In the midst of an economic downturn, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, the global rotorcraft industry finds itself in an enviable position: production looks to remain relatively stable and mass layoffs do not appear to be imminent - not a bad place to be considering the fate of its fixed-wing counterparts.

As well as developing new models, the industry also continues to introduce safety enhancing technologies, including new methods of health and usage monitoring,enhanced situational awareness tools and workload-reducing automatic flight control systems, and maintenance-saving vibration reduction packages.

At Textron, parent company to Bell Helicopter and Cessna Aircraft, layoffs will ultimately claim nearly one-third of Cessna's 15,000-strong workforce and 2009 production targets for Citation family jets were recently slashed to 375 from a record high last year of 467. Signalling the decline were dozens of order cancellations and an "unprecedented" number of deferrals, Textron chief executive Lewis Campbell says in the fourth-quarter earnings report.

Bell 429
 © Bell Helicopter

Other business jet makers have been similarly plagued, the most recent being Hawker Beechcraft, where continuing layoffs will claim one-third of the company's pre-recession workforce of 10,000 by the year's end, and at Bombardier, where 1,360 workers will be released because of the cooling in demand for Challenger and Learjet business jets.


By contrast, Bell has experienced "a few cancellations and deferrals", says Campbell, and a production target of 180 deliveries for 2009 is up 8% from last year. The company laid off roughly 500 employees, about 4% of its workforce, in October, but the cutback was related to the loss of the US Army's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter contract rather than the economy. That is not to say Bell is immune - the company in early February furloughed 500 employees for three months at its Mirabel plant in Canada, where the 412, 206B and 427 models are made.

A similar tale is playing out at the other producers of turbine-powered helicopters - AgustaWestland, Eurocopter and Sikorsky - where a relatively optimistic outlook is being fuelled in part by a solid backlog for new and refurbished military products, but also by the unique and irreplaceable niche that helicopters serve.

The light end of the market, arguably more exposed to the vagaries of the economy, is proceeding more cautiously, but is nonetheless relatively stable. Entry-level helicopter maker Robinson Helicopter has reduced its production goals "a bit" for 2009 as orders have slowed, says Kurt Robinson, vice-president of product support for the company. Robinson delivered 893 piston-powered R22 and R44 helicopters in 2008, up about 9% from the 823 it delivered in 2007.


Although the company was forced to cut its workforce by 125 (about 10% of the total) in January due to the slowdown, Robinson says a spike in new orders expected when its first turbine helicopter, the R66, is certificated late this year or early next year could boost its ranks again. Company founder Frank Robinson is not yet taking orders for the R66 and has not yet set a price. The Rolls-Royce RR300 turboshaft-powered five-seat helicopter, originally designed as a replacement for ageing Bell JetRanger single-engined turbine helicopters, is in US Federal Aviation Administration certification testing. As of early February, production at Robinson was sold out until July.

Robinson R44
 © Robinson

"We have not seen the downturn," says Matt Zuccaro, president of the Helicopter Association International. "A couple of industry segments are getting hit a little harder, but basic helicopter operations - utility, offshore, charter - seem to be holding their own."

He believes areas that are more exposed to the economy include air tours, corporate and public service. "People subject to budget constraints seem to be cutting back or putting off expansion plans," he says. Evidence of the industry's health is also apparent in early registration levels for the trade group's annual Heli-Expo exposition, scheduled for 21-23 February in Anaheim, California. "We've sold out our initial block of hotel rooms and attendance [as of early January] looks to be already at last year's levels," says Zuccaro.

 Top four Helicopter Manufacturers, Delivery By Typ


Eurocopter is sure to have a large presence in Anaheim, given the company's continued domination of the civil and para-public (police and law enforcement) market. Based on 2008 figures, Eurocopter again captured more than 50% of the turbine market with 428 helicopters delivered. In the military sector, it delivered 160 helicopters.

Production gains spurred by the new EC175 will not be felt for a few years. The first flight of the 16-seat medium-twin, built under a 50/50 partnership with Harbin Aviation in China, is due before the end of the year. Deliveries are expected to begin in 2012, with a target production of at least 800 units over 20 years, says Eurocopter.

"Although 2009 economic trends are unpredictable and will see cancellations, Eurocopter is confident its backlog and unique business model should be a major asset in retaining its solidity through 2009 and beyond," said Eurocopter chief executive Lutz Bertling in January. Bertling expects 2009 deliveries to be "in the same ballpark" with 2008.

Eurocopter continues to invest heavily in research and development, focusing with European partners largely on minimising noise and emissions in programmes such as Friendcopter, which has a goal of decreasing the helicopter noise footprint area by as much as 50%, cutting fuel consumption by 6% and lowering cabin noise and vibration levels.

AgustaWestland is also investing in advanced technologies as product differentiators. A key goal has been to develop technologies to provide jet-like smoothness for helicopters, with active vibration control of structural response, a technology used on the AW101 transport helicopter, playing a role.

The company is also "exploring numerous" creative solutions in the ride revolution, including compact hub absorbers, active dampers and active pitch links. A programme to test embedded main rotor actuators controlling main rotor flexible trailing edges, jointly funded by the UK government and AgustaWestland, is undergoing initial windtunnel testing and ground runs. The technologies are designed to reduce noise levels and provide improved rotor efficiencies.

AgustaWestland increased civil deliveries significantly last year, up to 172 from 119 in 2007, according to Flight's HeliCAS database, in part due to a new AW139 assembly line in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That site also produces the AW119Ke and completes AW109s for the US market. A new AW139 plant in Russia under a partnership with Oboronprom is expected to be launched in 2010 and produce helicopters in 2011.


Despite a near-term outlook that "reflects the difficult world economy downturn, a situation that features reduced demand, liquidity shortage and oil price decrease affecting the offshore sector", AgustaWestland says growth will continue in 2009. "The company is acting to adapt its strategy to the new changing scenario increasing activities related to the government and military markets and supporting customers in getting finance and accessing tailored services," it says.

Sikorsky will continue flight-test work this year of the S-76D medium twin and dramatic expansion of the speed envelope of its X2 technology demonstrator to 250kt, a milestone expected by year's end. The company completed the first flight of its Pratt & Whitney PW210S-powered S-76D on 7 February, a milestone originally anticipated for 2008. Sikorsky vice-president of commercial programmes Marc Poland says there were no major technical hurdles, but rather "basic chewing your way through nits and interfaces". Poland says certification should take about a year to complete after first flight, and that the orderbook for the twin stands at "about 100".

Sikorsky also expects to certificate its Schweizer 434 light turbine helicopter later this year, although deliveries to the Saudi government are due to take place this month. The company has not yet begun taking orders for the FAA-certificated version, an upgrade to its 333 model.

Sikorsky X2 
 © Ashish Bagai/Sikorsky

Along with the X2, Sikorsky is also researching on-board vibration reduction technologies and active blade control methodologies using movable flaps.


Poland expects "some shifting and phasing" of orders in the VIP market, which historically has accounted for about one-third of its S-76 sales, but only partly due to the economy. "Even those who have money are laying low, in part due to the perception of corporate activity," he says of the recent criticism of corporate business jet activity in the USA. "I suspect we'll have a nine- to 18-month 'calming' in that area." Helping the company through the difficult times will be its military workshare, which eclipses civil production numbers.

Sentiments on civil work are similar at Bell. "Customers are having some trouble accessing financing, but the long-term demand is still there," it says. That demand appears to be holding fast for Bell's next-generation medium-twin, the Bell 429, with more than 330 orders on the books. It is uncertain if a six-month delay in certificating the 429 will help or hurt the orderbook.

Officials say that control system software issues have pushed the planned late 2008 finish to mid-2009. The company continues to advance its BA609 tiltrotor programme, a partnership with Agusta, building an additional two prototypes to join the two existing test aircraft. Bell reports 80 orders for the first civil tiltrotor, and is holding to a 2012 date for certification.

Like AgustaWestland and Sikorsky, Bell's 50/50 military versus civilian production split provides stability because of long-term government contracts.

  • All the latest from Heli-Expo 2009 ...
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  • Source: Flight International