Sikorsky is positioning itself for a heavy helicopter market rebound.
A key portion of the company's forward strategy for the S-92A helicopter is maximizing the utility of its installed fleet with upgrade kits and modifications. Eventually, this could include Sikorsky’s Matrix system, which holds the promise of fully autonomous and semi-autonomous flight and the potential for single-pilot certification, according to Jason Lambert Sikorsky vice president of global commercial and military systems.
New S-92A sales had been light, ravaged in part by the pandemic, but also by the softness in the offshore energy market leading up to it. Last year Sikorsky delivered just four new S-92As. Final assembly and completion of the S-92A had taken place at Sikorsky’s Coatesville, Pennsylvania plant, but the down market prompted Sikorsky to announce the closure of that facility last year and redistribute various tasks performed there to Sikorsky/Lockheed-Martin facilities in Oswego, New York; West Palm Beach, FL; and Stratford. Lambert said a new final assembly line for the S-92A would be established at a location to be determined.
The quiet market also has moved the company’s modification program for existing S-92As, known as the A+, to the right. Originally scheduled to deliver in 2023, Lambert said certification of the upgrade’s key components now will not be completed until 2025 with deliveries beginning in 2026. The A+ kit allows customers to choose from a menu of improvements, including a new “Phase IV” main gearbox that uses a supplemental oil pump and additional oil lines to reuse main gearbox oil that is accumulated in a lower sump, in the event of primary lubrication failure. Lambert said Sikorsky had yet to decide if the A+ would become the standard configuration for new production helicopters. “Some customers do have an interest in the A+ while others just want the S-92A,” he said.
Sikorsky’s plans to offer a significantly revamped helicopter with larger cabin windows and titanium frames, the S-92B, originally targeted to deliver in 2025, have been pushed to an indeterminant future point “on the horizon,” Lambert said, adding that certain features planned for the B, such as the titanium frames, designed to give the helicopter a longer useful life, may be incorporated into new production helicopters with the A+ package.
He said market demand would drive “what the B configuration will look like further downstream.” However, he suggested that Matrix could play a large role in any B model, including offering it with single-pilot certification. “Being able to operate with one pilot versus two is a game-changer. We don’t expect that [the S-92] would ever be able to go fully autonomous—we have to leave the pilot in the loop.” But Lambert said the company was focusing on developing the system to the point where if “something catastrophic” happened to the pilot, “the asset could return home safely.”
However, the market will clearly drive the pace of S-92 modernization. “We haven’t sold an offshore aircraft in several years,” Lambert admitted. But flight hours are up and this year the S-92 fleet will surpass two million hours, he noted, calling it “a testament to the safety and reliability of the aircraft.” Meanwhile, while expressing optimism that rising oil prices would spur more orders once the “excess [helicopter] inventory in the marketplace” works its way out, Lambert said he is encouraged by the S-92’s continuing popularity of a head-of-state aircraft—now for 13 countries and soon also the U.S.—and its growing use as a search and rescue (SAR) aircraft.
The Matrix system would significantly add capabilities to a SAR-configured S-92. “Matrix can optimize a SAR pattern far more efficiently than a pilot can,” he said.
It also could add significant night-time firefighting capability to both Sikorsky’s S-70 Firehawk and a new collapsible firefighting kit developed for the S-92 in February. Helicopter lessor Milestone Aviation has partnered with Australia’s Helitak to develop an aerial firefighting kit designed specifically for the S-92A. The FT5000 system features a 1,050-gallon, collapsible, belly-mounted fire suppression tank that can be installed or removed in minutes and is equipped with a hover pump that can fully fill in 48 seconds. The firefighting S-92A can also transport crews of up to 19 firefighters, and its rear-loading cargo ramp offers operators the ability to quickly reconfigure the aircraft from passenger and equipment transfers to cargo hauling or medevac services.
Lambert also said the company was in discussions with several prospective customers on developing new military helicopter variants based on the S-92, “but heavily, heavily customized.” The S-92 variant developed for the Canadian military, the CH-148, is “unique to Canada,” and not really applicable to other markets, he added.
Despite the pandemic overhang, Lambert stressed that Sikorsky is still “very committed to the commercial marketplace and to our customers” even though the company had to make “some very hard business decisions” last year with regard to cost reduction and consolidation. He added that the uptick in both oil prices and flight hours bode well for future orders. “We are optimistic.”