune to the terrible trouble affecting the global economy, but if Heli-Expo’09 is any indication, the greater diversity among operators of the world’s helicopter fleets helped deliver record high attendance and exhibitor activity. Traveling to the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California for the Helicopter Association International’s February 22 to 24 Heli-Expo were 17,995 attendees, up from last year’s record total of 17,373. Exhibitor numbers climbed 12 percent, to 585 from last year’s 523, and 65 helicopters decorated the show exhibit area and static display.

Vendors on the show floor reported plenty of activity, and many attendees attributed that to helicopters’ primary use as working machines, especially those operated by government operations in public service. People might have a hard time understanding how a business jet can help make a company more efficient, but when helicopters pick up injured people, help catch criminals and put out fires, the benefits are obvious.

Although Heli-Expo’09 was busy and productive, one element was noticeably weak, launches of new helicopter programs. So it was a surprise when RotorWay CEO Grant Norwitz announced plans for an FAA-certified, turbine-powered two-seat helicopter that he hopes to have flying in time for EAA AirVenture in late July. RotorWay’s current kit-built A600 Talon piston-powered helicopter will serve as a stepping stone toward the new FAA-certified helicopter, but Norwitz said the company has no intention of exiting the homebuilt helicopter market.

The new helicopter’s engine is the Rolls-Royce RR300, the same engine that powers Robinson’s in-development R66 five-seater. RotorWay hasn’t selected a name for the turbine-powered helicopter. Norwitz said it will fill “the pressing, unmet market for a moderately priced two-seat turbine helicopter for use in training programs, commercial environments, private piloting, aerial photography, film and news production, military, law enforcement and a host of other applications.”

Erickson Air-Crane anno-unced it is rebranding itself and expanding its OEM capability in the hopes of producing a new heavy-lift helicopter within two to three years. “The timing is right for the next-generation S-64,” said Erickson president and CEO Udo Rieder, adding that the state of the economy works in the company’s favor. “Who in this environment would possibly invest in developing a new heavy-lift aircraft…that could potentially run $50 million to $75 million per aircraft?”

Erickson already holds the S-64 type certificate and production certificate and can manufacture parts. However, Rieder said the company has so far focused on “remanufacturing” rather than new production. “The rebuild process is considerably more complicated than a new-build process,” he said. Erickson has begun seeking feedback from customers to help design the new helicopter.

The potential launch of a new heavy-lift aircraft has also prompted the company to consider a name change, possibly something with “aero” or “aerospace” in it to reflect the company’s expanding focus.

One of Heli-Expo’09’s most porous secrets, the Rolls-Royce RR500 turboshaft engine, was finally unveiled on February 23. The RR500, a 475-shp derivative of the RR300 that powers the in-development Robinson R66, is scheduled for certification in late 2011. A turboprop version of the RR500 was first announced last summer at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. Turboshaft RR500 deliveries are pegged to begin in the first quarter of 2012.

“Basically, we took the 300-shp RR300 and increased the airflow,” said Ken Roberts, Rolls-Royce’s president for helicopters. Design engineers enlarged the compressor and modified the turbine and other components. Explaining why engineers chose to increase the airflow, Roberts said, “We wanted to keep the operating temperature relatively modest.” Increasing temperatures would have been another way to increase power but would have also increased the output of NOX.

The RR500 will have an electronic engine monitoring system, like the RR300, and retains the RR300’s lightweight and cost-effective hydro-pneumatic engine control system. The engine is slightly more powerful than the 250 Series 2 (which produces between 420 and 475 shp). “It is targeted at new applications,” Roberts said. He suggested that some existing Rolls-Royce 250 applications might move to the RR500 as well.

OEMs Provide Updates
Bob Fitzpatrick, Bell Helicopter senior vice president of business development and commercial programs, revealed at Heli-Expo that the company now expects Transport Canada and concurrent FAA certification for the Bell 429 in May.

The 429, originally slated for certification in late 2007, has been dogged by repeated delays as the company juggled military and civil programs, including
the $70 million-per-copy V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which is now poised to become the biggest single piece of Bell’s business, according to Fitzpatrick.

The Bell 429 order book includes “letters of intent and orders” for 300 helicopters,
and twenty-five 429s are currently in production at the company’s plant in Mirabel, Quebec. The latest delay for the 429 is attributable to software certification, but certification work is finished on all of the helicopter’s hardware and mechanical systems.

The 429’s performance numbers have improved again from figures released last year. Top speed has increased to 150 from 147 knots and maximum range climbed to 368 from 350 nm.

After a rocky start to the sales year–Bell took orders for only three commercial helicopters this January versus 40 in January 2008–Fitzpatrick said, “Things are looking much better.” He said that Bell expects to deliver 180 civil helicopters this year, led by one hundred 407s.

Bell values its current order backlog at $6.2 billion, an increase of $2.4 billion over the last year. Despite the well publicized financial difficulties of its parent company, Textron, Fitzpatrick insisted that “Bell is not for sale.” Bell has adjusted to the current economic climate with employee layoffs and by “slowing down the production ramp rates and the commercial lines” in Mirabel, Fitzpatrick said. As the 429 nears entry-into-service, Fitzpatrick also said that Bell plans to end production of the 427 this year.

Fitzpatrick denied that Bell had stopped work on the BA609 civil tiltrotor program, but two more test aircraft that were slated to join the program last year have been pushed off to 2010. Bell is developing the aircraft jointly with Italy’s AgustaWestland.

Eurocopter CEO Lutz Bertling rebuffed questions about how his company would fare in the face of the ongoing global economic crisis by emphasizing the company’s market dominance and its commitment to conserving euros. “Cash is king,” he said, adding that Eurocopter has improved its cash position and reduced production lead times–by 35 percent– over the last year.

Emphasizing Eurocopter’s strong 2008 results compared with 2007, Bertling said worldwide sales increased to $5.85 billion from $5.46 billion and the number of helicopters delivered jumped to 588 from 488. Sales in the U.S. grew to $750 million from $571 million–a 31.3-percent increase–fueled largely by the U.S. Army’s UH-72A program.

Eurocopter now has 51.1 percent of world market share and 48 percent of U.S. market share. Sixty-five percent of Eurocopter’s revenues continue to come from the export market (which it defines as outside France, Germany and Spain), 55 percent is from helicopter production and 55 percent is from the civil sector. Bertling said the company had an $18 billion backlog distributed over 1,500 helicopters, but acknowledged that new helicopter orders dropped from 802 in 2007 to 715 in 2008 and that the downward trend would likely accelerate this year.

The EC 175 program is on track and the helicopter will fly by year-end, according to Bertling. Although Eurocopter is practicing “careful cash management,” Bertling said the company continues to invest in new development programs, as well as new training, maintenance and logistics facilities worldwide and in the U.S. He predicted that Eurocopter would fly a diesel-powered helicopter within 30 months and said the company is working on upgrades of existing programs and the “preliminary design” of a new helicopter.

AgustaWestland executives said they remain “reasonably and realistically optimistic” about the future of their company, as well as that of the industry at large. The Italian company has a backlog of more than ?10 billion ($12.8 billion) and revenue and orders increased during the first nine months of 2008 compared with the same period the year before.

AgustaWestland CEO Giuseppe Orsi said the helicopter industry is “in good shape” and isn’t likely to suffer as a result of the economic downturn. “Our industry is solid. [It’s] doing fine,” he said. “We have a backlog of $13 billion, and Eurocopter has at least the same or more.”

AgustaWestland goals include improving the company’s traditional helicopters and overcoming limitations through the use of new technologies and investments in infrastructure. The company “believes the future is in the tiltrotor,” and acknowledged that the delay in BA609 production was due in part to a lack of dedicated resources. “We have been working on other problems, and we gave precedence to other programs,” he said. He expects production to begin in 2013 or 2014.

Sikorsky came to Heli-Expo following the successful first flight of the S-76D on February 7. Although a few months behind schedule, certification of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210S- powered S-76D is scheduled for early to mid-next year. The S-76D features new composite main rotor blades, a quieter tail rotor, flight-into-known-icing protection, health-and-usage monitoring system and a Thales TopDeck glass cockpit.

Sikorsky’s major announcement at Heli-Expo was that it folded the Schweizer brand into the new Sikorsky Global Helicopters unit, which includes the S-76, S-92 and H-92 commercial helicopters. The rebranding means that the helicopters made by Sikor- sky’s Schweizer division will no longer carry the Schweizer name, including the S-300C, S-300CBi, S-333 and S-434. Schweizer will remain a subsidiary and all non-rotary-wing products will retain the Schweizer name, including the test facility in Elmira, N.Y. Keystone’s engine and helicopter services and Sikorsky’s Associated Aircraft Group charter and fractional provider also fall under the Sikorsky Global Helicopters umbrella.

By far the biggest “celebrity” at Heli-Expo was MD Helicopters CEO Lynn Tilton, who spent hours in the company’s display signing photos of herself. At the OEM forum on the last day of the show, the meeting was almost over when Tilton joined what had been a dull session. As Tilton looked for Frank Robinson, she generated a wave of laughter when she noted Robinson’s “rock star” status at the show, then added: “But I’ve just finished signing 200 photographs–try and top that, Frank.”

MD Helicopters, Tilton said, is coming off its best year “since I’ve been here” and should deliver more than 70 new helicopters this year. She said the company’s financial results for 2008 were “positive.” Last year MD delivered 52 new helicopters, 10 short of its stated goal, but considerably more than its recent best of 38 in 2000. Tilton reiterated that MD missed its overall delivery goal because of supply chain issues and the distractions caused by dealing with two significant parts failure problems on the 902 last year. Those have since been rectified.

Tilton said the company has no plans to introduce a new helicopter but is aggressively pursuing significant improvements to its current product lineup, including new composite main rotor blades, new avionics and composite engine bay doors. “We can do great things with just simple improvements,” she said.

Robinson Helicopter opened its doors for Heli-Expo attendees on the last day of the show, inviting them to see the R66 and tour the factory. The second R66 made its first flight on February 18 and a third is under construction. Robinson is now anticipating FAA R66 certification late this year or early next year.