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A brighter future

The Helicopter Association International's Heli-Expo exhibition promises better times ahead

Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC

The helicopter industry may reflect on the past year as a period of mixed fortunes, during which sales for some manufacturers have excelled. For others there is the hope that the Helicopter Association International's (HAI) Heli-Expo 2000, to be held from 24-26 January at Las Vegas, Nevada, - the first major aerospace gathering of the 21st century - will herald better times ahead.

Deliveries of US-built commercial helicopters through to the third quarter of 1999 were down from the same period in 1998, according to the latest Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) figures. With final end-of-year figures still being gathered, the AIA projects that overall shipments for 1999 will total 342 units, compared with 363 the previous year.

US shipment slump

Perhaps more telling is a projected $80 million year-end slump in the value of US civil helicopter shipments, to $172 million. The AIA attributes the fall to the declining sales of high-end machines, such as the the Sikorsky S-76, of which only seven were made last year.

HAI takes a broader perspective, noting that US industry output in 1999 was still up on the five-year average, which dipped to 278 in 1996. Globally, the picture appears a little rosier, with "banner year" new sales up 21.5% and used turbine helicopter sales up by more than 50% from the previous year, according to HAI president Roy Resavage.

This year's Heli-Expo at least looks to be on a par with that of 1999, with 440 exhibitors occupying slightly more floor space than at Dallas. Around 60 helicopters will be on static display and more than 12,000 visitors are expected to attend. "It's essentially at the same level as last year, which is good given the tremendous number of mergers and acquisitions," says Resavage.

Bell Helicopter Textron and Eurocopter will be among the largest exhibitors at the show, with the former claiming to have shipped more than 150 civil helicopters during 1999. Heli-Expo static displays will include the single-engined Model 407 and twin-turbine Model 430, as well as mock-ups of the new 12-15-seat AB139 helicopter and BA609 tiltrotor being jointly developed with Agusta.

Also on show will be the new Model 427 light twin, which Bell hopes the US Federal Aviation Administration will certify shortly, following Canadian approval. This will clear the way for deliveries to start again of 85 helicopters on order. Bell, in the meantime, has still to decide on whether to upgrade its older Model 412 and Model 206 series.

American Eurocopter claims to have had its best year ever, delivering 62 helicopters to the local US market, compared to 50 in 1998. It will display eight machines at Las Vegas, including a debut showing of the EC155, law enforcement and offshore support versions of the EC120 Colibri, the AS350B2 and B3, an emergency medical services (EMS) EC135 and a BK117C1.

"Law enforcement and EMS were good markets in 1999. The corporate market was also strong and, as long as the economy stays strong, I don't anticipate any change in 2000," says Eric Walden, American Eurocopter vice-president for sales and marketing.

MD Helicopters anniversary

MD Helicopters will use Heli-Expo to mark its first anniversary since acquiring Boeing's civil helicopter business. It is expected to complete its severance from Boeing by concluding a deal to acquire some of the company's office and hangar facilities at Mesa for conversion into a helicopter completion centre. Deliveries in 1999 totalled 38 helicopters and, with a pick-up in Explorer production, that number is expected to expand to 60 this year.

"We're looking at product improvements that we plan to announce during the year," says MD Helicopters chief executive Hank Shaeken. The company will be have four models present at Las Vegas, either on static display or flying - the Explorer and single-engined MD600, MD500E and MD 520N models, along with a restored OH-6.

EH Industries and Sikorsky still seek launch customers for their respective EH101 Heliliner and S-92 Helibus large civil helicopters. The Agusta/GKN Westland consortium has been targeting the EH101 at Sikorsky S-61N operators, such as UK-based Brintel, but is watching with interest Sikorsky's efforts to promote the smaller S-92 to slot-constrained commercial airlines as a potential replacement for 19-seat turboprop fixed-wing aircraft.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Robinson Helicopter will show its two-seat R22 rotorcraft and three versions of the R44, equipped for law enforcement, newsgathering and with pop-out flotation skids. "Last year was our best year ever in terms of deliveries and sales, including 278 new helicopters and 132 overhauls," says president Frank Robinson.

Also present will be Schweizer, celebrating its 60th anniversary and displaying the 300C, 300CB and turbine-powered 330SP. Enstrom plans to display its full family of 280FX, 480 and F28F machines.

Brantley, having dropped its plans to restart production of the Model 305, will focus its efforts at Heli-Expo on its two-seat B-2B light helicopter.

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