A host of new-build helicopters and an array of safety and environmental technologies will take centre stage at this year's Heli-Expo


If attendance at this year's Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo 2001 in Anaheim, California, USA, (11-14 February) is any measure of the industry's well-being, the prognosis would be "business as usual". The show is on a par with last year's event in Las Vegas, with 478 exhibitors and 60 static helicopters booked to attend, covering an area of some 16,722m² (180,00ft²). This state of affairs is reflected in the output of new-build helicopters over the last 12 months.

Western helicopter deliveries approached 1,000 new civil helicopters of all sizes in 2000. Discounting the large numbers of small piston machines built by Robinson Helicopter, this represents only a marginal increase on the prior year. "I don't think we've seen any major change over the last few years. We're looking at a fairly constant level of output - 1-2% growth in the market over the next decade," says HAI president Roy Resavage.

The main exception to this has been phenomenal sales success of Frank Robinson's family of single piston engine helicopters, with a total of 390 machines shipped in 2000.

Increased demand

The main increase in demand has been for the four-seat R-44, which accounted for 264 sales - a hike of 76% on 1999. The Torrance, California-based manufacturer has built 3,176 machines since 1979 and hopes to be in a position to hand over its 1,000th R-44 during HAI.

Robinson attributes the jump in the $300,000 machine's popularity to its addition of hydraulic controls, which were introduced as an option in late 1999 and then later as standard equipment. "As soon as it became available almost all customers ordered it as an option, despite pushing up the helicopter's price by $13,000," says company president Frank Robinson.

The success of the R-22/R-44 has come at the expense of heavier piston machines, such as the Enstrom 280FX and F28F, only two of which were delivered in 2000. Enstrom turbine sales were only a little better, hampered by the delay in certification of the improved 480B. Enstrom president Bob Tuttle is expecting turbine sales to improve once the 480B becomes available. It features increased 1,362kg maximum take-off weight and uprated transmission. The company will be displaying a 480B along with a law enforcement-configured F28F at Heli-Expo.

Brantly re-entered the market last year with a rejuvenated B-2B, more than 40 years after the two-seat light piston machine was first certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration. The Texas-based Chinese-owned company delivered six of the $150,000 machines in 2000. "We could produce 20-24 a year, but would be happy to sell 12 this year," says George Stokes, Brantly vice president sales and marketing.

Schweizer enjoyed a reasonable year, tempered only by a six-month slippage in certification of the new four-seat Model 333. The first Rolls-Royce 250-C20-W powered machine finally entered service in September and six were delivered in 2000. The company is pitching the $600,000 machine against the Bell 206, MD500 and Eurocopter EC120. It claims to have sold out production through to May.

Sales of Schweizer piston machines remained largely flat in 2000 - only 22 Model 300CBs and 18 Model 300Cs. "We've been selling around 40 a year for the last five to six years and we're planning to produce another 40 in 2001. The CB remains very effective in the training market, where it has established a niche, but the R-22 has affected the 300C market," says company vice president Paul Schweizer.

The last year has been a period of continued adjustment for MD Helicopters as it disengages from Boeing and sets up its own chain of suppliers. As a result its delivery of 41 helicopters fell short of target. MDH has established a working relationship with one of the industry's smallest players, Kaman, which will supply MD500/600 Series cabins and Explorer blades. This has led to speculation about a possible closer partnership in the future as the latter faces a dwindling line of SH-2G remanufacturing work and only niche applications for the K-MAX.


Entry-level market

Hovering in the wings of the entry-level market are some interesting Eastern European, Russian and Chinese piston and light turbine designs and developments. Until now a lack of investment capital, marketing finesse and after-sales support have kept these potential lower cost competitors to Enstrom, Schweizer and Robinson largely in check.

Examples of piston machines include the three-seat Kazan Aktay and the similarly-sized Mil Mi-52, neither of which is believed to have yet flown. In Poland, PZL-Swidnik continues to work on the R-R 250-R/2-powered SW-4 light utility machine, while in China, Jingdezhen has produced the Z-11, a Eurocopter AS350 lookalike. Both the SW-4 and the Z-11 have been flying since late 1996.

A number of these programmes could be given a much needed boost with an injection of Western capital and marketing/support know-how. Poland is looking to sell a 36.7% stake in PZL-Swidnik to a Western investor. It is already a major supplier to Agusta of AB 139 and A109 structures. Mil had also been looking for a Western investor to stave off bankruptcy before the Russian government reasserted control. It is co-operating with Eurocopter to develop the Mi-38 heavylift helicopter as a possible counter to the EH Industries EH101.

At the same time, Eurocopter has established a joint venture with IAR Brasov of Romania, which could see long-running local license production of the SA330 Puma and Alouette III extended to other more modern models. Sikorsky, which already owns a 10% stake in Mil, is now in the process of transferring production of S-76 fuselages to Czech manufacturer Aero Vodochody, which is expected to build 10-12 shipsets a year by the end of 2001.

Sikorsky is hoping that this, along with the outsourcing of S-76 completion to Keystone of Philadelphia, will cut the cost of the $6-8 million machine. Sales have slowed to around 10 units a year, while its S-76-based Sikorsky Shares fractional ownership scheme has proven sluggish. "It's been much slower than anticipated, but the good news is, there is continuing interest," says Tommy Thomason, Sikorsky vice president civil programmes.

While shares in the first S-76 have sold out, Sikorsky still seeks investors for a second 13-seat helicopter. Another rotary wing fractional start up, Skyhopper of the UK, has meanwhile failed altogether after the withdrawal of its last leased S-76C and Bell 430. "There does not appear to have been a rush to embrace the concept of fractional ownership as there was in the fixed-wing world. The concept will take careful planning to implement it where it best makes sense," suggests Resavage.

Heli-Expo is expected to be the venue for a number of major product announcements from the larger helicopter manufacturers. Sikorsky is gearing up to compete with the new Eurocopter EC155 and Agusta Bell AB 139 with a planned avionics upgrade of the S-76C+, along with changes to the tail rotor to reduce noise and a modest increase in power from the helicopter's twin Turbomeca Arriel 2S1s. Both the S-76 and a full-size mock-up of the S-92's recently stretched cabin will be on display.

Agusta/Bell is hoping to fly the first AB139 prototype in time for Heli-Expo, followed in August by the scheduled maiden flight of the BA 609 civil tiltrotor. The former twin-engine medium helicopter is being marketed as a 15-seat civil machine and in an armed military role with certification targeted for the end of 2002. Mock-ups of both machines will be on show.

Twin-engine models

Bell will also be exhibiting in its own right with the twin-engine Model 430, the new light twin Model 427 and the single turbine Model 407, as will Agusta with the A109 Power and the first A119 Koala sold in the region. Bell is understood to have quietly dropped plans to upgrade its existing 14-seat Model 412EP in order not undermine the AB139. The large twin-turbine machine accounted for 24 of the 143 civil machines delivered in 2000.

Eurocopter had been widely expected to commercially launch the EC145/BK117C2 at this year's show, but programme delays have pushed back its debut to the Paris airshow. Instead, Eurocopter is expected to announce improvements to its single-engine range which last year accounted for half of its 60 civil sales in the US market. "One of the biggest drivers we've got as an industry is to find helicopters that are more acceptable to the community," says Eric Walden, Eurocopter North America vice president sales and marketing.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation is now considering more stringent noise limitations that will affect many of the estimated 11,000+ civil helicopters currently operating in the USA. Proposed new limits would cut noise by 3db on take-off, 4db overhead and 1db on final approach. "We're sensitive to this issue and are trying to educate our folks to fly with consideration. Manufacturers are also going to have to play their part with quieter aircraft," says Resavage.

Source: Flight International