Heli Expo 06: Sales records tumbles in Dallas

 - September 21, 2006, 7:19 AM

If deals closed are the standard by which a trade show’s success is measured, Heli-Expo 2006 was an unqualified triumph. During the event, held in Dallas on the last three days of February, the major manufacturers announced sales approaching $700 million.

On the opening day, AgustaWestland parent Finmeccanica finalized a contract with Japan’s Mitsui Bussan Aerospace for 12 AW139s (as the former Bell/Agusta AB139 is now known), with deliveries beginning next year.

But the bulk of its orders were revealed later on, most significantly in the form of a four-year contract with UK-based AgustaWestland distributor Sloane Helicopters. The new deal allows the British company to market the entire civil product line–from the A119 to AW139–in Europe and involves the delivery of no fewer than 44 helicopters over the next four years. Deliveries of the first 10 will begin later this year.
While Sloane says it will continue to focus on the corporate market, it also hopes to expand its share of the public service sector.

To illustrate the point, two A109S Grands are about to start serving with the Royal Flight of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Three Sloane engineers will move to the Royal Air Force base at Northolt to support them from April 1.

AgustaWestland also signed a contract with heli-ski specialist Skyline Helicopters of Terrace, British Columbia, for an A119 Koala. As well as lucrative skiing trips, the Canadian operator plans to put it to work in geo-seismic assessment and research.
In all, the Italian OEM’s order book at the show was valued at more than $340 million.

Bell reported signing orders for 55 helicopters worth more than $130 million. Leading the pack was the Bell 417, a re-engined 407 that the company unveiled dramatically on day one. Bell received orders for more than 30 copies of the 417 during the show. Next came the 429, 15 of which were ordered, followed by single-digit orders for the rest.

The Honeywell HTS900 turboshaft will power both the 417 and armed reconnaissance helicopter. (The 407 is powered by a Rolls-Royce 250-C47B.) Honeywell has invested heavily in improving the LTS101, the engine from which the HTS900 evolved, since acquiring it from Lycoming. Both unplanned-engine-repair and in-flight-shutdown rates have improved four-fold, the manufacturer said, and direct maintenance costs per shaft horsepower have been cut in half.

Additional improvements planned for HTS900 include the shift from an axial compressor to a dual centrifugal compressor.

Eurocopter announced sales of 32 helicopters valued at $207 million. Three EMS operators signed deals: CJ Systems Aviation Group of West Mifflin, Pa., ordered 10 EC 135s; Air Methods of Englewood, Colo., ordered 15 EC 135s; and Omniflight of Addison, Texas, ordered three AS 350B2s.

Era Helicopters, a Seacor company with bases in Louisiana and Alaska, ordered two EC 225s for its offshore oil services business. Air Kauai, an air-tour operator in Hawaii, ordered an AS 350B2. Finally, Temple Aviation, a private operator in Las Vegas, also ordered an AS 350B2–the company’s first helicopter.

Eurocopter will increase production of its EC 145 from 19 last year to 25 this year. Last year, Eurocopter received orders for 20 of the type, primarily for EMS operations in North America and Europe. Seventy-five EC 145s are already in service, and the company currently has a backlog of 20 for the type.

London’s Metropolitan Police ordered three new EC 145s to supplement, and one day replace, a pair of AS 355 TwinStars. The helicopters are already in the UK, about to be role-equipped and completed by UK Eurocopter distributor McAlpine Helicopters.

American Eurocopter is entering the EC 145 in the U.S. Army’s light utility helicopter competition, the winner of which is due to be announced at the end of this month. Finally, its Columbus, Miss., plant is soon to start building EC 145 tailbooms.

An order for four Sikorsky S-76C++s for U.S. Helicopter’s New York City airport shuttle service, will boost its launch fleet of three S-76Bs. A source told AIN that the company also has firm commitments for an additional 10 to 12 helicopters, including the larger S-92.

Sikorsky’s Jeff Pino, promoted last month to president of the Connecticut-based manufacturer following Steve Finger’s move to the top slot at Pratt & Whitney, says that by this time next year the firm hopes to challenge Eurocopter for the number-one spot in commercial helicopter deliveries (based on dollar value). “Last year we delivered nearly 50 S-76s and S-92s, worth $600 million. That’s double the revenue in 2004 and an eight-fold increase over our 2002 figure.”

Total revenue for the company, including military helicopters, was $2.8 billion. By comparison, said Pino, Eurocopter posted sales last year worth about $3.8 billion.

“In 2003 we committed to doubling total revenue, which that year was $2 billion, by 2008. We’re on our way to doing that. Each of the past three years has been our biggest ever.”

MD Helicopters plans to sell 20 helicopters this year as it clears a backlog of orders made under the former administration. CEO Lynn Tilton told of the company’s ambitions to become the number-one OEM in terms of customer service, and to build the safest helicopters in the world.

The Tilton plan is to have every component “on call” by 2008–a decision that she admits will mean higher sticker prices. The upside, she said, is that MDH will be able to keep to its delivery promises to customers.

As for the safety claim, MDH has put itself forward as “poster child” for the new industry-wide safety drive launched by the International Helicopter Safety Team. Tilton said that by the beginning of next year, MDH’s products will incorporate four out of five safety features identified by the group–wire-strike protection, TAWS, HUMS and cockpit video recording.

Enstrom is courting investors to support its expansion plans. CEO Jerry Mullins says that the company’s Menominee, Mich. plant has the capacity to produce 50 to 60 helicopters per year, roughly twice the output forecast for this year. “We’re building them up to the point of paint and avionics,” said Mullins, adding that customers can expect delivery of a new aircraft within 90 days of placing an order.

Next on tap for the production line is the 280FXT, a turbine trainer based on the fuselage of the existing piston 280FX. Mullins said Enstrom is waiting for Rolls-Royce to announce availability of a 300-shp turbine engine.

Rolls-Royce marketing director Matt Haugk responded that the OEM is “still in the study phase” of several new engines at the lower and higher end of the power spectrum. Both Schweizer and Eurocopter have also expressed interest in an engine in the 300-shp range, but Haugk said that “the bulk of the demand has been for larger units.”

Finally, Frank Robinson plans “within the next few weeks” to flight test an R44 Raven equipped with a two-axis autopilot, possibly paving the way for IFR certification of the four-place piston helicopter. Robinson currently offers an R44 IFR trainer, but it can be flown only in VFR conditions.

Robinson also wants to encourage flight schools to use the more stable R44 as a trainer instead of the R22. He added that even though it burns “maybe three or four gallons per hour” more than the R22, the larger R44 “would still be quite realistic” as a trainer.

During its early days the R22 was involved in a number of training accidents, as students made demands on its rotor system that the aircraft couldn’t handle. Robinson is on record as saying that the helicopter was never intended as a training machine, but its (at the time unique) low price made it attractive to start-up schools.

Turbomeca president Emeric d’Arcimoles said the company will double both production floor space and employment at its Grand Prairie site. “We are also increasing our supplier base and have been contacting potential new vendors in the U.S.”

The company has allocated $50 million to the expansion plans. Approximately $10 million funds a 67,000-sq-ft expansion begun last June, which is expected to be fully operational by next month.