Cover Photo by Robb Cohen Photography

Innovations keep the helicopter industry looking toward the future.

Leonardo announced plans to expand its US operations: the Italian OEM is building a new training academy in Philadelphia to support the AW609, which will also be the location of the aircraft’s final assembly. Photo by Robb Cohen Photography

An optimistic mood prevailed at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019 in Atlanta as attendees and exhibitors kept an eye on a rapidly changing future. While hopes had been high for a faster turnaround, it was clear on the show floor that the helicopter industry’s economic recovery is proceeding more slowly than many would like. Yet this slower growth has created a unique opportunity: innovation.

“The industry is certainly better than it was but not as good as it could be,” Safran USA President Peter Lengyel says, summing up the overarching theme for this year’s helicopter show. “What I see is this strategic pause, where companies have the time and financial resources to focus on innovative changes that can be brought to the industry. You don’t have the time for this in a fast-growing economy.”

Here’s a look at some of the business highlights of HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019.

Aircraft and Engine Certifications

Several new aircraft and engine certifications are on the way. Pleased with a 16% rise in sales during the past year given the market, Safran expects EASA certification for its Arrano 1A for Airbus H160s, Aneto-1K for AW189Ks, and Ardiden 1U for HAL light utility helicopters, as well as Chinese certification for the Ardiden 3C/WZ-16 engines this year.

Leonardo’s long-awaited AW609 tilt-rotor is expected to receive certification in 2019. The first production aircraft was to begin assembly this spring while the company starts construction on a new training academy in Philadelphia to support a full flight simulator and maintenance trainer for the AW609.

Bell expects certification for its 525 in 2019; Airbus expects the same for its new medium-twin H160, aimed at the helicopter air ambulance market. Both models are deep in certification testing.

Kopter’s highly anticipated SH09 will soon begin the certification process; the company announced plans in Atlanta to freeze the design. Certification is expected by mid-year 2020. In preparation for manufacturing, and in response to its hoped-for 50% market share in North America, Kopter announced the selection of Lafayette, Louisiana, as its North American manufacturing location. Kopter will lease an 84,700-sq-ft facility at the Lafayette Airport (KLFT), initially built for the construction of the Bell 505, which later moved to Canada.

Several manufacturers are working toward certification for single-engine IFR helicopters. Bell is working toward certifying the 407 for IFR, and Leonardo is doing the same for the TH-119. Both manufacturers will offer these aircraft as possible replacements for the US Navy’s TH-57 trainer and plan to create commercial versions as well.

Aircraft Manufacturers

While most OEMs are experiencing some level of growth, the trend is clearly leaning toward efficiencies and cost-
effective solutions. Sikorsky sees a stable commercial helicopter market and is experiencing traction with both its legacy S-76 models and the new S-76D, yet the trend is moving toward doing more for less.

“It’s going to be very interesting in 2019,” says David Martin, Sikorsky’s vice president of oil and gas. “Customers are starting to gain traction around efficiency of aircraft use. The number of aircraft are staying stable, but operators are flying each aircraft more, with better utilization in the field. Once companies get long-life expensive assets up to full efficiency, balance sheets and financial metrics turn around, which leads to future investment.”

Robinson Helicopter Company continues to innovate inside and out. All new aircraft now come equipped with the Garmin GTX 335 with ADS-B Out transponder, and the company is working on a cockpit video recorder and data recorder. Internally, innovations have come in the shape of better supply chain control.

“Like most OEMs, we’re having supply chain delays,” says company President Kurt Robinson. “We’re responding by bringing processes in-house.” He cites as an example how the company handles broaching, a machining process that uses a toothed tool (the broach) to remove material.

“We brought the broaching process in-house this year, reducing our wait time on parts needing broaching from five to six weeks down to one and a half days,” he says. “And the parts are a higher quality with tighter tolerances. We continue to bring more and more manufacturing process in-house to control the supply chain and quality. This also serves our overall first focus—continual increase in safety.”

Innovation for Schweizer is tied to bringing its popular trainers back to market. Schweizer RSG President David Horton announced the S300C and S300Ci will begin production again in 2020, thanks to refocused efforts by the company. Schweizer spent the past year building the supply chain for the aircraft and creating upgraded design modifications, such as modern glass avionics—and these efforts will continue through 2019.

“We inherited supply-chain limitations, and it made sense to go back and focus solely on our product line, repairing those limitations for customers currently flying the aircraft and building it up in preparation for full production,” Horton says. “We are taking the time to do it right, while we rebuild a team and processes to reliably deliver a quality product.”

Schweizer announced an $11 million fleet order from the International Defense and Aerospace Group (IDAG), the first commercial sale since the company bought the S300 type certificate from Sikorsky last year.

Airbus Helicopters introduced the upgraded H145 twin at the show, highlighting innovations including five rotor blades, a bearingless rotor system, and FADEC—together offering increased useful load, reduced maintenance, and increased reliability. The aircraft is expected to receive EASA certification in early 2020.

With the H160 receiving certification later this year, paired with the H145 upgrade, CEO Bruno Even says Airbus Helicopters is “well positioned to capture market growth in the next 20 years,” thanks to a wide range of modern aircraft.

At Kaman, the K-Max’s return to production continues, with an average of five aircraft per year rolling off the line. With production running smoothly, Kaman is now developing a pilot-optional kit for the aircraft. Completely redesigned since Lockheed’s original concept, the pilot-optional aircraft will begin test flights in 2019.

“The idea behind the concept is a kit we can sell to existing K-Max owners that increases their opportunities with the aircraft, such as potential firefighting contracts,” says Romin Dasmalchi, Kaman’s senior director of government business development. “An unmanned kit will cost about $3 million, compared to $7.25 million for a new aircraft.”

At Guimbal, growth is steady in the United States and stagnant in Europe, but opportunities are abounding in the Australian market, with opportunities to support cattle mustering. “We’re busy preparing for our next big market in Australia, making sure we have the technical support in country as well as appointing maintenance facilities to support the Cabri down under,” says Andy Moorhouse, Guimbal business development manager.

At MD Helicopters, CEO Lynn Tilton summed up the company’s position: “We have a long way to go and lots to do.”

MD saw a 35 to 40% increase in sales in 2018, mainly in the military sector, and the company has used these purchases to fuel research and development. Tilton says MD will focus on completing 906 and 969 certification in 2019 while reconfiguring the factory to run four production lines: two for light military single aircraft, one for commercial, and one for the 969.

Engines and Avionics Manufacturers

Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) foresees continued challenging times, with the oil and gas and other markets feeling significant economic pressure. The engine manufacturer announced several enhancements and options to its engine maintenance and warranty programs, including a certified pre-owned engine program, as well as single-engine and fleet service plans for smaller helicopter fleets.

“Helicopter owners and operators continue to focus on productivity,” says Nicolas Chabée, vice president, marketing and sales, helicopter engines at P&WC. “We are focusing on how our engines can deliver value to our customers throughout the entire product and service life cycle.”

Rolls-Royce continues work on a hybrid-electric propulsion system, which was successfully tested using its M250 gas turbine a week after HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019.

Safran highlighted Cassiopée, an innovative service that combines flight data-management software with analysis that offers operators solutions for predictive maintenance, as well a new digital chain connecting aircraft, pilots, maintenance, and operators in real time.

Garmin shared its recently certified G500H TXi touchscreen flight displays, which come with terrain awareness and warning, wire-strike avoidance technology, and optional 3D synthetic vision and cockpit connectivity to sync with compatible tablets or smartphones.

Thales Vice President of Sales and Business Development Frédéric Elias sees the influx of new aircraft coming on the market as an opportunity for innovation. “We anticipate the need for more integrated solutions, both for upcoming OEM new programs and for retrofit,” Elias says. “OEMs and operators need lighter, more compact solutions, touchscreen capability, and connectivity.

“There is definitely a strong trend for open-world systems; we are addressing it through FlytX, our new avionics suite,” he says. In addition to the all-glass touchscreen FlytX, Thales introduced its three- or four-axis compact autopilot system for all helicopters. Both the avionics suite and autopilot system are designed to reduce pilot workload, optimize productivity, and increase safety.

Urban Air Mobility

At no place was innovation more apparent at HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019 than at Bell’s display of a full-size mock-up of its new Nexus electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The star of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last January, the six-fan eVTOL as currently designed would be powered by a single turbine engine, which then would feed batteries that run six electric engines powering the fans.

Bell continues to aggressively develop the Nexus, which it hopes to have ready for operation by 2025, while it simultaneously uses its Future Flight Controls Simulator to gather data and shape the flight controls of the future. The aircraft manufacturer has partnered with Uber Elevate, which plans to start an air taxi service in 2023.

“We believe the future is real and a lot closer than you think,” said Bell President and CEO Mitch Snyder in a video conference before HAI HELI‑EXPO 2019. (Read more about eVTOL at HAI HELI-EXPO 2019 on p. 46.)

Bell has enlisted partners from within the helicopter industry to further develop its eVTOL concept. Safran announced at CES its partnership with Bell to power the Nexus, with a new turbine engine under development as well as the electric engines to power the six fans. Another partner, Thales, is developing the Nexus’s flight control computer hardware and software. The company is also working with local and federal governments on infrastructure and regulations regarding eVTOL aircraft.

Moving Toward the Future

As HAI’s annual show grows, so shrinks the list of venues that are large enough to host the show. In its debut year in Atlanta, HAI HELI‑EXPO hosted around 640 vendors, with attendance numbers on par with past years.

“I think this has been a great show with a lot of positive feelings,” says HAI President and CEO Matt Zuccaro. “We had more hotel room bookings than ever before. While vendors were down a bit, I think that reflects the mergers and acquisitions that are taking place in our industry for increased efficiencies.”

Zuccaro echoed others’ observations on the industry’s stability and slow growth. “I think the industry is very stable. We used our diversity to stay strong this time. We survived the latest downturn much better than we have in the past, which tells me that we as an industry are getting better at going into survival mode. Now people are getting back to their primary missions, and there is an uptick. We’re headed in the right direction.”

As the helicopter industry moves into mid-2019, Zuccaro did have one concern and warning. Like winter, the ADS-B equipage deadline is coming, and operators do not want to be caught on the wrong side of the rule come January 1, 2020. Operators should act now, as the FAA has made it clear that extensions will not be easy to come by.

“I’m concerned our industry isn’t equipping for ADS-B as quickly as it should be,” Zuccaro says. “I think a lot of people are expecting an extension or the program will change with new technology.”

In fact, during a fireside chat with Zuccaro during the HAI Annual Membership Meeting and Breakfast on Tuesday, March 5, FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell emphasized there would be no wholesale extension across the industry. Only operators reporting proof of unusual circumstances or significant hardships could be considered for extension.

“We really don’t want to get stuck in a last-minute rush that leads to a lack of units or technicians, and as such, grounded aircraft,” Zuccaro says. “That would put a damper on our move back in the positive direction.”

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Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer

Jen Boyer is the principal of her own firm, Flying Penguin Communications. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and holds commercial, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument instructor ratings in helicopters and a private rating in airplanes. She has worked as a professional journalist and marketing communicator in the aviation industry since the early 1990s.