Market percolating for civil NVGs

 - May 3, 2010, 6:10 AM

The anticipated escalation in civil aviation night-vision-goggle (NVG) use might still be several years away as end-users await financing, according to industry experts, as opposed to waiting for continuing refinement of the Federal Aviation Regulations regarding standards for their use. “The move is still toward operators going with NVGs,” said Mike Atwood, president of Boise-based Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU), a firm that supplies NVGs, NVG cockpit conversions and NVG training.

“The majority of [civil] operators made up their minds long ago [to go with NVGs] and now it is more a matter of funding than anything else.” Indeed, large operators such as Air Methods and PHI publicly committed to NVGs years ago and now fly with them on the bulk of their fleets, and OEMs such as Bell and Eurocopter are offering NVG courses as part of their factory training packages.  

However, the market is showing signs of  building a critical mass that might eventually make NVGs standard equipment for all law enforcement and civil helicopter EMS conducting night-time operations. Atwood’s firm used to do its three to four weekly NVG cockpit lighting conversions largely on new helicopters, but lately Atwood has seen more retrofits into used helicopters. Part of this may reflect the realities of the recession. “A lot of people have chosen to refurbish the helicopters they have as opposed to buying new ones,” Atwood said. However, the shift also reflects that NVG use is reaching a second stage of acceptance, especially as production of more third- and fourth-generation NVG units, with their improved resolution and clarity, is made available to civil operators as opposed to the military. Until recently, the armed forces largely had monopolized available supply.

Atwood does not see civil NVG technology improving much over the next decade. “It is good technology,” he said, adding that the next generation of NVGs, which would expand the field of view past the current standard of 40 degrees, would be cost-prohibitive for civil operators. A new pair of Anvis-9 third-generation NVGs costs $8,000 to $10,000 and most operators order three or four pairs for each single-pilot aircraft they operate, Atwood said.

While large-operator demand continues to drive the civil NVG market, demand from individual pilots also is having an impact. Being trained on NVGs may someday become a prerequisite for any helicopter pilot expecting employment, said Dale Williamson, owner of Longhorn Helicopters in Denton, Texas. “Our NVG [training] business is starting to roll,” he said.

Longhorn got its Part 141 NVG program approved nine months ago and has partnered with Aerodynamics to provide training for the latter’s NVG cockpit conversion customers. The company currently offers NVG training in a Bell 206 and a Schweizer 300C. The 300C was converted to provide customers with an affordable, in-helicopter NVG training option, Williamson said. Longhorn’s four-day program costs $7,600 in the 206 and $3,500 in the 300C. He looks for helicopter NVG qualification to “become a rating” and expects more individual pilots to seek the initial and recurrent training on their own to enhance their marketability. “Goggles will be thrust upon them,” Williamson predicts, and says the need for recurrent training will be high.