HELO FORUM

Looking to spur lagging sales, mfrs add innovative benefits to current models.

As govt buying continues, military contracts remain most sought after throughout rotary-wing industry.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl


MD Explorer light twin, operating since 1994, employs the unique NOTAR (no tail rotor) antitorque system for reduced workload.

If the helicopter market has been a bit tight in the dismal economy of 2009, at least it can look forward to better times—probably much better times.

According to the latest forecast from Rolls-Royce Helicopter, which looks only at the turbine market, deliveries of turbine helicopters will grow to 15,711 between 2008 and 2017.

Rolls-Royce expects to see 9095 civil units delivered over the period. This is nearly 50% above previous estimates, thanks largely to the arrival of new entry-level turbine models such as the Robinson R66, which is priced well below competing aircraft.

The report also projects 6616 new military helicopter deliveries over the period. More than half will be multiengine medium rotorcraft, most of them intended for troop transport and maritime patrol.

Another 10% will be intermediate twins such as light attack and tactical utility helicopters. This and other forecasts suggest that light military helicopters will be one of the strongest sectors in the rotorcraft market.

In contrast, Honeywell’s most recent annual forecast for civil turbine-powered helicopters was relatively sobering. It called for a modest decline in helicopter deliveries in 2010.

New markets

One factor that should help is China’s sudden commitment to rotorcraft. At the moment, there are barely 180 civilian helicopters in the entire country.

But lessons learned after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, when emergency teams found it impossible to reach victims in roadless areas, convinced China’s leaders that civilian helicopters are at worst a necessary evil.

They quickly announced a plan to acquire 2000 civilian helicopters by year’s end and 10,000 by 2020. Western helicopter manufacturers have rushed to take advantage of the opportunity. The first Eurocopter helicopters arrived in China over Christmas, and Agusta­Westland has established a joint venture with Jiang­xi Changhe Aviation Industries to build A109E light twins in China.

Pegasus, a small US manufacturer, has signed a deal with Shanghai Fei Tian, and Sikorsky reports that it has “been busy in China for the past few years.” In the long run, however, there is bad news for helicopter manufacturers in the West.

Beijing is building a new $1.2-billion helicopter factory and research center in Tianjin. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defence University, comments, “It is still too early to say when China will become a leading global manufacturer of helicopters, but it is bound to be one.

China will have advantages in building helicopters just as it has in manufacturing everything else.” If Western helicopter makers retain an advantage over their Chinese competitors, it is likely to be in technology.

Over the next 10 years, this force is likely to do to helicopters what is already done to many other industries. Sergei Sikorsky acts as an ambassador for the company his father Igor founded and is one of the canniest analysts now surveying the industry.

He cites a number of high-tech factors that will impact helicopters in the years ahead: “The new generation of helicop­ters has been benefiting tremendously from composite work of the fighter and bomber community 25 years ago,” he observes. “These materials will continue to make future helicopters lighter and more efficient.

“We are also looking at very significant interest in a new generation of turbine engines for helicopters. In the past, a major driver for new turbine technology was the US Navy. They funded some wonderful engines.

AgustaWestland AW139 15-seat medium twin operates in more than 30 countries.

Now they are providing funding for a couple of new-generation turbines, and I believe this will pay off. Any engine that is developed will immediately find a civilian market as well as military. “Computer developments will impact aircraft market in the next generation or two,” Sikorsky says.

“There is almost unlimited potential in the electronics field.” He predicts substantial changes in the next 5–10 years, not from any revolutionary technology on the horizon but from developments already available.

“The first generation of synthetic vision technology is already in military fixed-wing and helicopters,” he points out. “I think there will be one more generation of military synthetic vision technology—then it will reach the civilian market.

AgustaWestland Pres & CEO Giuseppe Orsi is a vocal proponent of helicopters and tiltrotors in urban aviation

We will see $5000–10,000 devices that can be plugged right into your Bonanza or Cessna 182.” Sikorsky recalls a presentation he gave a year ago to a group of pilots that got “mixed reviews.” Prediction 1 was that on a worldwide military basis, the number of seats in helicopters will quickly surpass those in fighters and bombers.

Demand for helicopter pilots will grow exponentially, while that for fixed-wing pilots will decline. “As budgets shrink, not that many large aircraft carriers will be built. We will see growing interest in the ‘green-water fleet’—in littoral warfare, with 3–4 LPHs or something of the sort.

They will be launching helicopters, rather than fighters, to maintain air superiority. After all, the capacity of terrorists is based on the AK47, not the F35.” Sikorsky’s 2nd prediction was that the advent of synthetic vision devices will bring profound change.

“You probably could predict the disappearance of the instrument rating in 25–30 years,” he comments. The pilot’s HUD will provide the same visual accuracy he would have on a sunny afternoon in Arizona, no matter what the conditions.

He says, “R&D is moving so quickly that it amounts to a revolutionary technology change every 5–8 years.” Yet that is tomorrow, and getting there means surviving the hard economic times the world has struggled with for the past couple of years.

To find out how that effort is going, we contacted some of the world’s major helicopter manufacturers. Here is what they had to say.

 

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