Heli-Expo Preview 2010

 - March 31, 2010, 5:58 AM

Spirits were high and attendance reached a healthy 15,243 at Heli-Expo’10, held February 21 to 23 in Houston. The number of exhibitors, 596, was higher than last year, and this year’s attendance was the third highest in Heli-Expo history, underscoring the helicopter industry’s assertion that the diversity of the markets it serves has moderated the effects of the recession.

As might be expected during an economic downturn, development of new rotorcraft has slowed, and OEMs did not use this year’s Heli-Expo as a venue to announce major new helicopter programs. But AgustaWestland provided some drama when it unveiled the A109 Grand New on the first day of the show. A follow-on to the AW109S Grand, the A109 Grand New features a Cobham avionics suite that includes digital audio control, a four-display NVG-compatible panel with synthetic vision and highway-in-the-sky predictive flight director. The A109 Grand New has already been certified by the EASA and was due to receive FAA certification within weeks of Heli-Expo. AgustaWestland said at the show that it already had orders for 20 copies of the Grand New.

A total of 55 helicopters were transported to the show or flown to the temporary helipad set up next to the cavernous doors on the east side of the George R. Brown Convention Center, with aerial arrivals following the first early morning pilot briefing on February 18. One of the most anticipated arrivals was that of Robinson Helicopter’s turbine-powered R66, which chief test pilot Doug Tompkins and vice president Kurt Robinson flew from the company’s Torrance, Calif., factory to Houston in two days. During the trip, Robinson reported, the Rolls-Royce RR300-powered R66 averaged about 120 knots while burning 23 gph.

Just before the show, Robinson revealed pricing and the certification schedule for the five-seat R66. The standard price is $770,000, and FAA certification is now planned for later this year, followed immediately by initial deliveries. Standard equipment includes leather seats, HID landing lights and stereo audio control panel. Optional avionics include Garmin GNS 420/430 GPS navcoms and GTx mode-S transponder. Air-conditioning will also be an option, but that will be certified later. Preliminary performance numbers include 927 pounds of payload with the full 73.6 gallons of fuel; cruise speed 120 knots; rate of climb more than 1,000 fpm; range (no reserves) 325 nm; hover OGE and IGE both more than 10,000 feet; and maximum operating altitude 14,000 feet.

Bell Helicopter brought one of its new 429 twins to Heli-Expo. Production of the new model, certified last year, should ramp up to 25 helicopters this year and 50 next year, according to CEO John Garrison. Bell is working on weight reduction on the 429 as part of a “continuous improvement program,” he said. The 429 is the only helicopter with a maintenance program based on Maintenance Steering Group 3 (MSG-3) protocols, which should help reduce direct operating costs and improve reliability.

In other Bell news, the company handed over the Bell 47 type certificate to Scott’s Helicopter Services, which purchased the TC and will provide all aftermarket support for the venerable machine. Bell also released details of its XworX research division’s “sidesticks” fly-by-wire control system, which could make maneuvering helicopters far more precise and mitigate dangers associated with conducting operations in brown-out clouds or in rough terrain at night.

At a Heli-Expo press conference, Garrison asserted that the BA609 tiltrotor “continues to be a development program,” but he declined to address public statements by BA609 partner AgustaWestland that it seeks to take over the program. For its part, AgustaWestland appears interested in a majority interest in or outright ownership of the BA609 program. Last year CEO Giuseppe Orsi told an Italian business conference that AgustaWestland’s parent, Finmeccanica, had authorized him to negotiate for control of the program as a means to accelerate development and certification. Two more prototypes scheduled to join the test program are currently under construction at Cameri, Italy, and will join the test program in 2011 and 2012.

AgustaWestland remains interested in the U.S. Navy’s plans for the VXX helicopter that might replace the current “Marine One” Sikorsky VH-3D and VH-60N presidential helicopters. The Navy issued a request for information in February, and an AgustaWestland spokesman said, “We are looking at the [request] and are confident that the AW101 is the right helicopter for the mission.”

Orsi was happy with AgustaWestland’s performance during 2009, saying that it “was better than we had expected.” The company achieved four first flights during a three-month period last year and announced plans to enter the Indian and Russian markets. At the show, Orsi sealed a deal for four AW139s with William Chiles, CEO of Bristow.

Eurocopter unveiled a mockup of a search-and-rescue version of the new EC175 at Heli-Expo. This followed the successful first flight and launch of flight testing of the EC175 in early December. Eurocopter also plans to display two new helicopters at next year’s Heli-Expo. CEO Lutz Bertling offered no additional details about the two new helicopter programs, but the company’s research into next-generation helicopter technologies such as the Blue Edge and Blue Pulse rotor blades might influence those designs. The new blade designs will reduce noise and vibration, in Blue Edge’s case using a double-swept blade shape. Blue Pulse uses a piezo-active rotor control system with three flap modules located at the trailing edge of each blade.

Eurocopter logged $7.8 billion in new orders last year, up from $6.4 billion in 2008, and the company’s backlog is a robust $20 billion. Net new orders during 2009 were down sharply from 715 in 2008 to 344, once cancellations were included. American Eurocopter increased its revenues last year, to $784 million, up from $750 million in 2008, and the U.S. division delivered 155 new helicopters last year. At the show, Eurocopter held a steady stream of new order signing events. These included 12 for Air Methods; two EC225s for VIH Aviation Group; one AS350B3 for Temsco Helicopters and one for the Suffolk County Police Department; an EC130B4 for Papillon Helicopters; and six AS350B3s for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the first-year option on the Light Enforcement Helicopter contract.

Sikorsky also “had a great year in 2009,” according to president Jeffrey Pino, with 244 helicopter deliveries valued at $6.3 billion, up 29 percent from 2008. Sikorsky’s backlog is $12.3 billion.

The Sikorsky S-76D is well into its flight-test program, and first deliveries are scheduled for next year. Avionics are a TopDeck suite by Thales. Although demand for executive and EMS helicopters is down in the near term, Pino said that demand for offshore oil, paramilitary and search-and-rescue variants is “huge.” Sikorsky is keenly interested in the Navy VXX program. “We’ll compete, and really hard,” he said, adding that the CH138 Canadian maritime variant of the S-92 would be an ideal candidate.

Sikorsky also revealed details of its plans to invest $10 billion over the next 10 years in research and development to define the future of vertical flight. This effort is led by newly formed Sikorsky Innovations, a business-focused technology-development corporation that is charged with finding solutions to difficult vertical-lift problems.

MD Helicopters didn’t have much news to announce at its Heli-Expo press conference, but Lynn Tilton, CEO of Patriarch Partners, which owns MD, updated attendees on her company’s fortunes. “It’s been a rough year,” she said. But she added, “Let me clear the air: MD is not going into bankruptcy; MD is not going away; and MD never faced that issue.”

One problem that MD Helicopters faced last year was having ordered material to build more helicopters than it could reasonably expect to sell, leaving it awash in parts and accounts due. MD sold about 40 helicopters last year, rather than the 70 previously anticipated. It ended the year with $11 million in overdue payables.

MD has responded to these problems with a new management team, including president Robert Molsbergen, v-p of engineering and programs Carl Schopfer and Patriarch’s Bill Heinz. Tilton noted several positive developments, including planned certification in April of the MD500’s glass cockpit, increased in-sourcing of production, several sales to foreign governments and possible sale of a minority interest in MD to an Asian government. “MD’s got some incredible programs for 2010,” she said. “We have a good [order] book for this year. I will never let go of MD until I know it is one of the big players in the world for a long time to come.”

Enstrom Helicopter exhibited at Heli-Expo, encouraged by improving prospects in Asia, where it was finalizing an order for sixteen 480Bs for the Royal Thai Army. Last year Enstrom sold five helicopters and was forced to lay off half of its workforce.

A Serious New Sim

One of the most unusual displays at Heli-Expo was the CAE 3000 helicopter simulator, which dominated the show floor and constantly had a line of people wanting to try their hand at flying the virtual helicopter. The CAE 3000 series simulator is designed to be a Level-7 flight training device, although it is not approved or even fully developed yet. With the addition of a motion platform, a designed-in possibility, the CAE 3000 has the potential to become an approved flight simulator. Inside the sim’s big dome CAE’s Tropos 6000 image system uses nine projectors to give a field of view that measures 210 degrees horizontally by 75 degrees vertically.

Engine OEMs’ Forecasts

In its annual forecast of the global helicopter market, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce predicted robust growth over the next decade, with total deliveries of more than 16,400 turbine helicopters valued at $146 billion in its 2010 to 2019 forecast horizon. The helicopters will require approximately 26,000 new turbine engines valued at about $12 billion, according to the company.

“Rolls-Royce predicts solid long-term demand in both the civil and military helicopter segments,” said Ken Roberts, president of Rolls-Royce Helicopter Engines. “Clearly we saw some shifting of demand to the right, but overall fundamentals of the market remain strong.”

Among the factors cited for the projected growth are improving civil market fundamentals and a developing need for more vertical lift among the world’s armed forces. Demand for replacements of retired and aging helicopters, the growth of demand in emerging markets and projected industry hiring are other factors the company noted in assembling the forecast.

Honeywell’s 12th turbine-powered civil helicopter purchase outlook, issued after Heli-Expo’10, forecasts declining civil helicopter deliveries this year as well as soft order intake “until a sustained global economic recovery begins and aircraft financing becomes more available and affordable.” In 2011, new helicopter production will decline, “based on continued uncertainty around purchase timing.”

New Developments from Avionics Manufacturers

Garmin, which has long supplied its GPS navcoms to the helicopter community, announced at Heli-Expo the new G500H avionics system, a glass cockpit designed specifically for the VFR Part 27 helicopter market. The G500H offers optional synthetic-vision imagery with helicopter-specific databases featuring more than 7,000 heliports and nearly 30,000 low-altitude obstacles. The G500H can receive and display XM satellite weather and video from enhanced vision systems and it communicates with Garmin’s GNS 430W/530W series and Garmin’s new helicopter terrain awareness and warning system. The basic G500H is priced at $24,995. The optional synthetic-vision system will cost an additional $7,995 and H-Taws an additional $9,995. The first certifications will be in a Bell 206 and 407 in the second quarter of this year.

Aspen Avionics also made a major push into the helicopter market with its plug-and-play replacement glass avionics displays, which fit into standard instrument holes. Aspen came to Heli-Expo’10 with newly issued FAA certification in hand for installation of its EFD1000H flight display in the Bell 206 and 407. The certification was done in partnership with Keystone Helicopter. The EFD1000H PFD includes integral attitude/heading reference and air data computer modules, and buyers can start with an EFD then later add an Aspen MFD.

Avionics manufacturer Avidyne offered helicopter operators its EX600 MFD as a replacement for weather radar indicators. The EX600 displays not only radar symbology but also has a full range of MFD functions, including the capability of displaying Honeywell Mk. 21 and Mk. 22 H-Taws information, as well as information and advisories from Avidyne’s TAS600 traffic system and TWX670 lightning-detection system. The EX600 also offers optional interfaces with TCAS I and other H-Taws/Taws/EGPWS systems.

At Heli-Expo, L-3 Avionics announced that its Trilogy all-in-one glass electronic standby instrument received FAA TSO approval for installation on Part 27 and 29 rotorcraft. The Trilogy instrument displays attitude, altitude and airspeed and optional heading data with an external flux valve. Built into Trilogy is an air-data computer and solid-state attitude sensor. Trilogy is available as original equipment on new helicopters and for retrofit.

Sagem Avionics, which is seeing growing popularity in rotorcraft panels, announced that Larry Alexandre was recently named CEO of the company. Alexandre was previously COO of Turbomeca USA.

Cobham Avionics and Metro Aviation announced a partnership to obtain certification for installation of Cobham’s HeliSAS on the Eurocopter AS350, which is expected to reduce workload and enhance safety. HeliSAS is a two-axis stability-augmentation and autopilot system for light helicopters and costs about $125,000 installed in a Bell 407 or AS350.

Sandel showed Heli-Expo attendees its soon-to-be certified H-Taws