In Louisville at last year’s Heli-Expo, the world’s largest helicopter trade show, it snowed. Many demonstration flights were canceled. From the dais at the annual awards dinner, industry gentry led the assembled in song, My Old Kentucky Home, a melancholic state ballad that can evoke weeping amongst the citizenry. Somehow it all seemed appropriate. Despite the brave public face the industry tried to project to the world last year, it was one of the worst in memory for the commercial helicopter business, fueled mainly by oil prices that sunk to a low of $26 per barrel before beginning a slow climb back to rationality, a domestic air ambulance industry that appears to have reached capacity and the continuing economic uncertainty worldwide.
The perfect storm of carnage in many ways has been unprecedented. Bell CEO Mitch Snyder stunned an audience of local Fort Worth business leaders in December when he told them that the worldwide market for commercial helicopters has shrunk by 50 percent since 2013. Bell shelved plans to build the new 505 light single at a purpose-built green-field plant in Lafayette, La., moving production to its commercial plant in Mirabel, Quebec—where there is plenty of excess capacity—as part of sweeping economic moves that put hundreds out of work. Bell suffered a more serious blow when the first prototype of the 525 super-medium twin broke up in flight in July. Flight-testing for that program remains on hold.
At the beginning of last year, Honeywell adjusted its turbine helicopter delivery forecast downward yet again, dinging it another 10 percent, mainly to acknowledge continuing softness in the oil-and-gas market. Safran’s helicopter engine deliveries were down 15 percent in 2015 compared to 2014 and the 2016 numbers promise to be worse. Last year the company delayed or shelved several programs in response to market conditions. On the heels of posting a 17-percent decline in earnings this fall, Airbus Helicopters has announced a plan to trim its workforce by 582. For the third quarter, revenue was off 3 percent while earnings slid $219 million from the year-ago period.
The revenue slide was fueled by waning demand for super-medium and heavy helicopters, as well as an overall drop in commercial hours flown. Airbus Helicopters has also been hurt by the worldwide grounding of the H225 Super Puma series in June following a fatal April 29 North Sea crash. While the EASA lifted the grounding in October, it remains in force in the UK and Norway. In addition to trimming its workforce, Airbus said it is continuing “transformation measures and efforts to adapt to market challenges.” One of those adaptations could be a delay in the company’s marquis 13,000-pound-class H160 medium-twin program. Projected deliveries of that aircraft have slipped to 2019 from 2018, with a third prototype scheduled to join the program early this year.