Heli-Expo Preview

 - February 8, 2008, 6:14 AM

The Helicopter Association International (HAI) celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with what appears likely to go down as one of the biggest Heli-Expo conventions ever. Coming to Houston for the first time, the show is likely to feature the introduction of at least one or two all-new helicopters as well as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pent-up sales announcements by the major manufacturers, all of them jockeying for exposure during the three-day event this month.

The latest market forecasts remain red hot, with Newtown, Conn.-based analyst Forecast International recently projecting sales of more than 14,000 helicopters worth some $30 billion over the course of the next decade. If the pace of sales announcements matches those of recent Heli-Expo shows, expect an exuberant crowd in South Texas when the show kicks off on February 24.

Sales tallies at last year’s Heli-Expo in Orlando topped $730 million as more than 14,000 registered attendees visited the show site. A similar number of visitors are expected this time around, with more than 500 exhibitors signed up to fill more than 200,000 sq ft of space inside Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

Given the city’s rich aerospace history, it’s somewhat surprising that Houston has never before played host to a Heli-Expo convention. HAI has preferred to rotate its annual bash among Dallas, Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif., with only Miami and New Orleans filling in as host-city surrogates. According to an association spokesman,
the milestone anniversary lent itself to the location switch. Because Texas figures so prominently in the helicopter industry–and ranks second only to California in terms of where HAI’s membership is based–holding Heli-Expo in the nation’s fourth largest city was an easy choice, he said.

OEMs Set To Shine
Fort Worth native Bell Helicopter will visit Heli-Expo with perhaps more at stake than any other major producer. The company is deep into flight testing the Bell 429 medium twin, the first offspring of its so-called modular affordable product line. It has tallied sales of more than 240 since launching the program two years ago and anticipates certification for the model this spring. Bell canceled the 417 program at last year’s Heli-Expo, and observers are keen to see whether the company under the stewardship of new CEO Richard Millman has another fresh model to introduce as it seeks to keep pace with chief rival Eurocopter.

Now the uncontested world helicopter sales leader, Eurocopter has faced its share of challenges in the last year related to a lengthy production backlog, which at last count totaled well over $14 billion. Observers are eager to hear more about the proposed EC 175, a medium twin Eurocopter is quietly developing in a joint venture with China’s AVIC II. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67E-powered helicopter isn’t expected to fly until next year, when Eurocopter will likely begin accepting sales deposits. Intended as a competitor to AgustaWestland’s AW139, the EC 175 is scheduled for certification in 2011, with production being split 50/50 between France and China.

While most Heli-Expo attendees will be interested in updates of Sikorsky’s X2 project, the excitement over that radical technology demonstrator shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the Stratford, Conn. manufacturer is quietly enjoying the most successful sales and production run in its 85-year history. Sikorsky president Jeff Pino will update Heli-Expo attendees on the latest revenue figures at the show, but they are expected to surpass the record $3 billion mark tallied in 2006 after the company bought Keystone Helicopters, Schweizer Aircraft and, more recently, Poland’s PZL Mielec. This latest acquisition was made in response to a Black Hawk production crunch Sikorsky is facing. On the civil side, expect an update of the S-76D program. At press time Sikorsky engineers were prepping that helicopter for its first flight.

AgustaWestland on the eve of Heli-Expo’08 faced difficult questions related to its most important helicopter development project. The Italian company and U.S. partners Lockheed Martin and Bell have run into possible trouble over the supply of 28 VH-71 helicopters to the U.S. Marine Corps for presidential transport duties after the Pentagon ordered prime contractor Lockheed Martin to stop work on the second portion of the estimated $6.1 billion contract, citing massive cost overruns. AgustaWestland is also facing doubts over the BA609 civil tiltrotor, development of which has slowed considerably in the last year. On the civil side, the AW109/119 and AW139 continue to fare well in the market and figure to feature prominently at AgustaWestland’s Heli-Expo exhibit.

Another manufacturer that will have to address its share of tough questions from the media and customers at Heli-Expo is MD Helicopters. Reportedly unhappy with its factory lease in Arizona, the manufacturer is said to be contemplating a move to Grand Prairie, Texas. It has also begun producing fuselages and subassemblies at a plant in Mexico to meet a goal of ramping up deliveries to around 50 helicopters a year.

A management shakeup last year that saw the departure of company president Chuck Vehlow as well as its CFO and head of sales appeared to some as a sign of continuing troubles, but senior leaders have painted a starkly different picture. Company CEO Lynn Tilton at the time bristled at “an industry rumor mill that works overtime to turn positives into negatives, that perceives silence as problems and that speculates without facts. Perception may be reality for some, but reality for me is founded in truth. Let the aircraft deliveries make the announcement that MD is here to stay,” she said, adding, “Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, MDHI is an evolving American success story.”

Heli-Expo attendees will be sure to line up for a progress report on the R66, the first turbine-powered helicopter from Robinson. Development of the Rolls-Royce RR300, a 300-shp derivative of the Model 250, is now well under way. It has run some 400 hours and Rolls-Royce said it is sticking to its target of early this year for certification–and the announcement could come at the show. The five-seat R66 will be the first application for the new engine. Rolls-Royce shipped the first two engines to the Torrance, Calif. company last summer.

The biggest fear for the rotorcraft industry, of course, is that the U.S. economy could enter a recession this year, as some economists predict. If corporate profits take a turn for the worse, lengthy order backlogs might evaporate quickly as companies cancel or postpone orders. One trend working in manufacturers’ favor, however, is an increase in demand for helicopters from buyers outside the U.S., who are being enticed to the buyer’s table by the weak dollar. Industry watchers should have a clearer idea of which direction the market is apt to take after the dust from the show settles.

As always, Heli-Expo will feature a number of educational sessions for pilots and mechanics and committee meetings before, during and after the convention. Courses will cover mountain flying, wire hazards, pilot human factors and other topics, while committee meetings related to noise, heliports and user fees are sure to be well attended.

Look to AIN for Heli-Expo News

AIN will be publishing three daily issues of HAI Convention News on February 24, 25 and 26. AINtv will be broadcasting TV Webcasts with news from the show on those dates as well. Visit AINonline.com and AINtv.com during the show for the latest.