As president and chief executive officer of Sikorsky Gene Buckley, left, is one of the most influential men in the aerospace industry today. He talked to Paul Derby about his attitude to the fierce competition which exists in the helicopter market, his views on the future of the RAH-66 Comanche programme and why he believes Sikorsky will continue to flourish as a major force into the next millennium.

Q Every year there is a scramble to secure funding from Congress to ensure that programmes like the RAH-66 Comanche can continue. How do you see the future of the programme?

A You're absolutely correct to say that, like everyone else, we must battle to win the money in the first place. The good news is that we have secured a $100-million increase in funding from the US government for next year to help with our development work which is clearly significant.

If we're talking about the progress of the project, we are looking at being into production by 2003 and deployment in 2006. That is all long term of course, but I'm very positive about the future for Comanche. I feel that it is going to be a revolutionary aircraft.

Q There seem to be a lot of positive vibes surrounding the potential for the Firehawk, especially in this region. What are your thoughts on how it will be received in the marketplace?

A As you're probably aware, we are looking to complete the Firehawk programme by August and to have aircraft operational very quickly because the demand is there.

The power and manoeuvrability of the Black Hawk make it an ideal candidate for a firefighting role and we see a need for this aircraft right now not just in Asia-Pacific but in other places where forest fires are a serious hazard.

Q Aren't you concerned that people will continue the trend of adapting existing aircraft for these sorts of missions rather than coming to you to buy new?

A I return to the point about the Black Hawk's capabilities. We're convinced that it offers customers more for their money and that we will capitalise on what looks to be a promising new market.

Q The S-92 programme has now entered the marketing phase and is generating considerable interest within the industry. Can you give us a feel for where the programme stands and what you think of the aircraft itself?

A The first ground test model will go to West Palm Beach next month and we expect to have three prototypes there by the end of the year. We're talking single-digit production in the first couple of years, rising to a full production rate of about 35 a year.

I had a guy say to me recently that this was the first time he had ever had to chase anyone to place a sale. It was good-natured but I said to him that what we want to do is act with integrity and confirm the performance characteristics of the aircraft so that people know exactly what they are getting.

You need to remember also that the Black Hawk will be a major beneficiary of the S-92 programme. All the design characteristics have been put together to back-fit on the Black Hawk to create what we term the Super Hawk. We believe it will transform the aircraft's entire lift capability.

Q With talk of Bell purchasing Boeing's commercial helicopter business, is Sikorsky looking to consolidate and how do you view the competition?

A We always have an eye open for opportunities, but at this time we are performing well with strong corporate backing so we are happy to continue in that way.

Competition in my book is good for business. I think it ensures that everyone strives to work harder to succeed.

Q The S-76 has long been recognised as a premier corporate helicopter. With emerging competition in certain markets from the Bell Boeing 609, the Eurocopter EC155 and the Dauphin, how will you respond?

A As we have always done, by working hard and staying focused on what we do well.

We are also looking at new possibilities, such as the development of a variable diameter tilt rotor using retractable blade technology.

It is in the wind tunnel testing stage but it's an example that we aren't standing still.

The blades extend for vertical lift operations and shrink to propeller size for forward flight. This enables the aircraft to land in the fixed wing position.

Source: Flight Daily News