Natural disasters - Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to name just two - showcase the best of what vertical lift can do, and the public loves it. Public relations disasters, sadly, are a regular occurrence: emergency medical services can seem to run a string of accidents while trying to save lives and noise, noise, noise is a feature of every flight. No wonder the public is wary of vertical lift.

But at last week's Heli-Expo jamboree in Houston, makers of these unique machines vowed to fix these problems now rather than later. Topping the to-do list are mission-focused training in advanced technology simulators and quieter, more environmentally friendly helicopters that are easier and more intuitive to fly.

The trend is unmistakable, and it's perhaps more clearly evident in vertical lift than in any other sector of aviation: safety and the environment sell. The big airframers are tooling up for what's set to be an exciting technology battle for market supremacy.

Eurocopter pilot at night
© Christophe Guibbaud/Eurocopter 
 Live or simulation? Training is now a discriminator

Along with a push for total mission virtual training, AgustaWestland has invested in cockpit aids to reduce pilot workload and boost safety.

Eurocopter is investing billions of dollars that it's betting will pay off in sales later this decade, including a diesel-powered light helicopter and a host of rotor blade technologies targeting ride smoothness and noise. Cockpit technologies are high on the agenda, and the market leader is aiming to boost speed, too.

Bell Helicopter has built a wide range of new safety tools into its new 429 twin. The company has also committed significant money and time to developing, in partnership with the US Federal Aviation Administration, WAAS GPS approaches that any operator will be able to use.

For its part, Sikorsky is putting a heavy emphasis on automation to reduce pilot workload along with making terrain awareness and collision avoidance standard fare - a trend other manufacturers have also embraced. By 2014, the company intends to be flying a mission adaptive rotor system that will allow pilots to flick a switch to optimise noise, speed or lifting capability.

And when those pilots first flick that switch, more and more of them will be doing it in a simulator. "Training was an adjunct before; it was never seen as a profit business," says AgustaWestland business development head Graham Cole. "In the last four years, that has changed dramatically," he says, adding, "it's a discriminator now".

Source: Flight International