Sikorsky is facing renewed criticism over availability levels of its S-92 heavy twin-engined helicopter as supply chain shortages and high demand continue to create the perfect storm for offshore operators.

Last November, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) warned that the type’s poor availability was creating a growing safety risk as helicopter operators were forced into “extraordinary actions” to keep aircraft flyable and maintain contracted service levels.


Source: Sikorsky

PHI has flagged S-92 parts shortages as reason for switch to super-medium-class helicopters

At the time, it said 31 S-92s were grounded and warned that the figure could rise to 60 examples by the end of 2024.

Sikorsky promised it was investing “tens of millions of dollars” in its supply chain to address shortages of key components, particularly of main gearboxes, and that parts production was rising.

However, operators say they are seeing few signs of progress. “The situation has continued to deteriorate. The number of unserviceable S-92 airframes continues growing and we anticipate that the supply chain struggles with the S-92 will persist for some time to come,” says the chief executive of one leading company.

The operator, speaking on condition of anonymity, says it has a high single digit number of S-92s currently out of service because they are “fundamentally lacking parts”.

In recent filings to the US Securities and Exchange Commission as part of its application for stock market listing, Louisiana-based PHI noted that problems with the supply chain have “caused delays in the delivery of parts and, in some cases, increased costs for parts, or certain parts, including for the S-92, not being available at all”.

Another company, which also asked not to be identified, said that it currently had two airframes idled waiting for parts.

Data from LCI Analytics seems to confirm the view that there has been little short-term improvement. For the quarter ended 31 December 2023, a total of 31 S-92s were contracted but inactive, while 156 units were in service, and a further seven aircraft were inactive but uncontracted.

The figures were worse than the previous quarter – where they were 28, 160 and eight, respectively – but the deterioration versus early 2022 is even more marked: for the three months to 31 March that year just seven S-92s were inactive but contracted.

“It is placing tremendous stress on our personnel in the field who are maintaining these aircraft and on our supply chain teams who are working to move parts around globally,” adds one operator.

Despite the challenges, the company has been “fairly successful in meeting our customer needs” but “this has come at a great cost in terms of time, people, and, of course, financial resources” and has required “unprecedented levels of cannibalisation” of S-92s for parts.

It sees the groundings peaking in the second quarter of this year “and then there should be some recovery”.

Although acknowledging that Sikorsky has “put significant resources in place”, another undisclosed operator thinks the disruption will persist.

“If demand continues to be high operators are going to do anything to meet that demand,” they say. “If demand drops we’ll catch up faster, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. My bet is that we’ll struggle for a little longer yet.”

S92 Taxi Runway-c-Bristow Group

Source: Bristow Group

Bristow was one of three operators identified by IOGP last November with high rates of S-92 unavailability

To date, Sikorsky has not offered compensation to affected operators. While the airframer has “shown awareness of the problem and its severity”, says one operator, “progress has been genuinely slower than they would have liked”.

Sikorsky says it “continues to see a path to recovery by the end of 2024” based on its efforts so far.

“Sikorsky has been assisting S-92 suppliers throughout all tiers of the supply chain to source specialty metals, components, and other raw materials.

“We will continue these efforts for as long as it takes to accelerate delivery of the parts our customers need. We have seen improvements on many parts and fill rates in our forward stocking locations have seen improvement since January 2023.

“As we continue to communicate regularly to our operators, there are still parts that will continue recovering in 2024, predominantly the main gearboxes.”

Gearbox overhauls are now “roughly within two weeks of the expectation laid out in the fourth quarter of 2023”, it adds.

However, the airframer declines to say whether it will offer compensation to affected operators, adding: “We are working with our suppliers and industry partners according to the agreements that we have in place. We are all motivated to resolve these challenges as soon as possible.”

In the short term there is little more operators can do to resolve the situation, but in the longer term Sikorsky’s market share may be at risk.

Part of defence giant Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky’s only in-production civil helicopter is the S-92. It faces pressure from its more commercially focused rivals, in particular Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters.

While there will always be missions that can only be performed with a heavy helicopter due to range or capacity requirements, there are signs that newer super-medium-class types may finally be about to eat into the S-92’s share.

Citing the ongoing parts shortages, PHI – one of the industry’s big three alongside Bristow Group and CHC – recently disclosed plans to move away from the S-92.

“We believe that the Airbus H175 aircraft offers us an option to replace a significant part of our S-92 fleet, positioning us well for the expected growth and expansion in the oil and gas industry,” it says.

In recent briefings to media, Airbus Helicopters said it was seeing strong demand from the oil and gas segment for the H175 and was raising output to meet that.


Source: Shutterstock

Sikorsky insists it is investing in main gearbox production to address supply chain problems