New Rotorcraft 2003

 - January 15, 2008, 4:27 AM

In the face of what market forecasters predict will be nearly another full decade of flat civil helicopter sales, manufacturers have been loath to risk precious capital to develop models whose market reception would likely be less than enthusiastic. The result has been a handful of new designs, some riskier than others. Herein, the details…

Talking about new helicopters under development is a lot like talking about four-leaf clovers; one of the reasons they’re interesting is their simple scarcity. The turn of the 21st century has witnessed a paucity of new helicopter designs, their rarity driven by the long-term, low-volume sales figures of helicopters whose market lifetimes are measured in decades.

Compared with the triple-digit sales figures routinely racked up by the fixed-wing business aviation manufacturers, commercial helicopter success, like football, is a game of inches. Those inches, as measured by Aastad Co. of Chadds Ford, Pa., a respected industry tracking firm headed by former MBB Helicopter president Andy Aastad, show a slight decline in new and used rotorcraft sales in the first 11 months of the year just ended, down from the titillating mini-peak recorded in 2001.

With other traditional market segments at least holding their own, corporate helicopter sales slipped slightly last year, enough to make their absence felt. As recorded by Aastad, a decline in new piston helo sales last year marked a tumble from 2001, which with 173 total new deliveries marked the best year in the last half-decade. In the first 11 months of last year, sales of new piston helos amounted to more than 30 fewer units than the year before, evidence of a general softening of the market that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been within shouting range of a financial journal in the past 18 months.

In the turbine arena, sales are down this year, the lowest since 1998. Aastad’s year-to-date November total of 127 numbered below his past four-year average of 139. Most use categories–offshore, corporate/ private, air medical, public service and utility–showed loss, except for public service (not surprising in these days of homeland security awareness) and air medical.

Market share of U.S. public-service helo sales rose almost 10 percent, while every other category dropped significantly (except air medical, which showed a slight rise). “We expect this high rate of growth in public service and law enforcement to continue for at least another year or two,” said Aastad. “While air medical and law enforcement are beating the past four-year average sales figures, it will still be touch-and-go whether or not 2002 meets and passes the past four-year total sales of 139.75 units. If we project current sales of 127 units on a straightline basis, we come up with 138.5 units, just 1.25 units short of the target. However, the last month of the year tends to produce more sales than the straight-line numbers, so we optimistically believe that 2002 will be a winner.”

With pre-production and certification times measured in decades, no rotorcraft executive can launch a new design with any meaningful idea of what the actual market condition will be when his product sets sail. Herein is AIN’s summary of the new designs being prepared for their maiden market voyages.

Bell/Agusta Aerospace
AB139–One of the brightest spots in an otherwise somnolent scene, the AB139 looks to be the biggest market niche-driven success story since the Bell 407 (a design that, beset by severe introduction teething troubles, managed to overcome those woes and go on to market dominance). Like the Bell 407, the AB139 is the product of a lot of listening, to user groups (what marketers call focus groups, composed of operators ranging from one- and two-ship users) and big-fleet operators.

It’s also the first tangible output of Bell/Agusta Aerospace Corp., a joint-production entity announced at the 1998 Farnborough Air Show. That agreement called upon Agusta to bring the design through development and shoulder 40 percent of the flight-test program. Now that that much of the program has been concluded, the number-three AB139 prototype arrived at Bell’s facility in Arlington, Texas, on December 16. Tasked as the avionics certification ship, that AB139 has rotored its way west to take its place at Honeywell’s Phoenix facilities, where the avionics certification testing is under way. The official certification target is early this year, but given the usual schedule slip, figure on sometime this summer.

The AB139’s major feature is a great 283-cu-ft box of a fuselage capable of accommodating 12 to 15 passengers at speeds up to 160 knots for up to 400 nm. This is a Swiss Army knife of a helicopter, its large cabin capable of accepting just about any mission load a customer could desire, from a plush executive completion to bare-metal cargo hauling.

Five-blade fully articulated main rotor with four-blade canted tail rotor provide high tail-rotor ground clearance. The retractable tricycle landing gear features heavy-duty nosewheel steering. Crashworthy systems and high-g seats are standard, while an icing protection system is optional. Refueling is possible from either side.

A pair of large plug-in sliding doors (the kind long familiar to drivers of minivans) allow easy cabin access. The large baggage compartment is accessible from the cabin and externally through large doors on both sides.

The AB139 was the first aircraft, fixed- or rotary-wing, to fly with a Honeywell Primus Epic integrated avionics suite. The Primus Epic system is offered in four configurations: basic VFR, IFR three-axis automatic flight control system (AFCS), IFR four-axis digital AFCS and a search-and-rescue version.

The IFR versions have three or four Honeywell DU-1080 eight- by 10-inch active-matrix liquid-crystal displays. The Honeywell DU-1080 AMLCD’s flat-panel display provides advanced graphics-generation capabilities, and two cursor control devices (CCDs) allow for easy user input.

The system features a powerful central maintenance computer function that provides a high level of troubleshooting and system maintenance support. Maintenance personnel may use the cockpit displays or a laptop computer to perform aircraft rigging, sensor calibration and avionics system diagnostics.

The AB139 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67C turboshaft engines complete with Fadec. The PT6C-67Cs have a maximum continuous power of 1,531 shp each and yield a maximum cruise speed of 157 knots and a maximum range (without reserves) of 400 nm. Due to the power reserve of the engines, operation is possible with one engine inoperative at mtow.

BA609 Civil Tiltrotor
–Bell/Agusta’s other developing design is even more innovative than the AB139, packing a fistful of firsts in its compact six- to nine-passenger airframe. If the BA609 tiltrotor program is brought to certification and delivered to customers, it will mark the first time a civil tiltrotor has progressed that far. It will also be the first certified fly-by-wire general aviation aircraft (that is, if the Kazan Ansat or Dassault Falcon 7X don’t beat it to the certification finish line). It will be the first propeller-driven aircraft certified to operate in fixed-wing mode without the benefit of a rudder–active yaw control is via differential thrust from the prop-rotors as controlled by the BA609’s triple-redundant flight-control computers. It will also be the first pressurized rotorcraft, a capability required by the fact that, with the flick of a few fingers, this revolution in rotorcrafting can change itself from a helicopter to a fixed-wing aircraft and back.

At press time, the first prototype BA609 was secured to a test stand at Bell’s Arlington flight-test center, the same test stand used almost 10 years ago to evaluate the first V-22 Osprey military tiltrotor prototype. In those days the power trains under evaluation were driven by a pair of thundering 6,150-shp Lycoming T406-AD-400 turboshafts. In the case of the far lighter, far smaller BA609, power comes from a variant of the tried and true Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 family, in this case a pair of PT6C-7As producing some 1,940 shp apiece. Those engines have already been run up on the tethered aircraft. The process began on December 6 with the first of a planned 50 hours of such testing, at the successful conclusion of which history will be made with the first flight of the BA609.

That first flight will come as part of a dream long envisioned. Whether there is a home in reality for the visionary convertiplane is another matter. With a stated company priority toward wrapping up the technical issues barring the far more lucrative MV-22 Osprey program from entering production, Bell president John Murphey is on record as saying that nearly no further developmental work will be performed on the BA609 after first flight until the MV-22 is in full production. More recent published reports quote Bell/Agusta Aerospace BA609 director Jack Gallagher as saying the program will press on for another 36 months after first flight for FAA VFR certification within 36 months. According to Gallagher, more BA609 test ships will join the program as needed, with the first dedicated to expanding the flight envelope, and the second, third and fourth used for systems certification, avionics and icing approvals, as well as FAA function and reliability tests. As to which man’s plan will be followed, time (and undoubtedly Bell’s Heli-Expo press conference) will tell.

Despite the roller-coaster ride through which the tempestuous tiltrotor has driven Bell and its program partners, Bell has stuck to its sales figures, claiming to hold orders for more than 85 aircraft from 40 customers in 18 countries. Should Bell hold those customers to the terms of their contracts, however, payment of the first 25 percent of their as-yet-undisclosed BA609 purchase prices will become due upon first flight.

Eurocopter
Eurocopter EC 225–Progress on this medium-lift twin, essentially an upgraded Puma Mk II intended for civil operators, was slowed last year by troubles with the helicopter’s main rotor gearbox and its Turbomeca Makila 2A turboshafts. These problems have conspired to delay certification almost a full calendar year, with JAA VFR approval of the basic EC 225 expected by the end of this year and first deliveries expected early next year. Launch customer CHC is expected to take possession of the first operational EC 225s by mid-2004. Attendees of this summer’s Paris Air Show will get a first look at the five-blade member of the long-lived Puma bloodline when a production-conforming EC 225 makes its first public appearance there this summer. (At Paris 2001, Eurocopter demonstrated the nonconforming EC 225/ EC 725 prototype shown below.)

FH-1100 Manufacturing
FH-1100 FHoenix–Stanley Hiller built some classic designs in the early pioneering days of the helicopter industry. One of his last, and in many peoples’ opinions the best, was the Fairchild-Hiller FH-1100–a design dating back to May 1961, when his Model 1100 lost the U.S. Army’s Light Observation Helicopter program, which Bell Helicopter won, following a judgment against the Hughes OH-6A, claiming Hughes had defrauded the Army via a price-fixing scheme. That judgment gave life to what became known as the JetRanger. Today a Florida company is updating the FH-1100 airframe, making a modern variant it claims meets the needs of cost-conscious commercial operators.

Nevertheless, low cost, high reliability and a 110-knot maximum speed raise the appeal of the upgraded FH-1100. With DOCs of $186 per hour, and the Rolls-Royce 250-C20B derated from 313 shp to 204 shp and burning 147 pph, the upgraded helo is claimed by its creator, Georges Van Nevel, president of FH-1100 Manufacturing Corp., to be significantly cheaper to operate than the Bell 206. “It lifts more and has a higher ceiling,” he noted, adding that the use of composite fuselage components should reduce assembly time from 2,300 hours to 1,600 hours.

This will help the company to achieve its aim to offer a competitively priced light helicopter–although just how competitive Van Nevel has yet to say. “We see a lot of promise for this design in the Far East and South America, in rural areas, where there’s a real need for simple, inexpensive, rugged rotorcraft that consume easy-to-come-by fuels.”

Van Nevel refused to be pinned down on a precise certification date, adding that he hoped approval would happen “sometime later this year.”

Groen Brothers
Hawk 4–Groen Brothers Aviation is flying its four-place turbine gyroplane, now called simply the Hawk 4, at public demonstrations and in ongoing development work while concentrating on the public-safety market. Dealt twin blows by the 9/11 aftermath and the steep dive of tech stocks, Groen Brothers (OTCBB code: GNBA) has shelved plans for production certification of the Rolls-Royce 250-powered ultra-short takeoff and landing (UStol) rotorcraft to focus on homeland defense roles for which certification is not required.

The Salt Lake City company reports interest from federal, state and local public safety agencies in the Hawk 4, first called the Hawk 4T to distinguish it from the now discontinued piston-engine version. The sole flying example of the Hawk 4 flew security surveillance missions over the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and this summer performed at the Homeland Security Small Business Expo in Washington, D.C. It will soon be joined in the air over GBA’s Buckeye, Ariz. development facility by the piston-engine prototype, in which a Rolls-Royce 250 turbine is being installed.

Development has been suspended on the Hawk 6G, a technology gyroplane demonstrator based on the Cessna 337 airframe that flew last October. GBA billed it as the prototype for a 4,500-pound, turbine-powered UStol aircraft to have featured full VTOL and hover capability thanks to a system of rotor-blade tip-jets. GBA has also set aside indefinitely plans for a manufacturing, engineering and corporate headquarters facility at the Glendale Airport, 20 miles west of Phoenix.

Sikorsky Aircraft
Sikorsky S-92–The Japanese have a term for a business practice they embrace and for which Western businesspeople have been criticized for not adopting. This is the philosophy of “patient capital,” a long-range vision of investment in which solid returns are not expected for years, maybe decades. Patient capital is the antithesis of the Western business focus on the quarterly report. It requires a steadiness of nerve and commitment to vision that few companies possess today.

Perhaps the senior management of Sikorsky Aircraft and United Technologies didn’t mean to exhibit the virtues of patient capital when they announced the launch of their S-92 twin-engine medium-lift helicopter at Heli-Expo in 1992. It took six years to develop the first prototypes and four more years to flight test them before the FAA was sufficiently satisfied to approve the big 19-passenger (utility configuration) rotorcraft for VFR operations, something it did in the final days of last year. Further approvals into the realms of known-icing and IFR should follow early next year.

Despite the fact that much of the S-92’s basic design borrows from the time and treasure Sikorsky expended in developing its highly profitable Black Hawk line of military helos, no one could have predicted the S-92 would become a 10-year program. What other business requires executives to predict the condition of a primary market 10 years in advance, then develop, design, manufacture and sell a product so that it hits its market stride at precisely that moment? When quarterbacks do something like that with a small leather-covered oblate spheroid, tossing it the length of a 100-yard field smack into the arms of a receiver, they are heroes. In the case of the S-92, the process will take longer and, should it prove successful, certainly prove no less miraculous.

What’s been created is a 25,200-pound (mtow) twin-engine helicopter capable of carrying a roughly five-ton payload some 478 nm at a cruise speed of 155 knots. All this performance is intended to come at a direct operating cost of $850 an hour, $1,250 an hour with fuel factored in, costs which the Bridgeport, Conn. helicopter maker claims to be well below those of its nearest competitors, which include Eurocopter’s Super Puma ($200 more) and EH Industries EH 101 ($500 more).

Further tests and subsequent certifications into early next year will boost the S-92’s approved capabilities to include flight into known-icing and IFR flight. The added capabilities will be approved before commercial deliveries begin. FlightSafety International is currently assembling a level-D simulator that will begin training S-92 pilots this summer.

The Russians

Ever since the collapse of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, glasnost, perestroika and Russia’s wrenching economic rebirth from state socialism to the kind of cowboy capitalism that would make an 1890s robber baron blush, the West has been besieged by proposed aircraft designs from the former Eastern Bloc. All have been imaginative, some perhaps too much so, and many of them interesting but lacking in practicality. A few have emerged from the pack to reach some level of development, although just how real that development is can have a lot to do with the gullibility of the international aviation press.

If the West develops rotorcraft slowly, the Russians and their former Soviet Union inmates proceed at the pace of tree-ring growth. The forces of new capitalism are just too real there, and few in the West take seriously products made in a part of the world with little in the way of a reputation for quality manufacture or reliable customer support. Even if the Russians and former Soviets could turn these aeronautical dreams into reality at a reasonable price, their acceptability to Western operators is questionable. Already strapped for cash, Western rank-and-file helicopter operators aren’t about to take such long-shot chances.

Still, from out of the pack come a couple of potential stars: the freshly certified PZL-Swidnik SW-4 and the developing Kazan Ansat.

PZL-Swidnik SW-4–The “never say die” SW-4 weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the market economy remake of the Eastern Bloc nations in a 15-year developmental odyssey capped by its certification under Polish regulations last November 15. Reciprocal U.S. approval is expected to be little more than a formality once a U.S. sale is recorded.

That day may not be all that far away. A single-turbine helo (with customer’s choice of a 450-shp Rolls-Royce 250C20R or 615-shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PW200/9) seating five (including pilot) or an internal payload of 1,213 pounds and selling in the neighborhood of $700,000, depending on options, is hard to say no to. All
this performance is crammed into a compact airframe resembling a combination of the front end of an Eurocopter AStar and the empennage of a Schweizer 330.

The first production batch of SW-4s is reserved for the Polish air force, which has ordered a training fleet of 47 to be delivered by 2010.

Kazan Helicopters
Ansat–The most promising of the post-Communist Russian rotorcraft designs, the Kazan Ansat has had its share of starts and stops but seems to be emerging as a “go” program. And that’s good, because the trim Bell 427 lookalike has a lot going for it. For one thing, when it is finally certified, it will be the first production civil fly-by-wire helicopter.

Announced in 1993, the Ansat did not fly until six years later. In a recent company-wide open house held at the company factory in Kazan, Tatarstan, Kazan officials maintained that the 7,275-pound, six- to eight-place helicopter, under development off and on since its announcement, entered what was termed the final phase of its certification flight testing, with the ultimate goal of Russian certification and a green light for mass production about six months later. The company claims to have sold 100 Ansats to the Russian Army flight school. Of all-Russian construction (except for the two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207s that will power production models), the Kazan Ansat is the only other developing Eastern design with much of a chance of success in the West.

Missing in Inaction
For years AIN has been covering a handful of helo programs that manage to produce a few fitful signs of life just when it seems all has ended. According to their makers, the following are still extant but not likely to be fluttering into a heliport near you anytime soon.

Hindustan Aeronautics’ Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) celebrated the 10th anniversary of its first flight last August 30. Considering the fact that its designers froze its technology some 15 years ago, the question as to just how “advanced” its technology can be remains open. Locked in squabbles with Aerospatiale (and later Eurocopter) over technology-transfer issues, the civil edition of the ALH is on hold pending supply of some 100 militarized versions to the Indian army. Given India’s ongoing tensions with neighboring Pakistan, it seems unlikely the fitfully slow ALH assembly line will be freed up for civil production any time soon.

Likewise, a pair of Kamov designs, the Ka-226 and Ka-62, surface from time to time with assurances of eventual certification and intense customer interest. Both designs seem best suited for Russian domestic use.

On the other hand, the Mi-38, a Sikorsky S-92 lookalike first proposed at the 1989 Paris Air Show, seems headed toward some sort of a milestone–an imminent first flight. The Mi-38 is to be produced by Euromil, a corporation jointly held by Mil, Kazan Helicopters and Eurocopter. Mil is tasked with the general design, drawings, component testing and flight testing, while Kazan Helicopters is responsible for the manufacture of the fuselage and blades and for final assembly. Eurocopter is in charge of the design of the cockpit, avionics, equipment and fittings. Major Russian subcontractors are supplying the vital components, such as the main drive system (Krasni-Okiabr Plant) and the main rotor (Stupino Moscow Plant).

While the Mil-38 looks good on paper, the saga of the S-92 should provide some insight into the problems and delays in introducing a large, costly new helicopter design into an already hurting global commercial helicopter industry rife with cost-effective competitors. Whether that market can support another entry seems doubtful.