Buoyed by steady and solid U.S. government and international work, Sikorsky is demonstrating strong hover performance in challenging economic conditions, and president Jeff Pino’s press conference yesterday morning was one of the more information-rich sessions here at Heli-Expo.
Topics off the usual beaten path of financial and delivery figures included the future of the swashplate; electric tail rotors; the surprising scalability of the X2’s technology; job prospects for “optional pilots;” and some convincing analogies to convey just how powerful the heavy-hitting CH-53K will be when it enters service.
The venerable helicopter manufacturer derived 57 percent of its $6.7 billion revenue in 2010 from building and selling aircraft. Seventy percent of that $6.7 billion was earned from U.S. defense contracts–a ratio that Sikorsky is delighted to have and needs to maintain in these hard times. But with the Obama administration tasking the Pentagon with cutting expenditures by $78 billion over the next five years, Sikorsky also sees the need to double its non-U.S. government work in the years ahead. Defense budget cuts notwithstanding, Sikorsky’s bread-and-butter defense programs, the Black Hawk and the CH-53K, continue to thrive unmolested, at least for now.
On the commercial side, sales of the S-76 and S-92 brought in some $900 million last year. This particular segment of Sikorsky’s accounting system will include revenues from Canada’s military S-92s beginning later this year.
Interestingly, Pino sees the rise in the price of oil not from the perspective of $4 a gallon at the pump, but from the motivation it will exert on the oil and gas industry to search farther afield for the precious stuff, a process that relies ever more on large, sophisticated helicopters. “The price of oil is the best indicator of dollar growth in the helicopter industry,” he claimed. “And there’s talk by some people of it reaching $120 a barrel.”
Pino also noted that half the current helicopter fleet is more than 20 years old. “From our perspective, the market will begin to come back at the end of this year into mid-2012. By 2013, demand will outstrip supply.”
With nearly 800 S-76s delivered so far and 5.6 million hours in their collective logbook, the S-76D program continues to work toward certification by late this year. With new main- and tail-rotor blades, new engines and a new cockpit, it will have 600 pounds more OGE hover performance than the S-76C++ it replaces and meet all current and proposed ICAO noise regulations, said Pino.
There are now 132 Sikorsky S-92s operating in 22 countries (13 of them in a head-of-state role), and a Bristow S-92 has logged its 10,000th hour.
Production of the (née Schweizer) S-434 is moving from Elmira, N.Y., to the Sikorsky facility in Coatesville, Pa., and Pino has high hopes for where the Firefly electric helicopter technology demonstrator could someday lead. As currently designed, the helicopter has a 200-hp electric motor, and its 1,100-pound complement of batteries will be good for only 15 minutes of flight time. As Pino pointed out yesterday, Igor Sikorsky’s early accomplishments (an endurance record of one hour, 15 minutes, for example) appeared to have limited practical application at the time: “Electric helicopter power is teaching us how to use electric power for the tail rotor instead of taking engine power to the tail, for example.”
Just how hefty is the 88,000-pound CH-53K currently under development? Pilot Pino put it this way: “Its main rotor hub and transmission weigh 15,000 pounds–as much as an entire Black Hawk. It is exactly the same size as a CH-53E, but it will lift three to four times as much. The tail rotor provides the same thrust as the S-76’s main rotor, and the main rotor provides as much thrust as six Black Hawks.”
While most recently the X2 has drawn the much of the aviation media’s attention on new tech, Sikorsky is also proud of its system for detecting hostile fire, which will help Black Hawk crews in harm’s way react effectively to ground fire aimed in their direction, and its advances in “optionally piloted” helicopters. But the X2’s progression from first flight to its target speed of 250 knots in just 17 flights, and at a total cost of just $50 million, has certainly caught the attention of the industry.
The S-97 Raider, a military application of the X2’s contra-rotating rigid rotors and tail-mounted propulsor announced last year, is expected to fly within four years. The single-turbine aircraft will have an mtow of between 9,000 and 10,000 pounds and will be designed from the outset to fly with none, one or two pilots.
Pino remains bullish on the prospects for the X2 technology, which he says is highly scalable–to the point that computer studies have taken the configuration to as much as 250,000 pounds mtow. Whether or not there would be demand for such a large rotary-wing aircraft is another question, and Pino concedes that beyond a certain size it makes more sense to support a load with wings for long-haul transportation. But Pino is convinced that in the X2 Sikorsky has a better solution for combining VTOL with speed than any tiltrotor or tiltwing: “We never lose the attributes of a helicopter. It’s a helicopter that goes fast, not an airplane that lands and takes off like a helicopter.”
Sikorsky’s wind-tunnel experiments with leading-edge and trailing-edge flaps on main rotor blades are yielding results promising enough to prompt Pino to predict that they could even replace the swashplate someday as the primary means of controlling a helicopter.