Helicopter manufacturers step up corporate use capabilities

Speed, range, pax comfort, all-weather availability dominate new civil designs.

MD continues to survive as a niche player, although its NOTAR models, including the MD600N, continue to struggle.

AgustaWestland's 609 is the most mature of these efforts. While offering a mere 6/9-seat capacity, its 260 to 270-kt cruise speed may give it a greater appeal to operators with longer range requirements. (Conventional rotorcraft typically average 150 kts.)

However, this product has been on the market since 1996, and while Bell at one point claimed to hold commitments for 70 aircraft, there's absolutely no way of gauging current customer interest.

Although Bell has effectively abandoned all interest in a faster civil rotorcraft product, 2 other big primes have pressed ahead with new fast design concepts. Sikorsky expects to exceed 250 kts with its X2 coaxial-rotor compound helicopter technology demonstrator.

This is a descendant of the company's 1970s-era XH59A advancing blade concept (ABC) demonstrator, which reached 238 kts. So far, Sikorsky's primary effort to commercialize this technology is with its S97—a military model it is proposing for the US Army's armed aerial scout requirement.

Meanwhile, Eurocopter is pressing ahead with its X3 compound rotor configuration demonstrator. Based on an EC 155, this testbed first flew in Sep 2010. It uses short-span wings and a tractor propeller and will have a cruise speed above 220 kts.

Like Sikorsky's X2, the X3 is just a technology demonstrator. However, another Eurocopter initiative is the X4—a proposed new design that could replace the company's long-running SA 365 Dauphin. Initially, this would be a conventional helicopter, albeit one with the latest systems and avionics.

But it's also seen as a 2-phase product launch, with a newer, as-yet-undefined version arriving in 2020. Conceivably, if the X4 eventually gets the X3's rotor configuration, it would enable this smaller-cabin model to serve a larger market.

Outside of the big primes, Piasecki Aircraft has experimented over the past decade with a vectored-thrust ducted propeller and wing design. It has flown its X49A SpeedHawk—a test aircraft based on a Sikorsky H60 first flown in Jun 2007—to about 180 kts. The company is planning to add a 3rd engine and drag-reducing modifications to get the speed above 200 kts.

However, it's far from clear that military or civil market customers will pay much of a premium for speed. Engineering and design work, and firm product launches, will need to wait on market analysis. Even if there is interest among some customer groups, this level of demand is unlikely to support 3 different design concepts.

Other players

After decades of trying, India has produced the only new market entrant of note in the world, the Dhruv, with unimpressive results.

The good news for the 4 established players is that barriers to entry in the civil helicopter business are as high, or higher, than for any other segment of the aviation industry. There are few new market entrants on the horizon.

India's Hindustan Aeronautics is offering a civil version of its Dhruv advanced light helicopter, but this will have a very difficult time due to a high price tag and a limited sales and support network. Even its acceptance by the Indian military services has been uncertain at best.

Also, this market, like any other segment of the aviation business, abhors niche players. MD Helicopters has felt that bias acutely. One of the key problems is the need for an established support network with critical mass—something small players have a hard time maintaining.

The need for a robust product support network has also hobbled a key potential 5th player—Russian Helicopters—created 4 years ago as a consolidated state-owned rotorcraft powerhouse. While offering a tremendous range of Mil and Kamov products, civil market acceptance has languished due to product support concerns.

In May 2011, the company was forced to postpone its London stock market listing after failing to convince investors that it was worth more than $2 billion. Nevertheless, it continues to promote new models with Western engines, which may help alleviate product support concerns.

The likeliest possibility for a new turbine market entrant actually comes from within the helicopter industry. In terms of unit deliveries, the market leader (at times) has been Robinson, which delivered 749 piston-powered helicopters in 2006.

The company has developed its R66 5-seat helicopter using Rolls-Royce's model 300 turboshaft. Production is now ramping up as the traditional low-end turbine players—Bell and Eurocopter—gradually withdraw from this segment.

Meanwhile, mergers, such as those that created Eurocopter and AgustaWestland, or acquisitions, such as Sikorsky's purchase of Schweizer, are actually resulting in fewer players in this industry. MD Helicopters, the only other noteworthy independent company, could be purchased by someone else in the next few years.

Its market share has languished, falling well below the 1% level—but if Sikorsky or another prime purchased the company they could revive its product line with a much larger sales and support network.

Although this stable industrial environment appears relatively stagnant, the industry is competitive and healthy enough to encourage new product developments at the 4 established primes. The new models just arriving or coming down the pike—the AW169 and 189, EC 175, S76D and Bell 429—will stimulate market demand, just as new business jets do in that market. And while we don't know when or if the new design concepts will find market acceptance, they too represent welcome innovation.

Richard Aboulafia is vp analysis at Teal Group Corp, an aviation and defense market intelligence and consulting company. He has tracked the business aircraft market for over 20 years.


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