Safety and steady growth take the main stage at this year’s show.
HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 kicked off in Anaheim, California, in a somber yet determined mood. On Jan. 26, the day before the show opened, Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others perished in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, just 55 miles north of Anaheim. The accident and loss of life hit the tight-knit helicopter community hard while also leading to increased public scrutiny of the industry and its safety record.
Safety, First and Foremost
With the Calabasas accident fresh on everyone’s mind, safety continued to be a main theme at HAI HELI-EXPO®. More than 3,180 attendees participated in 30 professional education courses and 60 free Rotor Safety Challenge sessions, most of which were devoted to improving safety in some aspect of the vertical lift industry.
New HAI President and CEO James A. Viola drew on his personal passion and professional background in safety when addressing the media and the association’s membership. The former director of general aviation safety assurance for the FAA, US Army helicopter pilot, and the organizer of the US Helicopter Safety Team, Viola emphasized the importance of keeping safety as an essential activity for the industry.
“High-profile accidents and incidents bring more visibility, and not in a positive way for the industry,” Viola said at his introductory press conference on Jan. 27. “If there’s any connection to what we’re doing this week, it’s that this industry really goes out of its way to try to make sure we provide the safest environment possible. Zero accidents—that’s the vision, the goal, because no loss of life is acceptable.”
In addition to multiple safety courses, HAI for the first time created a safety kiosk near the show floor main entrance. Safety-focused affiliate organizations that typically have booths on the show floor were co-located in the kiosk, offering a front-and-center safety access point for all attendees. Participants included NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, the International Helicopter Safety Foundation, the Tour Operators Program of Safety, the FAA Safety Team, and the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team.
At the HAI Annual Membership Meeting on Jan. 28, FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson spoke about the industry’s safety challenges and how the agency is working to solve them. (To read ROTOR’s exclusive interview with Dickson during Expo, see p. 46.) With unmanned aircraft systems and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft quickly moving from prototype to testing, Dickson emphasized that those passengers will demand the very high level of safety achieved by airlines—a benchmark the helicopter industry has yet to meet.
Dickson also questioned the current climate in the helicopter industry in which, more often than not, accidents could have been avoided. If the industry can’t change that climate, it will be forced to, he said. “There’s a lot of energy in Congress as it relates to safety and noise concerns. If we can’t take meaningful action on both of these fronts very soon, I suspect that path forward might be dictated to us,” Dickson said.
The New Normal
Beyond safety, the industry’s key manufacturers have focused on expanding their businesses. All told, the collective industry story is one of slow, steady growth with clear geopolitical challenges.
For years, aircraft and engine manufacturers have watched for signs of a rebound to the level of sales the industry enjoyed before the Great Recession of 2008. Each year, OEMs have reported some growth, but short of large one-off sales, there hasn’t been a significant boom on the horizon.
“Maybe next year” has become the new mantra. Agile companies began to diversify their product portfolios early on, reaching into new or emerging markets and developing new programs. Cost-saving engine-monitoring systems and component life-extending processes became life preservers.
2020 is no different, and the industry is beginning to adjust its expectations. The recovery it’s been looking for could very well not exist, especially given the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the global economic disruption stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m hesitant to even talk about a recovery anymore,” says Romain Trapp, Airbus president and head of the firm’s North America region. “I believe where we are today is the new norm. The market of 10 years ago is gone. We must reset our expectations and aim for growth of a few percent a year versus dozens of percent.”
Product Innovation, Geopolitics at Work
While Airbus celebrated record worldwide sales in 2019, the manufacturer was one of many OEMs experiencing slow growth in the mature US market, particularly the helicopter air ambulance sector. Trapp believes this was due in part to legislation introduced in the US Senate in June 2019, S. 1895, the Lower Health Care Costs Act, which would affect emergency medical care in many states. (Note: as of publication, the bill had not been voted on by the Senate.) Some operators are buying aircraft to replace or expand their fleets, but most remain cautious, Trapp says.
Similar ripples run through the industry about China. Many manufacturers have seen sales in that country drop significantly because of tariffs and the increasing realization that the Chinese market will be constrained by that country’s tight control of its airspace, as well as its own maturing aircraft manufacturing industry.
Leonardo and Kopter
Leonardo arguably had the biggest news at Expo, putting its diversity strategy to work by announcing the acquisition of Swiss OEM Kopter. The move adds an additional light single-engine workhorse, the Kopter SH09, to Leonardo’s offerings.
“We wanted to complete our product portfolio the right way,” says Gian Piero Cutillo, managing director of Leonardo’s Helicopter Division. “We believe this is the right product, adding strength to our single-engine segment and complementing the AW119.”
Kopter announced it had frozen its design for the SH09 and was in the final stages of certification. To reduce the time between approvals from the FAA and EASA, Kopter is working with both agencies to achieve full certification by the end of 2020. Once certificated, the multimission helicopter wouldn’t be far from single-engine IFR supplemental type certification (STC). Modifications to receive the STC include adding a third attitude indicator and a four-axis autopilot.
Leonardo and Kopter confirmed that Kopter’s name, Switzerland location, and brand will remain, though the latter may undergo some alterations to better align with Leonardo’s branding. Plans for US production in Lafayette, Louisiana, are unchanged.
“The idea isn’t to interfere but to help as needed, as they’re so close to certification,” says Leonardo’s Roberto Garavaglia, senior VP of competitive analysis and strategy. “For instance, we may have a facility they can use, saving them from having to build one.”
Leonardo’s Kopter news came on the heels of the Italian manufacturer having won the US Navy single-engine IFR training helicopter contract with the AW119, on top of a steady year of sales. When not counting a large Qatar order in 2018, Leonardo sales in 2019 were up slightly from those of the previous year.
“The civil market remains interesting,” Garavaglia says, echoing the sentiment of many other manufacturers. “Many areas remain weak, though they’re coming back some. This is geopolitics at work, and we’re trying to learn how to play that. We find ways to continue business without making predictions. There is life in the industry. It simply requires an exercise in creativity.”
At Kaman, innovation remains strong. Since restarting production of the K-Max helicopter in 2017, Kaman has delivered 13 of the aircraft. In 2019, the company delivered four helicopters and plans to maintain an output of four to five a year, not including military orders.
The recent surge in wildland fires and the US Forest Service’s new “call when needed” firefighting contracts have led to increased interest in the K-Max, says Roger Wassmuth, Kaman’s senior director of business development. A high-altitude workhorse, the aircraft is becoming a favorite for government contracting.
“The Forest Service began putting telemetry equipment on its contract aircraft to see if operators were actually doing the work within the scope of the contract—weight, altitude, etc.,” Wassmuth says. “That’s one thing K-Max operators never have to worry about.”
The unmanned version of the K-Max underwent critical design review in late 2019 and was on track to have completed that process for its software in early 2020. That aircraft is expected to take its first flight later this year. It’s designed to be completely autonomous and features a fully redesigned system from the one used by the US Marines between 2011 and 2014.
At Schweizer RSG, it’s steady as she goes, and staying the course is paying off. When company president David Horton acquired the rights to Schweizer helicopters in 2018 from Sikorsky, the aircraft was out of production and there was a large backlog of spare-parts orders. For two years, Horton has focused company efforts on three things: rebuilding supply chains, producing aircraft and parts, and providing world-class customer support.
The Fort Worth, Texas–based manufacturer has received the green light from the FAA to begin making parts, and full certification to manufacture aircraft is expected by the end of 2020. With 27 orders already on the books, Horton is excited to deliver. The company has also purchased cannibalized aircraft and is refurbishing them for sale with parts that Schweizer RSG manufactures in-house, Horton says.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Horton. “It’s not as much as I’d hoped by this time, but that’s a result of our focus on not doing anything unless it’s perfect and we’re doing it right. We take being stewards of this product with a rich history very seriously.”
Celebrating 60 years of manufacturing at HAI HELI-EXPO 2020, Enstrom Helicopter Corp. reported an up-and-down 2019. Despite Enstrom’s ownership by Chongqing Helicopter Investment Corp. in China, sales were down in that country.
“The US–China relationship has really affected our business,” says Enstrom President Matt Francour. “We have fewer sales on their end, but customers feel it will shift back eventually.”
With a large percentage of sales in the foreign military sector, Enstrom sees continued slow growth. “When one contract drags, it hits us more than the larger OEMs,” says Francour. “Business isn’t going away. We remain very established around the world. It’s a wait-and-see game.”
Deliveries remained flat at MD Helicopters, too, with 2020 looking to be just ahead of 2019. The Mesa, Arizona–based company announced plans to invest $100 million in 2020 supporting the 902, 969, and 530G aircraft and certifying new digital avionics for its single-engine helicopters.
MD Helicopters also announced a move from Genesys Aerosystems back to Universal Avionics’s InSight flight deck, originally chosen for the MD 900/902 program. Then-CEO Lynn Tilton credited the change to Universal’s new ownership under Elbit and hoped this would lead to speedier certification and delivery. Tilton, who resigned as MD Helicopters CEO on Mar. 23, said the company planned to have the aircraft with Universal’s cockpit for sale by the end of 2021.
Robinson Helicopter Co., often the manufacturer with the largest number of deliveries annually, had a much softer year in 2019, selling 196 aircraft compared with 2018’s 300. With 70% of sales coming from outside the United States, company President and Chairman Kurt Robinson attributed the soft year to the high dollar overseas and tariffs. Looking forward, Robinson has already sold out the first six months of 2020 production of the R44 and R66.
Ever the innovator, at the show Robinson highlighted a number of features for its aircraft, including a slimmer aux tank to free up R66 baggage space, a new cabin video and voice recorder, overspeed protection for R22 and R44 start-up, a tach and engine electronic monitoring unit, and a high-impact–resistant windscreen.
Sikorsky maintained a low profile at Expo in response to the Kobe Bryant accident, which involved an S-76B. Like many other events at the show, the company’s annual press conference began with a moment of silence for those affected by the crash.
Sikorsky leaders shared that the first CH-53K King Stallion was in final assembly and the SB>1 Defiant was continuing test flights. The company’s show floor display highlighted its Firehawk and recent deliveries to combat increased forest fires in California and elsewhere around the globe.
After last year’s announcement that the company would offer upgrades for the S-92 with the latest technology, Sikorsky VP of Commercial Systems and Services Audrey Brady announced that two options are now available for position agreements: the S-92A+, which includes the Phase IV gearbox and increases maximum gross weight to 27,700 lbs, and the S-92B, which includes all the S-92+ features plus several additional items, including a global real-time health and usage monitoring system (HUMS). General Electric’s CT7-8A6 engine is an available option for both, producing more power for higher, hotter operations.
For Bell, 2019 saw steady sales increases over 2018. A flurry of announced orders at Expo highlighted the company’s predictions for an even better year in 2020. Bell announced its selections of Astronautics’s integrated flight display systems for the Bell 412EPX and 429 and a HUMS in the new Bell 407GXi, signaling its interest in outfitting new aircraft with the latest technology.
Bell, too, noted geopolitical issues and tariffs as obstacles. However, with 505 sales steady, the 525 Relentless in the final stages of flight testing, and strong interest in the new single-engine IFR 407GXi, hopes are high for additional growth this year.
With sales in line with those of their associated aircraft manufacturers, engine OEMs at the show focused their news on positioning and strengthening customer service.
Rolls-Royce sales in 2019 were slightly more than in 2018, says James Payton, the company’s VP of sales, civil helicopters. “We saw things soften with tariffs and the geopolitical atmosphere, but we’re starting to see a significant uptick in 2020 and 2021.”
Undeterred by current issues in China, Rolls-Royce remains focused on increasing sales there and is expanding support for aerospace overhaul in the Asia-Pacific market.
Rolls-Royce is also positioning itself to be a leader in the eVTOL space, having acquired Siemens’s electric and hybrid-electric engine division last fall. The company is also working with a consortium of industry partners to design what it hopes will be the fastest all-electric airplane.
“Our strategy is to be a leader in the electrification business,” Payton says.
Safran felt 2019 was a strong year, with the certification of four of its engines and steady sales. The French company also announced its plans to expand its health monitoring services to include daily health indicators and an online interface.
On to New Orleans
HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 was a robust show, with 657 exhibitors, 62 helicopters, and several mock-ups, eVTOL concepts, and remotely piloted vehicles filling more than 313,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Next year, the vertical lift industry will meet in New Orleans. “Work is well under way for HAI HELI-EXPO 2021 in New Orleans,” says HAI’s Viola. “I’m optimistic this will be a great show and our attendees will have an extraordinary time.”
HAI HELI-EXPO 2021 will take place Mar. 22–25 at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, with the exhibit floor open Mar. 23–25.