The slow, but somewhat steady, recovery in oil prices may have fueled some expectations of a recovering helicopter utilization for offshore support operations. But Dana Fiatarone, Sikorsky’s vice president for commercial systems and services, isn’t taking the bait from those who would portray this as an assured path to an uptick in demand for new aircraft. “Overall, we’re still bumping along the bottom [in demand from the offshore sector], but I suppose we’re hopeful that 2018 will start to show a turn upwards,” he told AIN in an interview ahead of HeliExpo 2017. “The long-term trend is that this is just part of a cycle that we’ll come through after one of the industry’s worst downturns.”
Sikorsky has never put all its eggs in the one offshore basket. Fiatarone was quick to emphasize the multi-mission characteristics of the manufacturer’s S-76 and S-92 families. Applications include emergency medical services (EMS), VIP transportation, and search and rescue (SAR). He reported strong interest in the S-76 in both the North American and Asian markets, and pointed out that the S-92 will soon pick up its 11th head-of-state transportation role when it enters service with the U.S. Marine Corps to provide vertical lift for the country’s new president. The S-92 has also found favor as an SAR platform, with Alaska’s North Slope Borough having introduced one into this application in late September 2016.
To date, more than 850 S-76s have been delivered to customers across 40 countries. “The market sees what a robust platform this is for multiple applications,” Fiatarone said. “We’re still only a year or two in with the S-76D, so we expect this to continue to do well for a few more years, and we can still push it in other areas while the oil and gas sector is down. In the longer term, we have talked about a possible next-generation platform [to replace the current model]. By comparison, the S-92 is more like a teenager. It was first delivered in 2004; 275 aircraft have been delivered and it’s now passed one million flight hours.”
The cutting edge of Sikorsky’s technology development effort is represented by its new S-97 Raider demonstrator that is being prepared as a next generation light tactical helicopter for the military. Based on the U.S. company’s Collier Award-winning X-2 technology—featuring a co-axial rotor system, fly-by-wire controls, and a clutched propeller—it promises speeds of up to 220 knots and exceptional hot-and-high performance up to 10,000 feet in 95-deg F temperatures.
For now, there is no declared path for how this technology may eventually be applied to civil rotorcraft. “Speed is just one differentiator, and the question is what value do you place on that speed,” commented Fiatarone. “We need more conversations with customers on that point, taking account of how many trips they want to do each day and the extent to which they value factors such as expanding the 'golden hour' for EMS operations and being able to cover more ocean in the SAR environment.”
Meanwhile, the Sikorsky engineering team continues to push for incremental advances in areas such as improved autonomy for helicopter operations through improvements to the human-machine interface; and boosting productivity through advances such as new approach procedures for offshore rigs that reduce pilot workload at the busier stages of flight.
At the same time, work has continued under a DARPA-funded research project to evaluate the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System, which is being demonstrated on an S-76 as part of efforts to extend the scope for autonomous missions on the path to optionally-piloted operations. In flight tests conducted last year, the Sikorsky team demonstrated the ability of a pilot to plan and execute every phase of an autonomous mission with a tablet device—tapping the company’s Matrix Technology.
Boosting Customer Support
It is now just over a year since Sikorsky opened its new customer care center in Trumbull, Connecticut. According to Simon Gharibian, director of fleet management and supportability, the investment has significantly boosted the company’s ability to respond to aircraft-on-ground (AOG) situations within 24 hours, and indeed to reduce the overall number of these incidents.
The facility consists of two large adjacent rooms—one housing the AOG response team, which essentially handles the tactical response to operators’ issues; and the other for Sikorsky’s fleet management team, which takes a more strategic approach to tapping operational, health and usage monitoring data to boosting the overall availability of aircraft. These teams include a mix of specialists, including customer service representatives, engineers and parts logistics personnel.
“Data is big in what we’re trying to do for the customer, but so is human intelligence. So another aspect of the improvements we’ve made is in bolstering the number of boots we’ve got on the ground around the world with more field service representatives,” Gharibian told AIN. “But we’ve also improved the tools that our customers use to communicate information back to us through a new online portal that makes it far easier for them to do weekly reports on how the helicopters are performing.”
A big part of the improvement has involved having a better spread of workload between genuinely urgent situations and routine tasks that,if not handled efficiently, can result in new urgent issues that could have been averted. “We had to stop the situation in which our people were having to do too many multiple tasks at once and found themselves focusing on the urgent matters and neglecting the routine issues,” said Gharibian.
Essentially, the tactical AOG team now focuses on the urgent, AOG issues, leaving the no-less-important, but routine matters to the fleet management team. This approach has led to a 66 percent reduction in turnaround times for AOG situations and a 72 percent reduction in the total number of incidents that had to be dealt with, because more issues were prevented from reaching the AOG stage.
Sikorsky now has 20 service centers around the world. The company also has boosted the availability of forward-stocked spare parts in locations in Stavanger, Norway, Aberdeen, Scotland (opened in the third quarter of 2016), Brazil and Australia. It is now exploring options to open more of these facilities in the U.S. and Asia.