IN FOCUS: Global demand grows for helicopters able to access remote oil and gas fields

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Four years after the US Republican party's rallying cry of "drill, baby, drill" failed to produce a presidential win, the insatiable need underlying the chant - the world's growing addiction to oil - is producing a win for the rotorcraft industry: a demand for more and better utility helicopters to provide economic and safe access to increasingly remote drilling locations.

Although deliveries overall remain depressed after the boom years of 2007 and 2008, oil and gas industry needs are tilting original equipment manufacturer (OEM) revenue expectations for their largest and most expensive models upwards. Other segments are stirring with the economic revival, too, including executive transport, tourism and news-gathering. By contrast, military and parapublic sectors in the USA and other countries are beginning a slow-down driven by calls for decreased federal and state spending.

eurocopter ec175, eurocopter

 © Eurocopter

Eurocopter expects its new EC175 to receive certification this year

"For 2012 and beyond, we can look very confidently at the oil and gas market [for growth]," says Roberto Garavaglia, senior vice-president of marketing for AgustaWestland. "The activity shifts much more towards international oil operators, where [demand for] long-range offshore oil and gas transport remains very strong."

Proof of the need is evident in plans and projects under way at the major OEMs, from the expected certification of market leader Eurocopter's new EC175 this year, to first flight of AgustaWestland's AW189 in late 2011 and the expected unveiling of a new large twin in the works at Bell Helicopter.

STAYING AHEAD

Bell is today's fleet leader by number in oil and gas helicopters, with its name tag on 37% of the more than 1,700 rotorcraft in the sector, according to the Flightglobal Ascend rotorcraft database. However the company's largest hauler - the 6t-class Bell 412EP medium twin - is technologically dated and slow (122kt) compared with the latest breed of larger competitors in the oil and gas sector. Those include the 6t-class Sikorsky S-76D (155kt), set to enter service this year; the 7t-class Eurocopter EC175 (151kt); the in-service 6t AgustaWestland AW139 (155kt); and the new 8t-class AgustaWestland AW189 (150kt), aimed for entry into service in 2014.

That may not be the case for long. Although Bell has not formally unveiled a 412EP replacement, many are betting the mostly mysterious Magellan project - a twin-engined helicopter that Bell has only said it will build alongside the V-22 Osprey in Amarillo, Texas - is just the ticket. News reports and rumours claim it is a 9.5t helicopter ripe with advanced technologies. Bell last year said that the company was targeting growth of its overall market share between 5% and 7% over the next three to five years, in part with help from the Bell 429 and the new Magellan.

For 2011 deliveries, Bell ranked third among the "big five" producers of civil turbine helicopters with 126 helicopters delivered and a 19% market share, according to Flightglobal Ascend data. Eurocopter was again number one, with 369 helicopters delivered for a 56% market share; AgustaWestland was a distant second with 132 deliveries for a 20% market share; Sikorsky was in fourth place with 29 deliveries and a 4% market share; and MD last of the five with six deliveries - a 1% market share.

bell agusta ba609, bell agusta

 © AgustaWestland

AgustaWestland now owns 100% of the BA609 tiltrotor developed with Bell

Future oil and gas profits aside, Larry Roberts, Bell Helicopter's senior vice-president for commercial business, says the biggest seller in the company's civil product line in 2011 was the single-engine Bell 407. By weight, the product line ranges from the light Bell 206L4 single, to the Bell 407 single - with two new variants: the Garmin G1000-equipped 407GX and the gun- and rocket-launcher-equipped 407AH for parapublic operators - and the twin-engined Bell 412EP and Bell 429.

Bell sold more than 100 407s in 2011, including a 44-aircraft deal with an unnamed customer and a "substantial sale" of 12 aircraft to "another operator in the US", says Roberts, adding that all of the 407s will be delivered by the end of 2013. Backlog for the model extends into 2014, he says, with lead times now in the 10-12 month range for the type. He indicates there may also be an armed version of the 407GX, dubbed the 407GT (glass tactical) in the works.

FUTURE DELIVERIES

Roberts says the 206L4 production is sold out for 2012 already, the 407 is "close to sold out", the 412EP will be sold out by the end of the first quarter, and the 429 will be sold out by mid-year if the Turkish national police ultimately chooses Bell for a 15-aircraft contract (with five additional options). Bell announced in early January it had reached the the final negotiations stage. The Flightglobal Ascend database lists 25 orders for the Bell 412EP as of 30 January, with deliveries in 2012 and 2013. The database lists 32 orders for the Bell 429, all in 2012.

Research and development efforts, while obviously aimed at Magellan, are also intended to span all of the company's offerings. "[R&D] continues to focus on all the things we know the industry is interested in," says Roberts. Those include safety enhancements, more redundancy, "better managing the pilot interface" and enhanced real-time prognostics and diagnostics capabilities. "Along with those, the next big steps are on avionics, including enhanced situational awareness, and making the helicopter quieter, including efforts targeting engine intakes, blade design and anti-torque controls," he says. "The philosophy is that what we do for one, we do for all. As we move into the next family, [the existing family] will benefit from the enhancements."

Roberts specifically puts cockpit advances on the agenda for Bell's future. "We are no longer looking at [cockpit systems] individually," he says. "The whole cockpit atmosphere is in a single system now." That appears to include fly-by-wire controls. Roberts says the key is to perfect the flight-control laws and then the systems that interpret them (the actuation systems). "We have significant capability on the control laws side," he says. "The big thing is integrating with flight controls for significant and predictable flight," a capability the company perfected with the fly-by-wire V-22. "The V-22's capabilities are staggering - it's battle-proven," says Roberts. "It's not optimal for us to proceed into the future without looking at those systems on the commercial side."

NEW EXPERIENCE

An unusual cockpit is exactly what Eurocopter is promising for its mysterious X4 programme, designed to replace the 5t EC155 Dauphin medium-twin line. Fly-by-wire is but one of many technologies likely to be included. "Flying this helicopter will be a totally different way of flying an aircraft," Eurocopter chief executive Lutz Bertling said at Heli-Expo 2011. "The first time you sit in this helicopter, you will miss something - the cockpit, why do you have a cockpit?" High speed could also be an ingredient, based on experimentation with the company's X3 demonstrator, an EC155 with mid-cabin outboard propellers and no tail rotor. Trials in 2011 produced 230kt (426km/h) forward speed at 70% power and breathtaking demonstrations at the Paris air show, prior to attempts in February to reach 250kt.

Eurocopter's focus on the burgeoning off-shore market, where it has a 28% market share among the big five OEMs, is evident in the 16-passenger EC175 it is developing in part to take on AgustaWestland's successful AW139 programme. The EC175, built in a 50/50 partnership with China's Harbin Aviation Industry Group, is slated for certification and entry into service late this year. Eurocopter reported on 24 January, however, that it had just four "initial firm orders" for the type, although several of the orders are part of multi-year contracts that do not show up in 2011 numbers. The Flightglobal Ascend database reveals 11 total orders for the type as of 30 January, with deliveries in 2013 and 2014.

turbine helos

 

Earlier in January, Eurocopter reported that the EC175 had achieved "significantly increased" range and payload capacity - a 30% performance increase over baseline expectations. That translates to a "radius of action" of 135nm with 16 passengers, or a 190nm radius with 12 passengers. The manufacturer has also launched an 18-passenger version that will have a 100nm radius.

Meanwhile its legacy 11t-class EC225 Super Puma racked up 35 sales in 2011, says Eurocopter. The Flightglobal Ascend database shows 61 total orders for the type for deliveries between 2012 and 2016. Overall, Eurocopter says it netted 457 civil and military orders for the year, including UH-72A Lakotas for the US Army. In total, Eurocopter delivered 369 civil and parapublic helicopters in 2011, according to Flightglobal Ascend. As with Bell, most of its 2011 orders came from the light end of the market, predominantly the 238 orders for the single-engine EC130B4 line.

For AgustaWestland, the success of the AW139 twin in a variety of markets, offshore included, has huge implications for several new models under development. "The AW139 has changed the company," says AgustaWestland's Garavaglia. "In the competitive oil and gas markets, where logistics and reliability are key, we have learned a lot." As of December, there were 450 AW139s in service and orders for about 150 more. Overall, AgustaWestland delivered 132 civil helicopters in 2011, according to Flightglobal Ascend. Its official 2011 results will be published in March.

The AW139 experience has spawned a family affair with two new civil helicopters - the smaller 4.5t-class AW169 light-intermediate twin, primarily for parapublic and EMS ­missions and potentially for VIP, and the 8t-class AW189, primarily for the oil and gas industry. The Flightglobal Ascend database shows 19 orders for AW169s as of 30 January, with deliveries between 2014 and 2017. For the AW189, the database shows 10 orders for deliveries between 2014 and 2015.

"The [oil and gas] market was already served well by the AW139, but we're reinforcing our offering with the AW189," says Garavaglia. Flightglobal Ascend shows AgustaWestland has 9% of the oil and gas sector by number of helicopters among the five largest OEMs.

Garavaglia says the addition of the two new helicopters expands AgustaWestland's overall market reach from 50-55% to 85-90%. It also puts the airframer closer on the heels of market leader Eurocopter. "Today we are number two in the civil segment," says Garavaglia. "We are very close to Eurocopter [in sales] if you don't take single-engine models into account."

FAMILY VALUES

The new models are also designed to provide commonality savings by having "similar DNA", says Garavaglia. "All will have very similar cockpit ergonomics, shared tooling and mission equipment." While the 169 and 189 will have an AgustaWestland-designed avionics suite, unlike the Honeywell Primus Epic suite in the 139, Garavaglia says the symbology between the cockpits will be the same. "If pilots are transitioning from the 139, they will be able to transition to the 169 or the 189 in less time than for other types." AgustaWestland is targeting 2013 for AW189 certification and 2014 entry into service. The AW169 will follow each of those dates by about one year.

The manufacturer's 15t-class, three-engine AW101 heavy helicopter could eventually be brought into the civil fold from the special purpose (VVIP) and military side if ice continues to melt in northern climes. "It's probably too big for the plain vanilla offshore flight," says Garavaglia. "If the shipping lines move farther to the north, however, there may be a need for some sort of helicopters for search and rescue, and the 101 could be the right answer." AgustaWestland is also seeking, in partnership with Boeing, to win the reissued competition for the next US presidential helicopter, an offering now in the "analysis of alternatives" stage.

A more likely maritime search-and-rescue (SAR) candidate is likely to emerge sooner in the form of the AW609 tiltrotor. After buying 100% of the programme from joint-venture partner Bell last year, AgustaWestland has been working to set up a US company that will subcontract to Bell to help to complete the US Federal Aviation Administration certification effort of the tiltrotor by early 2016, says Garavaglia. "We're exploring short-takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities for the AW609 now," he adds. "This would further increase the 609's range, which is typically needed to cover SAR needs. It would offer significantly more payload than the fully vertical mode."

Excitement at Sikorsky centres on the imminent certification and entry into service of its 6t S-76D for the offshore, VIP and other sectors. The S-76D is replacing the S-76C++ in the company's twin-engine line-up, which also includes the popular 12t S-92 for offshore operations. Sikorsky plans to build 24 S-76Ds next year, with the first delivery slated for September to a corporate operator. The Flightglobal Ascend database shows 14 orders for the S-76D as of 30 January, 12 of which are for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior and two for an unidentified corporate operator, with deliveries between 2012 and 2014. The database lists 32 orders for the S-92, including 19 orders for the CH-148 Cyclone military variant for the Canadian air force, all due for delivery by 2014.

Speculation that United Technologies (UTC), the parent company of Sikorsky, may seek to sell Sikorsky or enter into a joint venture to help fund its proposed $18.4 billion purchase of Goodrich, is apparently just that - speculation. "We're looking at non-core assets to divest," said Greg Hayes, UTC's chief financial officer, during a fourth-quarter earnings call on 25 January. "Sikorsky, as far as I can tell, is a core asset of UTC, so I think we can put that speculation to rest."

TRAINERS FLOAT ENSTROM'S BOAT

Enstrom Helicopter had its "best year in history" in 2011 in terms of economic performance, says president and chief executive Jerry Mullins - and 2012 is likely to be even better.

The Menominee, Michigan-based company shipped 16 helicopters last year, all except one to customers outside the USA. Most of those customers were foreign militaries that have picked up on the virtues of the company's easy-to-fly aircraft for their training needs or border protection.

The Royal Thai army had 10 of 16 ordered Enstrom 480B turbine-powered helicopters delivered in 2010. A win in the Ukraine means initial delivery of four 480Bs to its border guard service in 2013, with potential for a "significant" number of follow-on orders, says Mullins. While Enstrom has delivered more helicopters in past years, the product mix and special options - avionics, military radios and related equipment - put 2011's batch over the top.

enstrom helicopter

 © Enstrom Helicopters

Two TH-480Bs are being tested by the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force, a preliminary gate to pass before the force follows through on an order for 28 more helicopters to be delivered through 2014. Japan is replacing its Hughes OH-6 trainer fleet with the Enstrom. Mullins says the two helicopters in test are "doing great".

Enstrom is also making inroads in China with a new dealer there. Mullins says China bought one turbine- and one piston-powered helicopter last year, and both will be delivered this year. "I think we'll see significant penetration in that market," says Mullins.

Last year's performance and an outlook for 22 deliveries this year - again, most of them for foreign militaries, as trainers - is fuelling optimism for Enstrom's 110 employees.

Mullins says he was able to procure several CNC milling machines for his production facility in 2011 and will upgrade the factory this year. An interest-free loan from Michigan's economic development authority and a local bank also helped, he adds. There is also some enticing research and development going on. "We're working on some things, doing a prototype that at some point in time we'll talk about," says Mullins.

 

R66 DOMINATES ROBINSON AGENDA

Production-rate challenges at Robinson Helicopter are a definite indicator that the light aviation market is on the rebound. The Torrance, California-based manufacturer is striving to double its production rate for the new turbine-powered R66 to six aircraft per week - a rate that will provide an order-to-delivery lag of six months rather one year, says Kurt Robinson, company president.

Robinson produced 356 helicopters - 88 R66s, 212 R44s and 56 R22s - in 2011. This was more than double the number from 2010, but far less than the company's peak of 827 in 2007.

However, backlog as of mid-January was already more than 400 helicopters, split between orders for the five-seat R66, the four-seat R44, and two-seat R22.

The renewed demand fuelled the rehiring of more than 250 employees last year, about half the number cut in the down years between 2008 and 2010, when the workforce dropped from 1,400 to 900. Robinson says he is likely to hire another 250 employees or more this year, in large part to handle the increased labour needs for building the R66 cabin.

robinson r66, john croft/flightglobal

 © John Croft/Flightglobal

Robinson hopes to double production of its new turbine powered R66

 

The company increased R66 production from one per week at the start of 2011 and finished the year at three per week. The goal this year is to double the R66 production rate, matching that of the R44 at six per week.

Robinson is applying significant engineering resources to certificating new variants of the R66, including a law enforcement version with forward-looking infrared, searchlight, police radios, moving map displays and five-point shoulder harness. The company is working on a night-vision goggle-compatible cockpit for the police version, as well as a float-equipped variant.

Sales demographics continue to favour foreign lands, with a steady 60-65% of the orders coming from international customers - and Brazil and Australia showing increasing demand, says Robinson.

No new models are on the drawing boards at the moment. However, adds Robinson: "Right now, our hands are full trying to get the R66 to full production and get all the variants done."

 

ALL EYES ON BELL'S CANADIAN EXEMPTION

Helicopter manufacturers are on tenterhooks to see whether the US Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency will fall in line with an exemption Transport Canada recently granted to Bell Helicopter. At issue is the approval of an exemption that allows the Bell 429 to have a maximum internal take-off weight of 3,402kg (7,500lb), up 227kg from the maximum allowed by Part 27 "normal category" certification requirements under which the medium-twin was certificated in the USA, Canada and Europe. Rotorcraft weighing more than 3,175kg must be certificated under the more rigorous Part 29 helicopter transport requirements, which include elements such as continued safe flight and landing after hitting a 1kg bird at maximum speed.

For Bell, the boost, if mimicked by the FAA and EASA, should be a boon to sales since potential customers have been critical of the payload limitations of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW207D1-powered twin.

At least one other manufacturer is critical of the improvement. "This is a change in the rules after the game has been played," says Roberto Garavaglia, senior vice-president of marketing for AgustaWestland. "The 429 will benefit from a grant that is not available to any other models." Limits are limits, which is why AgustaWestland certificated its Grand New at 3,175kg maximum weight "and not a single pound above that", he says. "The definition of normal category and transport category appears to be more flimsy," he adds.

Transport Canada says that the decision to grant the exemption "took into consideration the fact that the helicopter model in question was built to the most recent standards, whereas other helicopter models were certified to older standards".

bell 429, bell helicopter

 © Bell helicopter

Transport Canada granted the Bell 429 a weight exemption

To a query from Flight International, the agency responded: "The department also conducted a safety risk assessment and concluded that granting the exemption would be acceptable provided certain design and operational conditions are imposed."

Four conditions are required for the weight increase, Bell Helicopter says: a strobe on the front of the helicopter to frighten birds; a cockpit voice recorder; a terrain awareness and warning system; and a radar altimeter. A retrofit kit is priced at $115,000, says Bell.

Larry Roberts, Bell's senior vice-president for commercial business, says the weight increase "practically doubles" the range of the 429 or allows for an additional flight nurse or a family member to be aboard in an emergency medical services configuration.

Transport Canada says it "took the exceptional step" of consulting the FAA and EASA as part of the exemption process. "Should any other company apply for an exemption, it would be given similar considerations," the agency says.