Kaman Aerospace, one of the legacy helicopter manufacturers, has never brought a flyable aircraft to the Farnborough air show. This time it has brought a 1m (3ft) working model K-Max, complete with spinning, intermeshed rotors. But Kaman is more than an aircraft company: the heads of the company's five divisions will bring finished samples of a range products to the show.
"We've got a lot of meetings set up," says Mark Tattershall, Kaman's director of marketing and business development. "Obviously we're a major subcontractor on programmes military and commercial. Farnborough is an opportunity to meet a lot of those customers, international customers as well, and we've certainly got aspirations to grow that side of the business.
"One of our core competencies is manufacturing aircraft doors, and one of the emphases this year is our design and build capability for aircraft doors and stairs, and we're exhibiting an example of that," he adds.
Sal Bordonaro, president of the helicopter manufacturing division, says: "Our fusing division has brought samples of the fuses, and our bearing division has brought samples of the bearing products that they produce.
"It's to show that we have a quite diversified portfolio, whether it's unmanned helicopters or doing subcontract work for some of the bigger OEMs. We show that this is the Kaman Aerospace Group and we can offer a number of solutions in the aerospace market," he says. "Whether it's building airframes for the Blackhawk, whatever it is, we want to show that we have quite a capability as an aerospace group."
The helicopter division has seen a resurgence of interest in its capabilities.
The US Marine Corp has been conducting an operational resupply experiment using an optionally manned version of the K-Max. Two of the helicopters, which Kaman modified for Lockheed Martin, have been operating from a base in southern Afghanistan. The aircraft were deployed to find ways of reducing the number of ground vehicle convoys, which often operate in rough terrain and are regularly ambushed. The K-Max were initially deployed for six months, but the USMC has extended the deployment until the end of September.
According to Naval Air Systems Command (Navair), the US Navy branch that selected the helicopter on behalf of the USMC, the aircraft have moved more than 227,000kg (500,000lb) in operational missions, mainly at night, with a 95% mission capable rate. The USMC is reportedly very happy with the aircraft.
"It's really based on the fact that the aircraft have operated very well in theatre," says Bordonaro. "When you're maintaining a 95% readiness rate and it's a very simple machine to operate, people are pretty pleased with the support."
The Marines are slowly withdrawing from Afghanistan, and will eventually leave the country altogether. While the service has the option of extending the unmanned K-Max deployment further, they may be brought back to the USA for testing by other military branches. The lone non-deployed aircraft is undergoing contracted testing with the US Army, experimenting with an optical beacon-homing system to enable autonomous landing. Already the helicopter has been downselected for the US Navy's autonomous aerial cargo utility system (AACUS) test programme to experiment with further development of autonomous operation.
The K-Max was initially designed as a civilian helicopter for repetitive and heavy lifting. It is not suited for much else. While unmanned rotary wing aircraft have generally been used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, customers are examining the unmanned K-Max for heavy lifting as a primary role.
"Basically they want the cargo carrying capability and may want to add some technologies onto the aircraft," says Terry Fogarty, president of the unmanned aerial systems division. "As an example, just about anything that flies they want to have some eyes on it. We've done that in the past, that's an easy thing to do. The aircraft has the capability of adding equipment because we're really not constrained by the capabilities of the aircraft and by weight."
The venerable SH-2 Seasprite, a manned helicopter designed in the 1950s, has also seen new life. Discussions are ongoing with the New Zealand government for 11 Seasprites that have been in storage since planned operation by Australia fell through. New Zealand currently operates older SH-2s, making it a relatively straightforward replacement. Kaman says it is in talks with several other countries for more stored aircraft.
"There's a lot of interest in anti-submarine warfare at the moment. A lot of interested new customers," says Tattershall. He declined to specify potential customers further.
At Farnborough the company is aggressively chasing new business. Tattershall estimates that of the scheduled meetings, 75% are for potential new business, with the remainder reserved for existing customers.
"If you come by our booth you'll see we have a huge presence. One of the things we're doing is moving towards design and build as well. We acquired an engineering services company, we've acquired tooling companies, we've got great capabilities in aerostructures both metallic and composite," says Tattershall. "We've set up a low-cost manufacturing facility in Chihuahua [Mexico], we've got the joint venture in India, so it gives you some idea of the strategic direction the company is going in. Our objective, and it's stated publicly, is to become a super tier II supplier, both civilian and military, and we're moving very quickly towards that objective."
Kaman is nothing if not venerable, but has no plans to reintroduce production of either the K-Max or SH-2. The company is working on, among other things, a new composite blade for the Boeing AH-6 Little Bird.
"We're obviously looking to balance our portfolio a bit more," says Tattershall. "We've got to come up with differentiators as far as value is concerned, and our design capability certainly enhances any offer we can make, and tooling and advanced technologies as well. So we're looking at everything possible to make us as efficient as we can be but also add value as far as technology is concerned and everything as far as life support is concerned."