Now that the worst of the economic slump appears to be over - although not out of sight - helicopter manufacturers and operators are focusing on innovation, safety and efficiency to gain an edge over the competition.
Nowhere is the move more apparent than at Sikorsky, where officials on 1 February launched Sikorsky Innovations, a technology-focused "small, agile, distributed group" within the company, but also linked to other United Technologies businesses such as Hamilton Sundstrand and Pratt & Whitney, as well as "small inventors" everywhere.
"This year's message is not so much new models, but differentiators," a Sikorsky official told Flightglobal at the launch.
Sikorsky has three S-76Ds in its flight test programme
Captured under the umbrella at Sikorsky Innovations at the start are the company's X2 advancing blade concept demonstrator, an aircraft expected to reach 150kt (278km/h) in March and 250kt by the end of the year, an optionally piloted Black Hawk, expected to fly pilot-less for the first time this year, and its tantalising new "Firefly" project which could realise an electrically powered helicopter.
Sikorsky has no choice but to innovate given the pace at which competitors AgustaWestland and Eurocopter are investing along with the European Union in future products through programmes such as the "green rotorcraft" integrated technology demonstrator, part of the EU's Clean Sky programme.
In the USA, Bell Helicopter is not a competitor per se in the larger twin market - yet - although success of its 2009-certificated, clean-sheet Bell 429 light twin, the first in what is says will be a modular affordable product line (MAPL), promises to be a teaser of larger and more capable helicopters to come.
On the operations side, safety, efficiency and environment continue to be top priorities. Companies such as Pittsburgh-based STAT MedEvac are bringing best-practice equipment, including night vision goggles and enhanced ground proximity warning systems, and practices such as the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) on to the line as marketing differentiators marking their commitment to safety.
Together, the evolution of the two components - innovative designs integrated with safer, more efficient operations - would appear to be a segue that could elevate the helicopter industry image-wise to be more on a par with the gold standard corporate fixed-wing sector, removing the stigma of noisier operations and higher accident rate and at the same time eliminating its legacy "speed limit".
Financial wherewithal of the helicopter producers will be key to realising that vision. All four top airframers by revenue, buoyed by continued strong military needs, appear to be fairing well, some more so than others.
Sales leader Eurocopter, which held a 52% market share of the 762 civil and para-public helicopters delivered last year, as shown by Flightglobal database HeliCAS, reported in its 2009 annual report in January a "sharp" order decline in the civil market, noting that the "recovery of the commercial markets in 2010 is not evident".
Military orders, which made up 48% of Eurocopter sales in 2009, more than buoyed the company, leading to its second-best order intake ever. At the end of the year, Eurocopter had orders for 1,300 helicopters in its backlog, representing more than €15 billion ($20.5 billion) in future sales, an increase of more than €1 billion compared with the end of 2008.
It is the same story for Bell and Sikorsky. Sikorsky in the fourth quarter achieved a record-breaking 22% revenue growth, all of it organic, delivering 57 military and 27 civil helicopters. The number does not include the company's smaller Schweizer models.
For the year, Sikorsky delivered 244 large civil and military turbine helicopters, exceeding its estimate of 230-240 aircraft. Indicators of reduced military spending going forward have Sikorsky designing a reversal of fortunes of sorts, with the company setting an internal goal of doubling its non-US government revenues in the near future.
Bell, a Textron company, saw flat revenue last year, with military products contributing more to the bottom line than civil, however. The company delivered 29 military aircraft, including 20 V-22 Osprey tiltrotors, and 153 civil helicopters, including the first Bell 429 light twins.
Immediate growth on the civil side will come from the 429, with production ramping from 25 this year to 50 in 2011, a number Textron president Scott Donnelly says will put Bell in a "better cost position". Donnelly notes that Bell is "ramping up research and development" as it looks to new model introductions "in the next few years".
Bell has said those MAPL products will include growth versions of the Bell 429. Bell is also likely to reveal new innovations in the unmanned sector, teamed with Textron Systems company AAI, builder of the Shadow unmanned aircraft systems, and T-Hawk micro air vehicle for Honeywell.
"We are each exercising each other's imaginations as to where we can take the technologies forward," says AAI's Steve Reid.
AgustaWestland parent company Finmeccanica will not release 2009 financials for its individual companies until March, but broadly speaking, the company has confirmed that it has met its previously issued guidance for the year despite a "tougher" civil market.
"We have evidence that 2010 will be more difficult than we had expected a year ago," says Finmeccanica president and chief executive Pier Francesco Guarguaglini of the helicopter segment.
It is not clear what the role the BA609, the civil tiltrotor the company is developing jointly with Bell Helicopter, will play in the company's innovation plans. AgustaWestland chief Giuseppe Orsi in September said Finmeccanica had authorised the airframer to "conclude negotiations within certain conditions" with Bell to "reach this important achievement", but no progress has been revealed.
Finmeccanica estimates a market for 500 BA609s worldwide in the first 10 years of production, with 40-50 aircraft for the Italian government. Research into next-generation tiltrotors continues at AgustaWestland as part of the EU's green rotorcraft programme.
The same is true at Eurocopter, where government aid for green rotorcraft programmes that are focused on lower emissions power systems, advanced rotor aerodynamics and autonomy, are a key source of innovation for new programmes.
Eurocopter president Lutz Bertling, speaking at the company's 2009 results meeting in January, warned that he might have to limit the use of green technologies on Eurocopter's new "X4" civil helicopter, an evolution of the Dauphin family now on the drawing board, if the French government denies an application for financial support. Bertling says that while Eurocopter will continue with the programme regardless, the resulting product would be a "totally different" aircraft without the support.
Bertling, who believes that environmental friendliness will become "a buying factor" in the helicopter market "within this decade", says the fully funded version of the X4 "will, in terms of environmental friendliness and safety of operation, be a major breakthrough". Eurocopter has been mum on details of an X3 demonstrator mentioned by Rolls-Royce at last year's Heli Expo conference in Anaheim, California.
The engine maker had said it would provide an RTM322 turboshaft engine for the programme. Bertling, at the same event, also talked about a development programme to power an EC120 with perhaps a hydrocarbon/electric hybrid.
Meanwhile, Eurocopter is making steady progress on its medium-lift EC175 helicopter, a joint venture with China's AVIC. The 16-passenger twin achieved first flight on 4 December and remains on track for first delivery in December 2012.
Consternation over the economic state of the civil sector would appear to be heard as so much noise at Sikorsky, the $6 billion a year company, given its more than threefold revenue growth over the past decade.
Progress on its new S-76D continues, with the third flight-test aircraft headed for the company's test site in West Palm Beach, Florida. The first production airframe is to roll off the assembly line at partner company Aero Vodochody's Czech Republic factory in April and be finished at Sikorsky's completion centre in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. The company expects to certificate the D-model in early 2011, with first deliveries in the second quarter.
Under its new banner of Sikorsky Innovations, the X2 demonstrator is expected to take flight again in March after a gearbox manufacturing defect in December, just before a flight that is planned to push the twin, counter-rotating pusher compound to 150kt.
Since its first sortie in August 2009, Sikorsky has logged seven flights on the aircraft, achieving a top speed of 106kt with "no vibration" to speak of even with its active vibration control system turned off, says chief test pilot Kevin Bredenbeck. After duplicating some earlier test points, Sikorsky plans to resume the programme in March and progressively push the speed up to 250kt before the end of the year.
AWARE AND ADOPTIVE
Along with the first unmanned flight of the company's autonomous Black Hawk this year, Innovations is investigating a wide range of "aware and adaptive" aircraft, including tiltrotors, and is developing green more-electric helicopters with a 50% reduction in fuel burn and designs that include 50% less wiring.
A previously undisclosed new programme, dubbed Firefly, involves a collaboration with Pratt & Whitney and California-based US Hybrid, a company that designs and builds power conversion systems for electric, hybrid and fuel cell buses and trucks. Other than the bare essentials, Sikorsky is saying no more.
"I assure you we're working on a wide range of products, some too sensitive to show," said Sikorsky Innovations director Chris Van Buiten at the 1 February launch of the group.