Heli-Expo '95, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 29-31 January, comes as the industry faces the issues of continued recession, inadequate infrastructure and concerns over the safety of the machine on which most helicopter pilots train today.
Manufacturers have embarked on a major revamp of their product lines at a time when sales are flat and look set to continue so until sustained recovery takes place. Heli-Expo is the major annual showcase for new machines from an industry striving to stimulate demand for re-equipment.
Bell Helicopter Textron's promised announcement of a new machine is likely to be the major event at Heli-Expo '95. This is expected to be the Model 407, the long-anticipated successor to the extremely popular Model 206 JetRanger/LongRanger/TwinRanger family.
Bell has previously cautioned that its next light single/twin-turbine helicopter would be an evolutionary development of the 206. For the past year, the company has been flight-testing improvements to the 206 including a four-bladed main rotor and "ring-fin" tail rotor.
Statements at previous HAIs suggest that the manufacturer plans to introduce the 407 in two stages, beginning by combining a new dynamic system with the existing 206 airframe and introducing a new fuselage later. The 407 is expected to use the four-bladed rotor from Bell's military derivative of the 206, the OH-58D, rather than the more-expensive, all-composite, bearingless rotor fitted to the new Model 430 intermediate twin.
Although two 430 prototypes are now being flown at Bell's commercial-helicopter plant in Canada (see P33), the helicopter will not appear at Heli-Expo '95, except in the form of a full-scale mock-up of the stretched cabin. Certification is planned for November.
McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems (MDHS) is expected to launch the MD 630N, a stretched, eight-place, version of the MD 530N turbine single, at HAI. Equipped with MDHS' no-tail-rotor (NOTAR) anti-torque system, the MD 630N will bridge the gap between the 530N and the Explorer eight-place turbine twin, certification and first deliveries of which took place in December 1994.
Schweizer Aircraft has confirmed that it will introduce its Model 300CB training helicopter at HAI. The aircraft is a version of the company's piston-powered 300C, with changes to reduce its life-cycle cost over five years to "close to or less than" that of the Robinson R22. The 300CB will be produced alongside the basic 300C and Schweizer's single-turbine 330.
Eurocopter is not expected to announce any new programmes at HAI, but will introduce formally the EC.135 light twin, represented at Heli-Expo '95 by the third pre-production aircraft sporting a "chameleon" scheme using colour-changing paint developed by sister company Mercedes Benz. The EC.135, a direct competitor to the MDHS Explorer, was first flown in February 1994 and certification is scheduled for mid-1996.
The European company is also expected to update HAI attendees on progress with the EC.120 light single-turbine helicopter, which is being developed with partners Singapore Aerospace and CATIC of China, and with the 30-seat Mi-38, which Mil and Kazan are developing with Eurocopter.
EH Industries comes to Heli-Expo '95 armed with certification for the civil version of the EH101, received from the British, Italian and US aviation-authorities at the end of 1994. Production is under way, with the first anti-submarine-warfare variant to be delivered to the UK Royal Navy in 1996.
Discussions continue with potential launch customers for the commercial variant and EHI expects the 30-seat Heliliner to enter service in the late 1990s with North Sea offshore-support operators. In the meantime, 3,000h maturity trials are planned for 1996 in the North Sea and Mediterranean, using pre-production EH101s in simulated operations.
The European consortium is talking to North Sea operators about using the Heliliner on a "bus-stop" service linking offshore platforms. EHI's concept is to replace the current system under which energy companies charter smaller helicopters for shorter trips to specific rigs. The EH101 would be operated on "bus routes" linking several platforms and carrying passengers for several companies.
Sikorsky remains tight-lipped about progress with plans to develop the 19-seat S-92, unveiled in 1992 but yet to be launched formally. Risk-reduction work continues, as do discussions with potential international risk-sharing partners and Sikorsky-led efforts to stimulate development of the infrastructure necessary for the commuter-helicopter operations for which the S-92 is being designed.
Enstrom Helicopter and Kaman Aerospace say that they plan no major announcements at Heli-Expo '95. Enstrom will exhibit both its 280FX piston single and 480 turbine single, while Kaman will display its K-MAX single-turbine, single-pilot, external-lift helicopter in the distinctive colours of European launch customer Helog of Switzerland. K-MAX certification and initial deliveries took place during 1994.
The major issue facing the civil-helicopter industry continues to be recession. While there are some indications of increased activity in certain sectors, the trend in others is downwards. North Sea operations, for example, saw a month-on-month decline throughout 1994.
Bell saw increased sales of commercial helicopters in 1994, but these were buoyed by military sales of its civil types, which it counts in its commercial totals. The 1994 total of 208 sales was well up on 1993's 139, but included a significant number of TH-67s, military 206Bs, for the US Army and the first CH-146s, military 412s, for the Canadian Forces.
Eurocopter, Bell's major rival, is claiming 50% of the 1994 commercial-helicopter market, but admits that its sales were flat. The European company is therefore expected to unveil 1994 sales figures close to its 1993 total of 129, having warned at 1994's Heli-Expo that the commercial-helicopter market was expected to stay "very depressed" during 1994.
The Astaad Company, which monitors US Federal Aviation Administration registrations to identify helicopter transactions, says that preliminary indications suggest that sales of new helicopters were up slightly in 1994, while used-helicopter sales were up substantially. "The purchase of a used aircraft indicates an increase in activity [for the operator]," Astaad suggests. Astaad's 1994 transaction report will be released at HAI.
In common with other industries, the helicopter-manufacturers' response to recession has been to launch new products to simulate demand. During 1994, the Kaman K-Max and MDHS Explorer were certificated and entered service with significant order backlogs. The next major shot in the arm for the industry will come in 1996, when the Bell 430, Eurocopter EC.135, and MDHS MD 630N enter service.
The increasing sophistication of the emergency-medical-service (EMS) market is generating demand of twin-turbine helicopters and is among drivers for the design of the Bell 430 and Explorer, which are intended to replace the turbine singles now widely used in the EMS sector. The first 430 and second Explorer customers are both EMS operators.
Another long-standing issue still facing the industry is the lack of an adequate infrastructure enabling helicopters to become an integral part of the public-transportation system. At the Farnborough air show in September 1994, Sikorsky president Gene Buckley hailed a plan to use a retired US Navy aircraft-carrier as a New York city heliport as a model for his vision of a helicopter mass-transportation system connecting airports and city centres.
The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, are seen as providing an opportunity to prove what helicopters can do if the infrastructure is provided. Plans are being developed for a system of air routes and helistops which will mirror the Atlanta road network and which will allow helicopters to be used to carry fare-paying passengers and time-critical deliveries over the expected traffic congestion. A force of more than 100 commercial and military helicopters is expected to be needed to meet the transport demands of the Games.
Infrastructure is seen as the key to development of a civil tilt-rotor, impetus for which is expected to come from the US Department of Defense's decision to proceed with production of the Bell Boeing V-22 military tilt-rotor transport. A committee formed by the US Congress is expected to report in April on its review of previous civil-tilt-rotor studies in an initial effort to determine whether the Government should fund development of the vertiport and airspace-management infrastructure needed to make scheduled commuter tilt-rotor operations feasible.
Some infrastructure issues are being tackled. The first helicopter approaches using the global-positioning system (GPS) were approved by the FAA in 1994 and the technique is expected eventually to have a major impact on rotary-wing operations. The GPS coupled with datalink is being evaluated in several locations as a means of tracking helicopters for company-operational and air-traffic control.
New GPS-based helicopter avionics are expected to feature among products exhibited at Heli-Expo '95, as this sector of the industry begins to receive more specialised attention from manufacturers.
Perhaps the most urgent issue facing the helicopter industry as it gathers at HAI's Heli-Expo '95 in Las Vegas is the possible grounding of the Robinson R22 because of safety concerns. The R22 is the most widely used training helicopter and its grounding could have a dramatic effect on the industry.
The FAA has yet to accede to US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) demands that the R22, and larger R44, be grounded following a series of accidents blamed on mast-bumping, and has indicated that it intends to implement NTSB recommendations (Flight International, 18-24 January, P6) without grounding the aircraft.
The NTSB has recommended that the aircraft be grounded until the cause of main-rotor-blade divergence leading to in-flight break-up can be determined and modifications made or restrictions applied to prevent loss of rotor control within the normal operating envelope.
Robinson blames the accidents on inexperienced pilots allowing main-rotor RPM to drop critically low, leading to blade divergence, but the low-cost R22 is frequently flown by low-time pilots and, according to the NTSB, some of the accidents have involved experienced pilots. Heli-Expo '95 is likely to become a forum for discussion of the issues raised by the Safety Board's concerns.
Source: Flight International