Heli Expo 2008: Sikorsky takes the momentum, Eurocopter the orders

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Sikorsky stole the spotlight at this year's record-breaking Heli-Expo exhibition in Houston, Texas, not with orders, where Eurocopter was king, but with its bold vision for the evolution of vertical flight.

"I don't think Sikorsky will spend its own money to build another conventional helicopter," said Sikorksy Aircraft president Jeff Pino during a press conference on 24 February, when asked if the company was contemplating acquiring another helicopter manufacturer. "For us, we'll create a new paradigm - speed."

Pino was speaking after the unveiling earlier that day of Sikorsky's internally funded high-speed advancing blade concept demonstrator project. Known as the X2, the two-place demonstrator has dual rigid counter-rotating main rotors coupled to a rear-facing six-bladed propeller. It is designed to cruise at 250kt (465km/h) and reach top speeds in the neighbourhood of 270kt.

Sikorsky envisions a family of such aircraft, ranging from an X2-sized armed attack helicopter that could fly escort for the Bell Boeing V22 Osprey, to a 15- to 19-passenger civil version that could fill the offshore oil market's desire for more rapid access to increasingly remote sites.

Along with speed, Pino also offers a vision of future Sikorsky helicopters that employ fly-by-wire (FBW) and autonomy to boost safety and utility. "We envision a switch in the cockpit of all of our helicopters with indicators for 'No pilot', 'One pilot' and 'Two pilots'," says Pino. "That's why FBW is so important to us."

For the military, Pino says Sikorsky's "internal" goal is to fly a Black Hawk with such a system by 2011. "It will be a self-actualised helicopter that knows its damage, knows the skills of the pilot and knows where it's headed," Pino says, adding: "Everybody's talking to us about it." One possible application would be for military supply missions, where pilots would fly one Black Hawk and be accompanied by five unmanned Black Hawks.

More immediate will be the push for more speed though. Sikorsky's chief engineer for the X2 programme, Steve Weiner, says first flight of the tandem two-seater could come as soon as during the next few weeks and will "definitely" occur before the end of the year. The company interrupted ground tests after only four hours of run time with the single LHTEC T800-801 turboshaft engine - a remnant of the Comanche programme - to bring the demonstrator to the show in large part to gauge industry interest. The risk appeared to have paid off, judging by the crowds that surrounded the X2 throughout the three-day show.

Once back at Sikorsky's Hawk Works facility in Elmira, New York, Weiner says, gearbox power transmission tests will continue, first with no rotors attached and later with the two Eagle Aviation all-composite four-bladed main rotors attached. Next will come 100% rotor speed tests with the aircraft tethered to the ground.

After first flight, Sikorsky is planning a four-phase flight test programme, focused first on hovering, then progressively higher speed regimes.

Capturing less attention was a new conventional Sikorsky helicopter that, according to Pino's logic, could be its last. Called the Sikorsky Schweizer S-434, the light single is based on the three-bladed, turboshaft-powered Schweizer 333 but is capped with a four-blade rotor design developed for the Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle programme.

Powered by a Rolls-Royce 250-C20W rated at 320shp (240kW), up from 280shp for the 333, the aircraft will feature an increased gross weight of 1,315kg (2,900lb), higher maximum cruise speed of 105kt, improved hover performance and carry enough fuel for 4h of endurance. Sikorsky is taking orders for the S-434, most likely for the flight training, law enforcement and utility sectors, and expects first flight soon.

Eurocopter, meanwhile, captured the financial laureates for the show with orders for more than 100 helicopters not including at least 88 deposits its new EC175, a 7t heavy twin helicopter unveiled at the show. Launch customers are Bristol Group and VIH Aviation Group. Eurcopter would not reveal the helicopter's price.

Development and production will be shared 50:50 between Eurocopter and Harbin, part of China's Avic II aviation industrial group. Design of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67E turboshaft-powered helicopter was frozen at the end of 2007 and the first prototype is now being manufactured. The aircraft will feature a five-blade Spheriflex main rotor, three-blade tail rotor, four-axis duplex autopilot and five flat panel cockpit displays. First flight is scheduled for 2009 with European certification expected in 2011.

AgustaWestland did not introduce any new aircraft at the show, but followed closely on the heels of Eurocopter's order tally, with deposits or agreements for more than 75 helicopters.

Interest at the Bell exhibit largely focused on the Bell 429, the company's new medium-twin, slated for certification by year-end. According to Bell 429 programme director Neil Marshall, the programme now has three of five certification aircraft flying, is 50% complete and is holding to schedule. He says Bell currently has orders for more than 270 of the helicopters.