It may be a depressed market, but potential customers have plenty of choice.


Douglas Barrie

Kieran Daly

Jennifer Pite/LONDON

In the civil market, helicopter sales show scarcely any sign of recovery - with some sectors declining still further. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of innovation and ideas coming from the manufacturers.

The industry is still plagued by catastrophic over-capacity and has seen more job losses, notably in Europe, as traditional markets drift away. The emergency medical-services market is clearly mature and has lately even suffered a questioning of its fundamental economics. There still appear to be prospects in the law-enforcement and fire-fighting fields, however. Offshore exploration has all but collapsed as a market for the time being, although new oil discoveries and the vast, under-exploited, oil and gas reserves of the CIS generate tantalising opportunities.

In the North Sea, two major players - Bond Helicopters and Helikopter Services - have joined forces in the latest spasm of global-operator rationalisation. The recently formed worldwide operating conglomerates have returned reassuring financial results in difficult times and it has been in the largely unrestructured USA that corporate casualties have occurred. No manufacturers have yet succumbed, but it almost defies belief that the Aerospatiale/MBB merger to form Eurocopter remains the only serious rationalisation driven by the current crisis.

Eurocopter is also working closely with Russia's Mil design bureau, the Klimov engine bureau and the Kazan helicopter production plant, which may head off at least one potential source of further over-capacity in future. This joint venture, however, is centred on the Mil Mi-38, a nominal 30-seater which it will use to challenge the Westland/Agusta EH Industries EH.101. Unsurprisingly, Daimler Benz Aerospace chairman-designate Manfred Bischoff has been urging the Italian and UK companies to join Eurocopter in a single entity.

Westland and Agusta are bullish about the EH101's future, and other companies are forging ahead with their own programmes in lieu of collaboration. The three-engined EH101 will undergo proving flights in the North Sea in 1996 and, if successful, could transform operating practices there and elsewhere. It is perhaps understandable that its makers are reluctant to share the spoils of its lengthy development.


Hard work for Sikorsky

The presence of the Mi-38 and EH101 is one of the factors making life difficult for Sikorsky, which has yet to launch its long-awaited 19-seat S-92. The manufacturer is engaging in wide-ranging collaborative talks with potential risk-sharers. President Gene Buckley has been engaged in messianic presentations in support of civil-helicopter infrastructure. Buckley was one of the keenest proponents of collaboration, however, and Sikorsky is now clearly having to work hard to carve out its future niche in the heavy end of the civil market.

In the lighter classes, activity is more frenetic. McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems (MDHS) no sooner got its MD Explorer to market than it began talking about the proposed, eight-person, MD630N stretch of the original no-tail-rotor (NOTAR) MD520N. The environmental friendliness of the NOTAR system is gaining importance amid global impatience with helicopter noise. It is no coincidence that Bell's 430 development of the 230, due for certification in November, and the light 407, with choice of single or twin engines to be launched later this month in Las Vegas at HAI Heli-Expo '95, both feature quieter, four-blade rotors.

In Europe, Eurocopter is pressing ahead with its EC.135 and is spending heavily on research and development to tackle noise and vibration.

One of the major difficulties facing the Russian helicopter manufacturers, with their strong record in developing medium/heavy military and utility machines, is how to break into the lighter market - even in the CIS. Progress in powering new designs with Western engines, important on environmental grounds among others, has been slow and there is even a trickle of Western types into the CIS despite the underlying strength of the Russian manufacturers.

While the major manufacturers struggle, however, companies in the lightest class, together with niche player Kaman, continue to earn a sound living. Kaman remains true to its conservative philosophy of easing the K-Max "aerial truck" into service in the hands of like-minded operators. The manufacturer appears to have no shortage of customers, but is determined to ensure that its development programme remains as trouble-free as possible. Schweizer reportedly plans a development of its model 300 and Enstrom continues to sell its 280 and 480, increasingly to overseas customers. Robinson Helicopters has yet to shake off the attentions of the US National Transportation Safety Board, but it too has respectable sales figures.

The reality is that the civil-helicopter market is not going to bounce back in 1995. Rather, this may be the year when major players finally yield to the inevitability of rationalisation.



To those manufacturers pedalling military helicopters, the phrase "buyers market" must by now have an unpleasantly familiar ring to it. Combat helicopters are still being procured, but in an environment heavily weighted toward the purchaser.

Continuing procurement battles, both in the UK and in The Netherlands, illustrate the ferocity of the competition, with a surfeit of Western manufacturers struggling to grab a share of the market.

In the Netherlands, MDHS and Eurocopter, offering the AH-64 Apache and Tiger attack helicopters respectively, have seen a final decision delayed by internal politicking.

In a procurement struggle which resembles the fight between Sikorsky and Eurocopter over the Dutch support-helicopter purchase, the armed forces favour a US solution, while politicians are predisposed towards a European answer.

In the UK, the field of competitors remains that much wider with at least four manufacturers possessing a credible chance of picking up the £2 billion ($3.14 billion) order, to be announced in mid-1995. MDHS, with Eurocopter, remain the two favourites.

MDHS must also be taking considerable comfort from the decision by the US Department of Defense (DoD) to hold the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche at the technology-demonstrator level only. It may not be long before the company begins to publicly advocate a follow-on model to the AH-64D, with the AH-64E seeming a logical progression.

While Boeing may be nursing its wounds from the RAH-66 debacle, its CH-47 Chinook continues to garner business worldwide. An additional order from the Royal Air Force is expected to be announced in the near future, combined with a launch order for the military-utility EH101. The exact numbers in the mix have yet to be finalised by the UK Ministry of Defence.

In the USA, a CH-47 development also looks the most likely candidate to meet future DoD medium-capacity lift requirements. Funding for a "green-field" transport-helicopter development is highly unlikely to be forthcoming.

South Africa's Atlas, besides pushing its CSH-2 Rooivalk in the UK, has also been testing the Asian and Middle Eastern markets, where Malaysia is showing considerable interest.

In Japan, Kawasaki has produced a mock-up of its OH-X armed scout/observation light helicopter. A first flight is planned for 1996, and deliveries are due to begin in 1999. The OH-X will replace the MDHS OH-6D in service with the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force.

Russia's military-helicopter procurement plans appear to remain in confusion. Only a trickle of Kamov Ka-50 Hokum attack helicopters have been delivered, with production rates remaining painfully low. The Kamov design bureau is now working on a two-seat Ka-50 to provide an all-weather attack capability, in effect a tacit admission that the single-pilot design has not been a complete success.

Rival design bureau Mil is continuing to work on the Mi-28N all-weather attack variant of the Havoc, while also proposing that certain technologies from this programme be retrofitted to late model Mi-24 Hinds to extend the helicopter's service life.

It also continues to claim that it is working on a troop-carrying combat-assault helicopter in the class of the Mi-24, with the designation Mi-40, associated with this project. Given the parlous state of Russian defence-ministry finances, progress on this project may be assumed to be at best slow.

Source: Flight International