Helicopter industry executives believe the market is showing signs of life, while also driving demand for multirole rotorcraft, despite ongoing lacklustre sales.
"I see signs around the world of a gradual improvement," says Crispin Maunder, executive chairman of lessor Lease Corporation International (LCI).
"It's hardly a bonanza," he added, speaking at the HAI Heli-Expo event earlier this month. "[But] we are seeing more activity."
That includes LCI's announcement that it delivered two rotorcraft – one Leonardo Helicopters AW139 and one AW189 – in March to Malaysian operator Weststar Aviation Services, a company that serves the oil and gas industry.
"Customers are looking for more utility," says Samir Mehta, president of the mechanical systems business unit at Collins Aerospace, which makes equipment for helicopters including cargo loading systems and hoists.
In previous years, operators tended to acquire mission-specific platforms. But the oil and gas industry downturn in particular has both reduced demand for helicopters overall and left operators increasingly seeking aircraft capable of being converted to serve multiple missions – "pick-up trucks" of the helicopter world, Mehta notes.
"What you have is machines that are fewer in number… being asked to do more," he says.
Demand for more utility drove Sikorsky's announcement at HAI Heli-Expo that it is offering a new, more-versatile variant of its S-92 heavy-twin helicopter.
The newly configured aircraft, called the S-92B, has a cabin that can be converted quickly from offshore missions to search-and-rescue work, giving the aircraft "more multi-mission capability".
Oil and gas sector weakness has also led companies to shy away from signing the long-term operating contracts that were once standard, seeking those of shorter duration instead.
But short-term contracts leave helicopter operators, managers and lessors less able to make accurate long-term fleet decisions, driving up business inefficiencies, says Maunder.
"There are big clouds on the horizon that need to clear away before we feel comfortable," he says.