HeliExpo 2004 to test mettle of helicopter industry

 - February 2, 2007, 9:31 AM

The industry gears up for its annual group hug, this year back in Las Vegas (March 15 to 17) against a backdrop of decent sales figures for new civil helicopters over the past year and a forecast of modest growth over the next eight. According to Bill Dane, senior analyst at Forecast International, between 2003 and 2012 projected deliveries are 9,500 helicopters valued at $19 billion. Of these, 3,600 will be piston powered and more than half of them will be Robinsons.

As usual, at press time the plans of many exhibitors were far from finalized, but here’s what we managed to glean from them:

The Anglo-Italian tie-up will base its presence largely around the A109E Power and A119 Koala, both of which are selling in the commercial and government markets. Marketing manager Roberto Garavaglia said both models are experiencing growth–albeit at a less-than-thrilling rate.

Last year the Koala scored in the U.S. market with deliveries to new customers such as police departments in New York and Pennsylvania. This year will see its initiation into offshore operations in the Gulf of Mexico with Tex-Air, which has signed for 10 of the single-engine helicopters and cites its cabin size– enough for one more passenger than the A109–and speed as factors behind its choice.

EMS customers are taking advantage of the A119’s ability to incorporate a single/dual-litter configuration, with full patient access by two medical attendants. Garavaglia said these are “unique benefits in the current single-engine helicopter market.” An option available since last year is an LCD-based integrated cockpit display system, designed to reduce the pilot’s workload.

The A109E Power sold well last year and AgustaWestland wants to maintain this performance this year. Besides its presence in the corporate and VIP market, the Power confirmed its impressive versatility with acceptance in the police and EMS sectors with new customers in Japan, China, the UK and Italy, as well as in the U.S., where it entered service with the New Mexico State Police in October. Last year the Italian and Malaysian fire departments also chose the Power, for communications duties rather than actual water dumping.

The civil version of the EH 101–the only helicopter so far to be developed by both companies–has to date only one civil customer in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. It continues to do well in the European and Canadian military SAR market, however, and is in the running for the U.S. Presidential helicopter competition, up against Sikorsky’s S-92. Expect to see one of these–known as the US 101–at the show as well.

American Eurocopter
The European OEM has reason to be confident–its civil products continue to outsell any of its competitors. It is bringing most of the ships in its portfolio to next month’s HAI show in Las Vegas, including the EC 120, 130, 135, 155, 350, and anticipates the EC 145’s debut in the U.S. with a handover to the first U.S. customer.

American Eurocopter’s new 40-acre, 100,000-sq-ft facility at Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Miss., is nearing completion and staff are already operating from temporary facilities. The new base will manufacture components for the AStar, TwinStar and EC 130, and complete green helicopters for U.S. customers. It will also carry out final assembly of the AS 350B AStar, which continues to sell well within parapublic market sectors. When fully operational, Golden Triangle will employ a workforce of approximately 100, but the Grand Prairie, Texas facility will continue assembly operations as before.

Bell will be at HAI as usual in force this year, with a recently sold new 412 and a 407 on display in the booth. In the static area there will be several new-design 427 mockups, the Bell Eagle Eye UAV and a Bell 430. Demonstration aircraft, including a 430, 427 and 407, will be available for customer flights.

This is the first HAI for Mike Redenbaugh as Bell CEO. He will be holding a press conference to discuss Bell’s performance last year, projections for this year and “some exciting new developments in the works at Bell for the future.” He will also host a by-invitation-only luncheon where Bell will recognize individuals who did some “amazing things” in helicopters last year.

New CEO Jerry Mullins is still getting to grips with the Enstrom business and coordinating the increased production and cash flow, associated with its contract for seventeen 480Bs to the Indonesian National Police. The first two of these were handed over last July. The challenge, said Mullins, is one of coordinating growth with the flow of funds to support that growth. “Enstrom has a great group of talented people and a high-quality product and, once these growth challenges are resolved, I have a good feeling about the future.”

MD Helicopters
After a shaky couple of years, MDHI CEO Henk Shaeken at last year’s HAI Show asserted its problems were a thing of the past and that last year would be one of consolidation. The company managed to stick to its re-jigged delivery schedule–at least as much as any OEM does–and was able to celebrate a milestone as the entire fleet of 240-odd Notar helicopters achieved between them a total of a half-million flight hours.

Sales and marketing director Colin Whicher expects to have an MD 902 on display–the fifth and final delivery to Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg police–together with a 500E and 520N available for demo rides.

Robinson manufactured a record 422 new helicopters last year. That figure consists of 219 R44 Raven IIs, 75 R44 Raven Is and 128 R22s. An additional 46 R22s were overhauled on the Torrance, Calif. production line.

A confident Frank Robinson predicts even better figures for this year–the first five months of production for both the R44 and R22 are already sold. He attributes the boom to the market’s reception for the higher-performance Raven II and to improvements in the U.S. economy. “This has helped the domestic market while the weak American dollar has greatly stimulated the foreign export market.”

Robinson is still offering the carrot of a free rooftop helipad with every new R44 bought. The catch is that the buyer has to arrange federal, state and local approvals, in addition to a building permit, before the company will release the pad for shipment. Only one such helipad has been opened so far, atop the Honda dealership in Santa Ana, Calif., and out of a dozen current prospects eager for the freebie, only New Zealand operator Wing & Rotor, from Papakura on North Island, has cleared all the hurdles. It was expecting delivery of the pad at press time.

Rolls-Royce celebrates its centennial this year. However, there’s no escaping the fact that the market for new small turboshaft engines is flat. Vice president of customer business Dean Kimsey acknowledges this reality and his colleague, Alex Young, will confirm it during the company’s annual Heli-Expo 10-year forecast briefing on the show’s opening day.

“As far as the Model 250 is concerned, with 160 million flight hours and 15,000 units, nobody in the world has a bigger aftermarket than we do,” Kimsey said. “We’re pursuing them with a range of services–we’ve just signed up an aftermarket maintenance network, news of which we’ll be announcing in the next couple of weeks–trying to reach direct agreements with key operators to try and bring them closer to us. We are also trying to drive down operating costs by reducing the insurance risk and putting maintenance manuals online.”

The heavier RTM322, with a substantial European order book behind it, will soon be repackaged as the CTS322 and pitched at the U.S. military special operations command as an alternative for the Black Hawk upgrade program. A request for proposals is now expected next month, with responses due by mid-June.

Finally, after a press briefing planned for opening day, Sikorsky plans a formal handover of its first production S-92 to Petroleum Helicopters. The medium twin’s VIP interior mockup will also make its domestic debut, after being unveiled at December’s Dubai air show.