HELI-EXPO 2009: backlog boosts spirits amid dearth of new orders

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Missing from this year's Heli-Expo show in Anaheim, California were the jumbo orders for new helicopters so prevalent in the boom years just past.

Gloom did not fill the vacuum behind the unrequited sales calls, however, as a mixture of government and para-public must-have bookings moved to the fore to buoy the rotorcraft industry until the next upswing in the economy.

Annual forecasts issued by engine manufacturers Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, while varying significantly in the degree as to how long and deep the downturn could be, both agreed that 2009 will be an acceptable year.

R-R says that while the sector "will not escape the impact of the world at large", its affect will be "fairly moderate", a "softening" followed by growth to the tune of 15,800 new turbine helicopters worth $131 billion over the next decade. Armed forces are expected to be the top buyer, with $104 billion to be spent on 6,200 aircraft.

The company expects those orders to require 25,000 engines, among them the new RR500 turboshaft engine R-R unveiled in Anaheim. The 475shp (355kW) engine is derivative of the 300shp RR300 that will power the Robinson R66, now in certification testing. R-R is working with Poland's PZL-Swidnik to find applications for the new engine for possible derivatives of the PZL SW-4, a light turbine helicopter R-R says has a "substantial upside". The SW-4 is powered by the R-R Model 250 turboshaft.

Honeywell is forecasting that 2009 deliveries will be similar to those in 2008 because of healthy backlogs, an assessment the manufacturers confirm, but says there will then be a drop-off, a forecast based on the decrease in orders placed so far this year. "New order intake in 2009 is expected to decline sharply and will not normalise until a sustained global economic recovery begins and additional aircraft financing becomes available," the company says.

Honeywell estimates 3,500-4,500 new helicopter deliveries globally from 2009-13, some with its US-made LTS101-700D-2 turboshaft engine, which Changhe Aircraft Industries has selected to power its Z-11 light single helicopter from 2010. Changhe estimates sales of more than 300 units over next five to 10 years in China.

At Robinson Helicopter, the biggest manufacturer of helicopters worldwide by volume, only two R22 entry-level machines are being assembled, a testament to difficulties in the global financing market. Robinson previously built about four R22s a week and 16 R44s a week. Almost three-quarters of Robinson's 893 deliveries last year went to customers outside the USA.

robinson 
 © Robinson

While difficulty in gaining loans appears to be easing, the larger boost for the company will come when it begins taking orders for its new RR300-powered R66, the first turbine helicopter in the Robinson portfolio. The aircraft is in US Federal Aviation Administration certification testing. Robinson has not yet set a price, but estimates the helicopter will cost less than $1 million when available for deliveries next year. Robinson says it worldwide dealers, which number more than 100, are reporting high interest in the helicopter.

Sikorsky's lifeline in the near term is its military work, which makes up a significant portion of its $13.2 billion backlog, or more than two years of production. In addition to helicopters for US forces, Sikorsky is expecting many sales internationally, where officials estimate the potential for $62.3 billion in revenue until 2017.

Bell Helicopter is similarly placed, with a backlog of about 500 military aircraft, including variants of the V-22 tiltrotor and H-1 helicopter. On the civil side, its new Bell 429 medium twin is expected to receive certification in June, opening new sources of sales.

AgustaWestland, while not introducing any new products, continues to refine and upgrade its portfolio, particularly the AW139. Officials say a programme to certificate the helicopter for single-pilot instrument flight rules operations and night-vision goggle use in the USA is proceeding, as are new upgrades for the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics suite.

Sikorsky touted significant achievements for its X2 high-speed compound helicopter programme at the show. The aircraft flew for the first time in 2008 and is expected to reach speeds in excess of 250kt (460km/h) this year. Although internally funded, Sikorsky is beginning to consider the technology for forthcoming military programmes such as the US Army's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter.

Eurocopter appears to be countering the X2 with its own new high-speed demonstrator, the X3. R-R announced at the show that it will provide its RTM322 turboshaft for the programme, but Eurocopter officials have denied any knowledge of the project and R-R refused to comment further.

Supporting a wealth of technology programmes under way is Eurocopter's blockbuster $18 billion backlog, representing 1,550 helicopters, or more than three years of production. Although the company received 30 order cancellations in the closing months of 2008, "all have been relocated" to new customers, says chief executive Lutz Bertling. "There are no white tails, or should I say 'white fenestrons'," he adds.

Despite lower volumes, Eurocopter expects its revenue to hold or increase from 2008 levels due to a trend toward larger helicopters, a development Bertling says means the manufacturer "is not in a deep crisis" despite the economic climate. "It will be a year of stabilisation rather than a year of large crises," he adds.

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