In the last two months, Sikorsky has made breakthroughs on the two programmes that have been holding it back since 2008.
The first step came in the last week of 2013. Sikorsky announced a principles of agreement with the Canadian government that may finally allow the company to deliver all 28 CH-148 Cormorants on contract as early as 2016. An amended contract must still be signed, but the initial agreement was the first positive step in the process for Sikorsky since the contract award in 2004.
A week later, Sikorsky delivered the first S-76D to Bristow, closing one of the most time-consuming and costly certification and completion programmes in the commercial division’s 35-year history.
Sikorsky is now free to discuss its next step in the commercial market, which counterintuitively begins with three major development efforts on military projects.
The military side of the business is currently commanding the company’s development resources. The US Marine Corps’ CH-53K enters flight testing later this year, along with the high-speed S-97 Raider. A collaborative rotorcraft demonstration with Boeing called the SB-1 Defiant follows in 2017. A follow-on commercial programme has not been announced, but preparations for a next step in 2020 have already begun.
Pratt & Whitney Canada, a sister company of Sikorsky, has announced plans to develop a new powerplant to support a new super-medium commercial aircraft that could enter service in 2020.
For two years, Sikorsky executives have spoken of plans to launch a product to occupy the space between the S-76D and the S-92, but are still not quite ready to make any announcements.
“We’re going to keep our cards very close to our chest,” Sikorsky president of commercial systems and services Carey Bond says, “because we’ve got some real great technologies and we might go left or right. We’re just going to see how this plays out because we’re in the unique position where we can do that.”
But Sikorsky executives are clear when they refer to “left and right” that they mean deviating from the path of developing a commercial helicopter. The X2 demonstrator proved the scientific viability of a coaxial rotor driven by a pusher propeller to speeds above 250kt, or roughly 175% faster than most conventional helicopters.
“Left or right means we’re definitely not going down the centre,” vice-president of Sikorsky Innovations Chris Van Buiten says. “It’s starting to get a little crowded. There’s a lot of conventional normal technology helicopters in that space right now.”
There are segments of the market that Sikorsky is willing to rule out. Though the company acquired light piston helicopter maker Schweitzer in 2006, and the light turbine market is enjoying a new boom with the Robinson R66 and the Bell Helicopter short light single (SLS), Sikorsky is not inclined to move below the intermediate-sized, twin-engined segment.
“We are not particularly attracted to the light single turbine market and the light twin markets,” Bond says. “That’s just a rough space and if you look at that space down there, it’s not where most of the market from a dollar standpoint is. It’s not where we want to spend most of our time. We like the S-76 size and above.”
The question is how that market evolves over the next 10 years. The commercial side of the helicopter industry has never put quite as much value on speed as the military has for some missions.
As Sikorsky develops the S-97 Raider and, with Boeing, the SB-1 Defiant, over the next several years commercial operators will be invited to attend the demonstrations and evaluate the capability. “It’s really fun to show those demonstrators to commercial customers and just ask them, you know, is it more about reducing initial procurement, cost, maximizing efficiency, or would you like to get out to the edge of the contintental shelf in an hour instead of the 2, 2.5 you experience today?” Van Buiten says.
There is still plenty of room for Sikorsky to manoeuvre, with a turbine-powered range spanning from the S-76D to the CH-53K.
“We can go anywhere between 12,000lb to 100,000lb,” Bond says. “We’ll just figure out where the market wants us to play.”
Contrary to recent reports, parent company United Technologies (UTC) has not decided to spin-off or divest Sikorsky, according to multiple sources.
The 85-year-long relationship between the eldest global helicopter brand and its corporate owners will endure, but some or all of Sikorsky’s aftermarket and services business may be put up for sale, sources say.
The distraction, however, caused by the story – breaking within weeks of the helicopter industry’s marquee event at Heli-Expo – belies Sikorsky’s predicament.
The entry-into-service of the S-76D in early January, coming roughly five years late, means the company can finally turn the page on its commercial product strategy. At the same time, Sikorsky faces a slew of new pressures from the military business, which had been its greatest strength, with rising orders from the US military over the past decade.
With the S-76D now fielded, Sikorsky’s focus finally turns to improving the performance. The S-76D was delivered with a 17% improvement in not-to-exceed air speed – also known as VNE – over the S-76C, but that was still not its peak. The S-76D incorporated aerodynamic improvements that Sikorsky learned while developing the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter for the US Marine Corps.
“We just know we got a little more in the can,” Bond says. “We’re going to see what we can get.”
The VNE speed changes will be focused on improving speed at higher altitudes. The sea-level speed of the S-76 will remain fixed at a maximum of 155kt, as any improvements require more extensive changes than the engine alone, Bond says.
“As you start coming off of sea level, you have the opportunity to hold the VNE or move the VNE numbers up and that’s where most people cruise anyway,” Bond says. “That’s where we think we’re leaving a lot of speed on the table right now that we’re going to be able to take advantage of with some incremental and additional flight testing.”
The S-76D represents the 10th major iteration of the basic aircraft since it was introduced in 1979. Major changes were introduced sometimes as letter designations, as in the case of the new Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6B-36 engine. In other cases, the company introduced an improved version of the engine by adding a “+”, such as the Turbomeca Arriel 2S1 aboard the S-76C+ and the Arriel 2S2 equipped on the S-76C++.
The product improvement strategy worked well for Sikorsky over the years, but limited retrofit options for improving previous models.
As Sikorsky plots the technology upgrade strategy for the S-76D, the company will be taking a different approach.
“My personal view is that I’m not too big on plus and plus-plus and things of that nature,” Bond says. “I like to see where you’re going to do a significant block change to the airplane that encapsulates a pretty significant amount of performance change.”
Sikorsky plans to make upgrades for the S-76D – and, for that matter the S-92 – as retrofittable as possible to the helicopters already delivered to customers.
“It just extends the longevity of how long the aircraft can remain in service,” Bond says. “It’s a two-pronged approach. Yes, we’ll look at significant upgrades that will drive B-models and C-models in the S-92 family, but the other leg of it is, okay, let’s make sure we can retrofit that stuff back. There’s going to be some things we can do that are fairly significant from a safety standpoint that isn’t going to cost a whole lot of money.”
The evolution of the S-92 has been relatively stable since it was introduced into service in 2004, but that’s been a part of Sikorsky’s strategy. Major propulsion and structural changes in the past have proved costly for Sikorsky to element. The focus is instead on improving the performance of the existing model using as much of the same hardware as possible.
Sikorsky will reserve letter designation changes – say, the S-92B, C and D – for big physical changes and new components, but adopt an applications-based model for continual product improvements.
Van Buiten compares to the strategy to the Apple iPhone, the new king of consumer electronics. “You don’t need to switch iPhones to enjoy the capability offered by all new applications,” he says, “whether in the area of diagnostics and prognostics or whether its autonomy and flight control functions.”
Embedded inside the avionics of the S-76D and S-92 are processors and flight management systems compatible with the company’s new applications-based approach. The aircraft are also equipped with satellite communications links that enable real-time downloading of operational data in flight or on the ground.
“The airplane can tell you when it’s in flight that an issue is starting to show up, and then you can be prepared on the other side when it lands with crews and parts and technology,” Bond says. “We’re really now starting to move into the reality of being able to do that.”
Since the S-92 entered service 10 years ago, Sikorsky has rolled out five new software-based applications to reduce maintenance requirements. One application simply interrogates the health usage monitoring system for updates on the condition of the high-speed shaft and bearings.
The same tactic has also been used to automate functions in the cockpit. The S-92 rig approach mode, a decade in the making, finally appeared in service last year.
“We went and automated all but just a couple of pilot actions, versus what was 17-plus actions in a complicated environment that they had to do in a very stressful situation,” Bond says.
Automation is a major focus on the military side the company right now. Sikorsky Innovations has acquired a used S-76C, rebranded it as the Sikorsky Autonomous Research Aircraft (SARA), and installed fly-by-wire controls and the Matrix Technology suite.
The Matrix system allows Sikorsky to fly the aircraft with a safety pilot or as an autonomous, unmanned system. The programme is aimed first at military applications, but can also be used to automate functions on manned, commercial aircraft.
“We can enable it to fly as a normal S-76 or as a fully autonomous aircraft that just dramatically reduces the pilot’s workload in complex operations,” Van Buiten says.