Rotary-wing aircraft complement transportation needs of bizjet operators around crowded areas.
By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo/CFI Contributing Writer
The historic roots of the commercial helicopter business go back to the late 1960s, when the first turbine-powered helicopters became available. The Bell JetRanger was an instant market leader with its comfortable cabin, sleek looks and relatively good cruise speed.
The oil and gas market took to the JetRanger to support crew changes on offshore drill rigs. It was followed by the Hughes 500, the Agusta 109, and several others – each of them finding market niches where their particular benefits were useful.
The corporate flying community was still in its infancy as well, with Lockheed Venturas and North American B-25s converted to corporate use with refreshed upholstery and lavatories in their cabins and bomb bays.
But other than the occasional Bell 47 that was pressed into service, there was no corporate helicopter market.
The JetRanger changed all that, when wealthy clients started using them to travel to resorts, ranches, or yachts. Although helicopters struggled to find their place in the burgeoning corporate aircraft market, helicopter manufacturers were motivated to promote their aircraft in this segment.
They imagined a helicopter awaiting the arrival of a Lockheed JetStar or Learjet, and the passengers would step off the plane and be whisked to the rooftop heliport of a hotel, or a meadow in front of a posh resort. But their efforts met with little success, as operators were suspicious of helicopters and hesitant to expose their customers to what they saw as a dangerous mode of transportation.
The corporate helicopter market
Helicopter operators were more comfortable in the rugged environment of agricultural spraying, logging, and mountain flying. The concept of showing up for a flight in a bright, clean helicopter with the pilot in a suit was totally foreign.
The occasional rancher or corporate farmer did buy a helicopter to survey their large land holdings and oversee far-flung projects. A few ranchers and other forward-looking high-net-worth individuals saw the potential to improve their operations using helicopters.
Each of them were highly publicized in the helicopter community as manufacturers worked to build market momentum. As New York and Los Angeles executives became tired of dense traffic jams, they began to consider the option of a helicopter, and heliports sprouted on many prominent buildings.
The client base grew gradually, as local operators advertised their services and catered to potential customers. A Bell JetRanger or Sikorsky S-76 could be seen landing on a building now and then. It would take a serious evolution of product for the corporate helicopter market to finally see viability.
Specifically, interior enhancements – beverage serving, seats of equivalent comfort to those found in corporate jets, airborne communications, and sound proofing were essential if helicopters were to claim their place in corporate fleets. Sikorsky led the way with well-designed cabins in its S-76 product line. Many of them went through the same completion centers that finished Gulfstream and Bombardier Challenger bizjets.
Bell offered much enhanced interiors for its JetRanger and LongRanger helos. The twin-engine 222 and its successor, the 430, offered significantly improved cabin amenities and performance, and became popular with corporate clients.
In 1999 Airbus, then known as Eurocopter, went to great lengths to promote its EC155 – a much improved variant of the Dauphine – as a business aircraft. It offered speed and a smooth ride from its 5-bladed rotor system.
The company pioneered the concept of a cocoon interior that isolated it from the noise and vibration of the aircraft. These products had the power to fly with bulky interiors and still provide good performance. They also offered single-pilot IFR cockpits to broaden their operating envelopes.
Recent enhancements in aircraft interior technology, lighter weight materials, LED lighting, more effective soundproofing, and advanced digital communications have all made the corporate helicopter flying experience more comfortable while increasing inflight productivity.
Airbus Helicopters now offers the ACH130, an H130 in a special luxury edition. Partnering with Aston Martin, Airbus engineers created a special model with the style and panache of the luxury car, with stunning leather interiors matched with exterior paint schemes that carry on the Aston Martin world-class brand.
The initial completion run of 15 helicopters sold out within 30 days. Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH) is now a going concern within the mother company. Staffed with team members from both Airbus and Aston Martin, the division now offers ACH versions of the H135, H145 and H160 – all with the same flare and elegance as the ACH130.
Bell has maintained a leading place in the corporate helicopter market for decades. Today, the twin-engine 429 is the vehicle of choice, with a finely-appointed 5-passenger interior that accommodates 4 people in the main cabin and 1 up front with the pilot. Its smooth ride, open cabin, and large luggage compartment are appreciated features. Bob Dengler was one of the first customers for the 429.
An experienced pilot in both helicopters and airplanes, shortly after taking delivery of his 429, he set off on a flight around the world. His flight, with his son Steven as copilot, took 48 days, and was the first Canadian circumnavigation by helicopter. Bob is still using the 429 in his mining company.
He can access remote mining sites and return to the office the same day. Bell plans on offering a corporate interior for its new mid-size 525. It will feature a 6-place luxury configuration with a host of amenities and a near vibration-free ride thanks to its new rotor system. The company’s long record of strong customer support will serve it well in the demanding market of business aviation.
Leonardo began supporting the corporate aviation market with the A109 in 1976. The AW109 now offers style both in its sleek exterior lines and in a spacious cabin.
Product improvements over the years include significant increases in power, the addition of new technology avionics, and the latest developments in cabin features. AW109s feature interiors for as many as 6 passengers, with leather seating, digital communications, and inflight entertainment systems. They are seen on most ramps where corporate jets come and go, complimenting transportation need of high-net-worth passengers.
The larger AW139 frequents the skies in the northeast US. Major corporate flight departments in the region use them throughout a radius of 150 miles around New York and the outlying areas.
Flight utilization can equal that of the jets in those fleets. AW139s feature many of the same amenities as their jet fleet mates, such as comfortable seating, onboard Wi-Fi enabling inflight productivity and entertainment, and beverage and snack offerings. Prominent customers include Mass Mutual, General Electric, and Honeywell, who supplies the avionics in the AW139.
MD Helicopters offers options for luxury and business travel operations. The company promotes its popular MD 500 series and the NOTAR-equipped MD 900 series as capable platforms for time-sensitive business trips, liaison flights with very important passengers, and for making connections to resorts or yacht landing pads.
Robinson Helicopter occupies a unique space in the corporate world – that of owner-piloted helicopters. These helicopters are a step above their production peers, with stylish seats and exterior paint and advanced avionics that support flying into remote regions, such as ranches, hunting preserves, and private resorts.
Sikorsky pioneered the medium class corporate helicopter with the introduction of the S-76 in 1977. It offered both a utility-type cabin for offshore workers with seating up to 8 people, and a 7-seat luxurious interior with all the amenities.
Today, dozens of S-76s are flying in corporate livery in the northeast US, helping corporate executives reach destinations in minutes. S-76s live in hangars that house Gulfstream, Challenger, and Falcon jets, swishing bizjet passengers to destinations only accessible by helicopter.
Sikorsky’s S-92 flies in a totally different class, with a cabin that has the same dimensions as a Bombardier Challenger. Furnishings for up to 10 passengers include conference tables, couches, galleys with refrigerators and food warmers, and lavatories. The S-92 also has an APU that can cool or heat the cabin while on the ground.
A bright future
The future for these helicopter companies who have developed corporate versions of their products appears to be healthier today than ever before, keeping pace with the record-breaking traffic in corporate jet charter, fractional, and new airplane purchases. Within this expanding marketplace, we can expect to see these sleek new helicopters supporting established corporate fleets as well as creating their own separate market niches around the world.
Woody McClendon has flown Challenger 604s on overseas trips, and Learjets, Citation IIIs, and King Air 350s in North and South America. His book When the Angel Calls relates his experiences over 10 years as a medevac pilot. He has written for Pro Pilot for 25+ years.