Helitech shines despite absence of big orders

 - March 19, 2008, 11:21 AM

Amid feverish speculation that the 2005 show might be rattling around the mighty Excel exhibition centre in London’s docklands, this year’s Helitech, held in late September, rolled back its sleeves and got on with the job in hand. During a week of beautiful late-summer weather, the biennial event attracted more than 6,500 trade visitors and some 300 helicopters to Duxford Airfield. As the three days passed, many of these machines made demonstration flights in the sunshine-filled skies.

Manufacturers held back the usual raft of sales announcements for the show, but most exhibitors seemed content to engage in networking and lay the foundations for future sales. “We saw a lot of continental European visitors,” said Geoff Turner of first-time exhibitor Skyquest Aviation, “and visitors from the defense agencies that I haven’t been able to contact before. It was a good show for us.”

Several interesting trends were identified. The UK Ministry of Defence’s growing reliance on civil helicopter operators to support frontline operations is one that is set to continue and, according to an Army spokesman, likely to migrate to the fixed-wing sector. Six current lease contracts–the most recent being a Bell 412 support agreement in Cyprus worth £45 million ($70 million) annually–are set to expand to include non-combat search-and-rescue and replenishment roles.

Better reliability rates–in one case as high as 99 percent–were cited as one reason behind the growing success of the COMR (civilian owned, military registered) format, according to Lt. Col. John Sherman of the Royal Engineers. Other advantages include flexibility, an easier upgrade path and fixed costs– avoiding a capitalization spike. The operator retains hull-insurance risks and sales-tax liability, while the UK CAA retains oversight of the airframes, a process intended to ease their return to the civil register on completion of the lease.

Although COMR helicopters have no war role, said Sherman, the fact that they are almost invariably crewed by military personnel make it conceivable that they could stray into harm’s way. “However, insurance cover for war risks is not prohibitive,” he commented.

North Sea Decline Prompts Search for Partnerships
Bristow Helicopters CEO Keith Chanter revealed that his company is looking for further opportunities beyond the North Sea. Although there is plenty of oil still left in the area, he said production was past its peak and it was time to look for further growth markets.

“There is a shift in emphasis in Nigeria toward a deep-water environment and a growing market in the former Soviet Union,” he told AIN. “Many Western companies, including Bristow, are teaming up with either local governments or oil companies to find new ways of doing business in these regions.

“Sometimes, as in Kazakhstan, we can use our own aircraft. Under different circumstances the operator may be able to use only Russian-built helicopters. In that case we want to help our partners provide that service to ‘Western’ standards.”

Bristow is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. At the show, Bell Helicopter presented Chanter with an award to mark the occasion, and that of 45 years flying Bell products (the first Bell 47G1 and G2s flew for Bristow in Bolivia in 1958).

Meanwhile, the Eurocopter Super Puma II that had been used on Project Jigsaw trials in the North Sea was on view. The offshore search-and-rescue trials, which originally drew condemnation from the operators of offshore-support vessels, were successfully completed ahead of schedule and it is likely that the outcome will see a combination of offshore-based SAR Super Pumas and a new order for smaller rescue aircraft.

Europe Takes Regulatory Initiative
The significant financial burden taken on by European helicopter operators in recent years to conform to Joint Airworthiness Regulations will soon pay dividends, according to a European Helicopter Association (EHA) representative to ICAO. Charles Schmitt said a more flexible set of regulations, such as the latest amendment to JAR Ops 3, will give them a commercial edge over U.S. rivals when bidding for international contracts.

“Public expectations of air-safety standards have increased substantially over the past 15 years,” said Schmitt, “and European regulations have moved to accommodate them. The FAA, on the other hand, has been content to let its own standards mark time. I think in doing that it has made a big mistake.”

JAR Ops 3 Amendment 3 is now seen as “a very valuable document,” according to Schmitt, and demonstrates the effectiveness of EHA’s strategy to influence rulemaking from within. It provided the JAA with economic and safety data, “and most of [our] comments have been accepted and incorporated,” said EHA CEO Jan Willem Stuurmann.

At the end of the first day, Spearhead Exhibitions, now in the process of being absorbed into the Reed leviathan, held a reception in the stunning surroundings of the nearby American Air Museum. While touring Europe’s finest collection of U.S. combat aircraft, many of which are suspended from the ceiling, exhibitors and guests were treated to a performance by a Glenn Miller tribute band, conducted by Glenn’s nephew, John.

Sealing the Deals
Day two was a reminder that contract announcements are what keeps the helicopter world–and shows like Helitech–spinning. Eurocopter confirmed that the Czech Republic’s Ministry of the Interior is ordering no fewer than eight EC 135s to bolster a police aviation department currently served by five Bell 412s and two Bolkow BO 105s. The new helicopters will be used in surveillance, anti-terrorism and EMS missions.

MD Helicopters announced that UK-based Medical Aviation Services is ordering a new MD 902 Explorer for the Great North Air Ambulance service, which flies from bases in northern England. MAS will outfit the helicopter for emergency medical service work after taking delivery next fall.

The Explorer purchase is part of an expansion program that will involve the ambulance service replacing its existing BO 105 and AS 355 fleet. MD Helicopters CEO Henk Schaeken said that, with 10 helicopters on contract, the UK is home to the largest Explorer fleet in the world. In the aeromedical market, “it is a dominating presence.”

Schweizer delivered one of its Model 333 light turbine helicopters to UK distributor CSE Aviation. CSE sales manager Nick Tarrat reported a steady flow of potential customers, including a utility operator, who were eager to fly the entry-level turbine from the flight line adjacent to the chalets. “We are splitting our marketing effort between the 333 aimed at the private owner, and the 300CBi at the training market. The fuel-injected CBi has slightly lower performance than its predecessor but, like the 333, it costs a lot less to operate.

“We know that operating costs are of critical importance to owners and that, once their warranties expire, some competing types become very expensive to operate. We need to show them that there are alternatives.”

Keeping Faith
AgustaWestland was represented by Sloane Helicopters, which staged the handover of a new A109E Power to the Dyfed-Powys Police of Wales. In an impressive display of confidence, in a type underrepresented in police aviation outside Italy, the helicopter replaced another A109 that was lost in an accident on Christmas Day 2001. Along with the subsequent loss of a police Eurocopter EC 135T1, its cause is likely to lead to recommendations that police crews qualify on night vision goggles.

Sikorsky’s S-92 flew in, marking the end of a European and Scandinavian tour that started with June’s Paris Air Show. It, too, made dozens of demo flights from outside the OEM’s chalet. European general manager Jack Donahue refused to be drawn on future orders for the new 19-seater. “We’re excited about the potential for the S-92 as a North Sea transport,” he told AIN. “We demonstrated it to all the major operators and their customers–the ones who will eventually foot the bill–in Scotland and Norway. We also spent some time with Norsk, a launch offshore customer that has recently doubled its order for S-92s to four ships.” Norsk is a sister company to Bristow Helicopters.

Turbomeca’s Arrius engine has notched up 100,000 flight hours on police helicopters in the UK and Irish Republic. The milestone was reached as its latest 2B2 variant was programmed for retrofitting into 12 public-service EC 135s. The first of these will be the Western Counties (Avon and Somerset, as well as Gloucestershire) police unit, which was to receive the new engines last month.

Although the Western Counties helicopter was delivered to the unit’s Fairford, Gloucestershire, base only in July last year, the order specified the upgraded 2B2 engine. At 849 shp, the takeoff power in both variants remains the same, but the new unit has a larger gas generator that allows the helicopter to take off at a higher weight (6,250 pounds) at ISA+20–15 degrees C higher than in the 2B1.

After three days of rumors, and just as everyone was packing to go home, it was announced that the 2005 Helitech would, after all, return to Duxford. While the Excel site is closer to London airports and can offer a better choice of accommodation, its proximity to London City Airport would mean far less freedom for exhibitors wanting to demonstrate their products in their natural environment. Police Aviation Services would also have to find somewhere other than Magdalene College, Cambridge, to hold its black-tie dinner. And as Helitech project manager Sue Bradshaw put it, “After the week we had, there was really no other choice.”