Rotary-wing aircraft save time and offer comfortable travel. Here’s what’s available now and what’s coming in the corporate helo market.
By Brent Bundy
Phoenix Police Officer-Pilot AS350, AW119, Cessna 210/182/172
The helicopter as we know it can trace its roots to the early 20th century. By the 1940s, both German and US inventors had begun flying practical designs, capped off with Igor Sikorsky’s R-4 in 1942 – the 1st mass-produced model, and the design on which nearly all helicopters flown today are based.
Since then, vertical lift aircraft have become one of the most versatile forms of transportation in existence. From the battlefield to the farm field, an aircraft that can take off and land in a reduced space has found nearly limitless usefulness. Much like its fixed-wing brethren, the helicopter has evolved from rudimentary beginnings to the technological wonders we see today.
Along this path of advancement, one of the many roles that rotary-wing aircraft have taken on has been that of luxury transportation. While early models could not carry much more than the fuel and the pilot needed for flight, modern iterations can be had with the finest leather-lined seating, opulent interiors to rival bespoke airplanes, and even galleys and lavatories. And the largest models can carry more than 20 passengers.
While that basic design of Sikorsky’s R-4 is still in use, the diversity of applications in which helicopters are found vary greatly between each manufacturer. Let’s take a look at the most popular models on the market in 2020.
Holding a 54% share of the worldwide helicopter market, Airbus leads all other manufacturers. With a portfolio that covers nearly every niche of the market, the manufacturer offers a variety of models to meet corporate and luxury needs. With such specialty demands in this field, Airbus spun off a separate brand in 2017, aptly named Airbus Corporate Helicopters (ACH).
Much like Airbus Corporate Jets (ACJ), its stablemate on the company’s jet side, ACH focuses on VIP versions of several of its civil lineup, and has even partnered with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Aston Martin for exclusive editions. ACH currently offers luxury examples of 6 of its models – specifically, the light singles ACH125 and ACH130, the light twins ACH135 and ACH145, the super medium twin ACH175, and the newest addition to this premium collection – the ACH160, which was unveiled at Heli-Expo 2015.
EASA certification was awarded in July 2020, with FAA approval and customer deliveries expected before 2021. In addition to exclusive interior and exterior styling, ACH promises a concierge-style support service anywhere in the world. Aside from the ACH offerings, with the sheer number of Airbus helicopters available in nearly every country, there are numerous after-market companies specializing in converting civilian models into VIP configurations.
Having dropped “Helicopter” from its name in 2018, Bell has shown its investment in the future of vertical lift, which is expected to morph into aircraft that perhaps do not fall into the accepted definition of a helicopter. Until then, the company still offers several available in VIP guise.
On the smaller end of the scale is the 3-year-old light single 505. With corporate models seating up to 4 people, it is already seeing several aftermarket luxury interiors being offered. The middle of the lineup for Bell is filled out by the latest variant of the venerable 6-pax single-engine 407, and the light twin 429 with its 7-person capacity.
The company’s newest flagship model sitting at the top of the fleet will be the medium twin 525 Relentless, which will be the first fly-by-wire commercial helicopter. In an executive layout, the Relentless will carry up to 16 personnel.
Bell has released several artist renderings and full-scale mockups which include Wi-Fi, smart-device-controlled lighting, electrochromic windows, and a sound enhancement system. Unveiled in 2012, certification for the 525 is expected in late 2020, with deliveries in 2021.
While maintaining just under half the market share of Airbus, Leonardo offers 6 models available for customization as VIP versions.
Corporate editions can be customized for the light single AW119Kx, light twin AW109 in its GrandNew and Trekker versions (the latter being equipped with skids vs wheels), the medium twins AW139 and AW189, and the largest-in-class AW101, with potential seating for as many as 30 passengers.
The manufacturer’s newest offering is the AW169, which began deliveries in 2016 and has become a favorite for EMS, SAR, and VIP operators. With class-leading performance and room for up to 8 seats in luxury configuration, its popularity is no surprise.
In addition to its standard helicopter models, Leonardo is also the sole producer of a tiltrotor aircraft – the AW609. Based on the military V-22 Osprey, this hybrid helicopter/airplane will be offered in an executive setup with seating for 9.
Its airplane speed and helicopter landing abilities will make it a hit among the VVIP crowd. Certification for the AW609 is expected in late 2020, with deliveries to begin immediately after.
MD is perhaps best known for its small, light single, the MD 500. In fact, there’s a good chance that, if you meet a helicopter pilot, they’ve flown a variant of the 500 at some point in their career, considering that nearly 5000 of them have been built since 1967.
Although the MD 500’s limiting factor would be its size, the company has 2 solutions – the MD 600N and MD 902 Explorer.
The 600N incorporates MD’s NOTAR (no tail rotor) technology. In corporate configuration, it can carry up to 5 passengers, and it’s popular with the yachting crowd for its safety and quietness – the 2 main advantages of not having a tail rotor.
The MD 902 Explorer is also a favorite for operators seeking a lower noise signature, along with the added safety of the tail rotor being replaced with a ducted fan in the tail.
This medium twin can comfortably carry 4 passengers and plenty of baggage in the additional 48-cu-ft hold. Like other manufacturers, MD has an in-house design firm that will customize helicopters to the owner’s wishes. If noise level is a concern, MD may be a top choice.
A catalog of executive helicopters would not be complete without Sikorsky. While the manufacturer currently has only 2 models in its civilian repertoire, both have been highly regarded in the VIP transport world for many years, including Fortune 500 company execs and numerous foreign heads of state.
A perennial favorite of the rotary-wing elite is the S-76. Now in its 10th generation, designated the S-76D, this medium twin first flew in 1977.
Regular upgrades to engines, avionics, and interiors have kept it at the top of the A-listers’ list. With configurations customizable for any taste, the S-76D has VIP seating for up to 8 passengers, who enter the cabin through limousine-style doors aided by electrically retractable steps.
Once inside, the active vibration control and Quite Zone transmission ensure comfortable travel, aided by the new tail rotor and main blades, which also provide a reduced noise footprint outside. Sikorsky’s larger model, the S-92, sets the standard for large-cabin VVIP helicopters.
The medium-lift twin can be ordered with seating for up to 22 occupants in utility mode – but, in the executive design, the preferred seat count is 9. The massive cabin can include wet bars, galleys, closets, lavatories, and state-of-the-art entertainment systems to rival its fixed-wing counterparts.
A feature not found in many other helicopters is the 6-ft-high ceiling, allowing easier access throughout. The S-92’s size, safety record, and technology were among the reasons for it being chosen as the basis for the next generation of US Presidential helicopter, the VH-92A.
To be operated by Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), the VH-92A will replace the venerable Sikorsky VH-3D Sea King and is expected to enter operational service in late 2020 or early 2021.
A vertical future
The luxury helicopter fills a niche – not as a replacement for the corporate jet but as a complement. The private airplane can get you nearer to your destination than commercial travel, but the helicopter can get you even closer, and it can do so much more quickly than ground transportation, saving that ever-elusive element of time. The past decade has seen a rise in a new form of vertical lift.
Difficult to quantify, it comes in various forms, including quadrotors, tilting rotors, and, eventually, lifting mechanisms yet to be seen. Undoubtedly, these too will be found with luxurious interiors, befitting the elite who will be the first to acquire them. For now, however, the helicopter rules the skies for those who have the need and the means to travel to nearly inaccessible locations in style.
Brent Bundy has been a police officer with the Phoenix Police Dept for 29 years. He has served in the PHX Air Support Unit for 19 years and is a helicopter rescue pilot with nearly 4000 hours of flight time. Bundy currently flies Airbus AS350B3s for the helicopter side of Phoenix PD’s air unit and Cessna 172, 182s and 210s for the fixed-wing side.