Carey Bond, president, Sikorsky Commercial Systems & Services
Q. How is the commercial market shaping up for Sikorsky?
A. The S-92 continues to do extremely well. Sales are not an issue. We have a backlog of around $2 billion worth of S-92s, and even with the production ramp up over recent years they are sold out until late 2016. The heavy market continues to be really, really strong. It is not just oil and gas operations, but also from the search and rescue market – both from a point of view of outsourcing, as here in the UK we are supplying 11 S-92s, but also where oil companies require additional security for their offshore personnel. The S-92 is perfectly positioned for that segment.
Q. First deliveries of the S-76D took place earlier this year, how is that aircraft progressing?
A. We are pleased with the sales performance of the S-76D. We have a solid backlog north of $600 million, and we are getting a lot of interest as the helicopter is delivered and operators get to see and touch it. We have delivered the first S-76D to China, and the lead ship is down in Trinidad working for National Helicopter Services, where they are flying it pretty hard and it has just passed through the 500h mark. We are just starting to deliver the first VIP aircraft, and also have a couple of [search and rescue] aircraft going through acceptance right now. We anticipate delivering in the fourth and final segment, [with emergency medical services] by the end of the year.
Q. Is the market being driven by a particular weight segment?
A. The heavy end of the market is currently stronger than the medium end, which is flat or showing a slight decline. Oil exploration in increasingly deep water is driving the move into the heavy segment. [This] means helicopters are flying in conditions that really tax the aircraft, in really nasty environments like the North Sea. Oil and gas is the biggest driver, but additionally the head of state market is strong, and we are already starting to see some further pick up in that segment.
Q. You have a pair of S-92s operating in Afghanistan. Can you outline what’s happening there?
A. AAR is using a pair of S-92s in Afghanistan for passenger transportation. They are operating in a pretty difficult environment, and are loving that aircraft. Long term, that is going to be the fourth leg on our commercial stool – after oil and gas, search and rescue and head of state, that paramilitary side is going to come along. That role has previously been performed by S-61 or older Russian types such as the Mil Mi-17, but out there air conditioning is what sells the helicopter. Long term there's a market for it. A lot of those aircraft are in some places where that kind of down-and-dirty type of pick-up truck is going to work out. Other times you just want to have people and equipment in a more modern helicopter.
Q. What’s the progress on the higher-gross-weight variant of the S-92?
A. There are about 10h of gearbox testing still remaining and then it is just paperwork and processing. It should be ready at the beginning of the fourth quarter. There are a few minor structural modifications, but every aircraft we have delivered will be retrofitable. We will give customers the option on [maximum take-off weight] as there are some advantages at 12,000kg [26,500lb] if you do not require the additional weight. We leave it as an option and let the customers decide. People are just champing at the bit for 27,700lb. I get calls fairly frequently asking to keep them up to speed. For those long, long missions they want to put on as much gas as they can.
Q. Sikorsky has been very active in developing automated technology – such as the Rig Approach system for the S-92. What is driving that?
A. We think about automation as the biggest change we can make to the aircraft to improve safety, but we believe there is still more to do. Although it doesn't cost much, we asked whether customers would embrace it. The reception has been really, really strong. All the major oil and gas users have Rig Approach on order. Our engineers have sharpened the laws of physics to make an aircraft as efficient as they can, but automation [is] going to be the next real [catalyst] in our industry. We believe it enough that we are investing tonnes of dollars there.
Q. In that case are there plans to add that capability to the S-76D?
A. A major part of the technology is the processing power of the flight control computers, and one thing on the S-76D is that there is a lot of processing power. It is our full intent to take a lot of the features from the S-92 and put them on the S-76D. What is good in the heavy market is good in the medium market.
Q. Did you encounter any resistance from pilots to the system?
A. As with any new technology there are early adopters and those resistant to it. We thought this would split out on age lines, but that didn’t really materialise. At the end of the day once they understand the technology they absolutely love it. Operator reaction has been particularly strong. PHI worked very closely with us to develop the technology, and is retrofitting it on to [its] whole fleet. They will fly every approach using Rig Approach. I fully expect all major oil and gas operators and our big customers to install it.
Q. Your three rivals all have new helicopters in the super-medium segment – what will Sikorsky do to address this weight class?
A. We are still not convinced by the segment, but we keep looking at it. It used to be a space occupied by the Bell 214ST – that was a great aircraft, but it struggled in the marketplace and then went away. What you end up with is a helicopter that is not a great heavy, not a great medium. We will just wait to see how the market reacts. We like the way the S-92 and S-76D cross each other. We don't dislike where we are now.
Q. You have successfully demonstrated high-speed rotary-wing flight with the X2 demonstrator – will any of that technology transfer to the civil market?
A. What I wasn't sure about is whether you could persuade customers to pay the additional cost of high-speed flight. Whatever you use to go that fast, it is going to need a significant amount of power – on the civil side it's pure economics. But look at a 400nm [740km] mission at 150kt [278km/h] and if weather is bad and you have to turn around you could end up with a 5-6h flight. That is a long exposure time in hostile conditions. But fly at 200kt and that cuts exposure time to 2.5h. There’s a comfort issue too. If you ask the workers whether they want to be in an aircraft for 5h or 2h they are going to say 2h every time.