HAI looks to Dallas show as key to helo resurgence

 - January 9, 2008, 8:23 AM

As the vertical lift industry convenes in Dallas next month (February 9 to 11) for the 55th HAI Heli-Expo trade show and meeting, it is a dazed and uncertain business beset by flat markets, rising (often ruinous) insurance rates, a growing shortage of rotorcraft pilots and mechanics and a soft overall economy. Nevertheless, the folks who fly helicopters for a living are nothing if not plucky, facing their business days in much the same spirit as the besieged commander who, informed he is surrounded by the enemy on all four sides, chuckles grimly and mutters between clenched teeth, “Good. That means we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em.”

Fortunately for the bottom line of Heli-Expo’s organizer, the venue for this year’s show is Dallas, traditionally the site of strong attendance, as well as home base to two of the helicopter world’s bitterest rivals, both of which are plotting major presences at Heli-Expo 2003. Another manufacturer is hoping to use the show as a springboard for a freshly certified design that has yet to show any tangible market strength.

On top of that, hundreds of far smaller vendors and helicopter operators will be searching for the crucial sale or business edge that in this line of work all too often spells the difference between bonanza and bankruptcy.

As the first registration forms began to stack up from the HAI rank and file, show organizers were encouraged. “We’re right about where we were last year at this time,” said Marilyn McKinnis, director of marketing and expositions, “which in this economy is a definite victory. While Dallas is a solid venue for HAI, the Heli-Expos we stage there are not record setters. Las Vegas is the town for that; just about every show organizer in America knows that. But we’ve always drawn strongly at Dallas.”

The indoor static display is just about filled, with some of the last helicopters registered being a pair of Sikorsky S-61s–one from Colson Helicopters and the other the test vehicle for Carson Helicopters’ new advanced-technology main rotor blades. Should the blades perform as planned, they will breathe new life into the venerable S-61 airframe, dramatically increasing payload and potentially lengthening the service life of the 1960s-vintage workhorse.

Crosstown Showdown
Glowering at each other across the trackless suburban sprawl of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, American Eurocopter and Bell Helicopter Textron are the big dogs on the Western world’s helicopter sales front porch. Based in nearby Grand Prairie, the North American arm of the Franco-German rotorcraft consortium has been flexing its market muscle recently with the introduction, at long last, of its much anticipated EC 145, shown previously only in mockup form but now in the U.S. in a full-up utility configuration. Certified more than a year ago, the first batch off the Marignane, France assembly line was earmarked for the French national police, an agency that was not only the launch customer but also the hands-on impetus for the creation of the EC 145 in the first place.

Operational glitches with the EC 145 have slowed its acceptance rate with the French police, generally delaying the design’s production, and making the aircraft difficult to sell due to a lack of operational demonstrations.

Conspicuous by its absence at Heli-Expo’03, the Eurocopter EC 225 will be on the minds of many, even as it’s not on AEC’s show stand. Essentially a civil edition of the Model 725 upgraded Super Puma that Eurocopter is developing for the French military, the EC 225 (originally known as the AS 332L2 Mk II+) was to have been offered to the civil market this year. The EC 225 combines new engines (in this case, Turbomeca Makila 2As developing 13 percent more shp than the Makila 1A2s they replaced) with a five-blade main rotor and gearbox. This newest edition of Eurocopter’s medium-utility lifter has suffered from problems with that main gearbox as well as teething troubles with the Makila 2A. Their problems have continued to delay civil certification almost a full calendar year, with approval due in late 2003 and first deliveries in early 2004. Canadian offshore giant CHC is to be the EC 225’s launch customer. Company insiders recommend a visit to either this summer’s Paris Air Show or next winter’s Heli-Expo show for their first hands-on experience with the EC 225.

Since it’s not much more than a dozen nautical miles (as the helicopter flies) from AEC’s Grand Prairie nest to the Dallas Convention Center, look for a representation
of that manufacturer’s product line en masse. Also look for some new faces, namely AEC’s new CEO, Marc Paganini, who recently stepped into that assignment from his previous post as senior vice president of investor relations of European aerospace giant EADS, of which Eurocopter and its U.S subsidiary, are a part.

AEC will announce a sales upswing at Heli-Expo’03 that would be termed modest in years long gone by but is more than welcome in these tight times.

Just up the road from AEC’s Grand Prairie plant and just a short stroll up the convention hall aisle is AEC’s primary protagonist, Bell Helicopter. Traditionally one of America’s two most influential rotorcraft makers (the other being Sikorsky), Bell has been a goodnews/bad-news story ever since its vaunted V-22 Osprey tiltrotor program started getting into trouble a decade ago. That controversial program’s well known triumphs and tragedies took place alongside Bell’s successful introduction of the Model 407, a four-blade follow-on to the JetRanger. Despite a series of performance-reducing ADs, sales of the 407 have reached nearly the half-thousand mark.

Nevertheless, aggressive marketing of its extensive product line has allowed Eurocopter to make substantial inroads into many segments of the light helicopter market that traditionally belonged to Bell. On top of that, the ups and downs of the V-22 program have dominated Bell’s corporate strategies and made it into a must-win deal for the company.

In a corporate reorganization that is apparently continuing, Bell’s parent company, Textron, initiated widespread cost-cutting measures throughout its stable of companies. John Murphey last year was named from within the Bell ranks to be that company’s new president. Bell’s customer support, long the envy of the industry, had declined alarmingly in customer polls and became one of the company’s self-proclaimed targets for restaffing and improvement.

At the same time, Murphey acknowledged that in the time Eurocopter had developed a pair of new designs aimed at the competitive light civil market, Bell had launched none. Thus was revealed the JRX, a tentative low-cost turbine single intended to supplant the JetRanger, arguably the world’s most successful civil helicopter. Since Bell admitted the design was under study at last year’s Heli-Expo, a go/no-go decision on the JRX would be a logical part of Bell’s presentation this year.

Certified: Now What?
While much of Sikorsky Aircraft’s overall helicopter development efforts have been and remain aimed at the military market, the company has not completely turned its back on the civil side. Its classic S-76, now in its seventh major iteration since introduction in the days of the Carter Administration, continues to be a superb niche player, serving as the ne plus ultra of the aeromedical world, as well as the definitive Fortune 100-style helicopter for the corporate elite.

Foremost in the minds of Sikorsky’s civil-side marketers is the S-92. Launched 11 years ago at Heli-Expo’92, the 25,200-lb medium twin will have received its FAA/JAA certification by show time and Sikorsky’s efforts to sell the 19-passenger (22 in its military variant) helicopter will swing into high gear. So far the company has been touting a briefcase full of memorandums of understanding, letters of intent and a handful of orders of varying firmness, but little in the way of actual cash-on-the-barrelhead business for the high-tech helo. Whether or not Sikorsky will have an actual S-92 on display in Dallas was not clear at press time. The real issue is if Sikorsky can move the big rotorcraft in the commercial world. Inability to do so would be a setback, a serious one certainly, and one Sikorsky would hope to overcome by winning some of Europe’s and Asia’s upcoming military acquisition deals, scheduled to increase steadily through the next 10 years.

The Virtual Show
A special computer service, introduced for last year’s Heli-Expo, has really come into
its own for this year’s show. Webmeisters interested should start at HAI’s home site (www.rotor.com) and click the “Virtual Trade Show” feature. They will then be presented with a color-coded map of the Heli-Expo’03 floor plan.

Scrolling over red booth images with a mouse will display a pop-up with the name of the company occupying the booth. By clicking on the red booth, detailed information about the occupant exhibitor is displayed. This feature is called a “virtual booth” and is automatically available for every exhibiting company registered for Heli-Expo. The virtual booth contains information on the company as supplied to HAI, including contact information, Web links and a narrative description of that company’s products or services.

An additional feature of the interactive floor plan is the ability to search for exhibiting companies by the products and services they provide. Simply select one of the 51 predefined product categories and click on the search function. Not only will a list of all the product-specific companies and their booth numbers appear, but all the booths in the search results will change to yellow on the image map for easy visual identification.

Browsers at the virtual show site can do a lot more than prowl an electronic version of the show floor. Other files provide schedules for HAI-sponsored educational sessions, forums and seminars, some of them beginning before the show and extending into the days after. Full links for hotel and rental car reservations, registering for the show–in short the complete pre-registration package–are all there.