High attendance and record sales signal better days for the vertical aviation industry.

The HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 theme “Celebrate,” commemorating HAI’s 75th anniversary year and predicting a bright future for vertical aviation, hit the mark. The Mar. 6–9 show attracted more than 12,400 industry professionals from 97 countries to Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, as well as 639 exhibitors (50 more than last year) and 49 aircraft.

With close to $2 billion in sales announced during the four-day show, the vertical aviation industry indicated that it is in full recovery and, in many cases, well ahead of where it stood in January 2020, just before COVID-19 spread around the world. Exhibitors reported a steady flow of business on the show floor, reflecting a definite change from last year’s event.

“Everyone I talked with was enthusiastic about the excitement and level of activity at the show,” say James Viola, HAI president and CEO. “This year it was very business oriented. People weren’t just walking the show floor; it was obvious people were there to do business. Last year, in Dallas, there was more hesitancy—a lot of people were there to look and consider. This year, they were ready to purchase and do what they needed to do for the future of their business.”

Celebrating a More Diverse Fleet

In a sign of the industry’s movement toward a more diversified fleet, several companies displayed advanced air mobility (AAM) mock-ups, uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) models, and other emerging technologies.

AAM was also a focus off the show floor, in the conference part of the Expo. A three-part AAM Showcase presented discussions on the issues of infrastructure, operations and training, and aircraft that will need to be resolved to successfully integrate AAM operations into the airspace. A forum featuring senior leaders from the organizations working to make AAM a reality rounded out the AAM sessions.

HAI also released a Roadmap of Advanced Air Mobility Operations, a white paper developed with input from members of the HAI Advanced Air Mobility Industry Advisory Council (AAM-IAC), which describes the next steps necessary for AAM development in areas such as regulations, infrastructure and airspace use, and vehicle development.

Celebrating Underdog Recoveries

Two vertical aviation OEMs also demonstrated a return to normal operations after difficult circumstances.

A completely rebranded MD Helicopters (MDH) introduced its new leadership and announced ramped-up production. MDH’s new president and CEO, Brad Pedersen, an aerospace industry veteran with a proven record of turning around industry companies, didn’t hold back when he spoke to reporters.

Pedersen acknowledged the company had fallen short in the past in both customer service and aftermarket support but said it is already focused on remedying these issues. The company plans to increase deliveries from four aircraft in 2022 to up to 24 a year by 2024, with production focusing on the MD 530 line.

From left, Zac Noble, HAI director of flight operations and maintenance and the on-site landing coordinator, guides SureFlight’s Bell 407 to a landing at the Georgia World Congress Center for HAI HELI-EXPO 2023, while Jaasmin Foote, HAI social media manager, captures the view. (HAI/f-stop Photography)

“We have had a rocky heritage, but the bones of the company and the product has always been great,” Pedersen said. “Primarily, [our focus now] is aftermarket support and making sure we have spare parts. We have a plan to purchase 702 parts and have all of those in stock by the end of the year. These are the most used and most requested parts with our service centers and with our distributors.”

A key limiting factor to increasing manufacturing at MDH is labor: the company had 130 job openings at the time of the show. Pedersen admitted that labor shortages were plaguing MDH more than the supply-chain problems affecting the larger market (see “Supply Chain Woes and Creative Solutions” at the bottom of this article). By strengthening its supplier relationships with longer-term purchase commitments, the company has maintained a steady stream of parts, ensuring MDH will meet its year-end parts supply goal and growth projections.

A resurgent Enstrom Helicopter Corporation also returned as an HAI HELI-EXPO® exhibitor. After a sudden bankruptcy closed its doors in January 2022, a private owner, Chuck Surack, purchased the manufacturer in May 2022. Enstrom received an FAA production certificate in December 2022 to manufacture parts, and at the show announced it was upgrading its piston and turbine helicopter models. In its booth, it featured the first aircraft to roll off its new production line, a turbine Enstrom 480B.

Enstrom also unveiled new glass cockpits and plans to produce up to three aircraft a month by the end of the year. “We are ramping up in a measured manner right now,” Enstrom President Todd Tetzlaff said at a press conference during the show.

Celebrating Achievement

In addition to the busy show floor, HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 offered attendees opportunities to network, learn, and celebrate the industry. The Georgia Aquarium provided a dramatic backdrop for Monday evening’s welcome reception, while Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the show floor included a gospel choir singing their powerful rendition of “Celebration.”

Two professional development events with a networking focus included the Mil2Civ Workshop for veterans transitioning from military service, followed by an industry career fair on Tuesday. Wednesday’s agenda included the always-popular Meet the Regulators session, providing attendees the opportunity to speak with FAA representatives, and a panel discussion and networking event for women in aviation businesses.

Education and professional development are always a focus for HAI HELI-EXPO attendees, and this year was no exception. Nearly 2,200 attendees took advantage of an impressive slate of in-depth Professional Education Courses, one-hour Rotor Safety Challenge sessions, and Manufacturer Technical Briefings, many of which were eligible for FAA WINGS, AMT, and inspection authorization renewal credits. HAI awarded about 1,000 credits during the show.

With 49 aircraft and the latest technology on display, there was plenty to smile about on the HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 show floor. (HAI/f-stop Photography)

HAI maintained the focus on education by putting safety literally in the center of the show floor, with the popular HAI Rotor Safety Zone sharing space with the HAI Connect stage. Virtual-reality simulators offered attendees an opportunity to test their safety skills and learn about the value of simulators in training and maintaining currency. Representatives from a variety of safety organizations were available to discuss how attendees could implement best practices to improve their safety performance. Multiple sessions of HAI’s new Heli-Expert safety trivia game (with prizes for winners) challenged attendees willing to put their knowledge on the line. Another highlight in the Zone: the US Coast Guard’s newest variant, an Airbus MH-65E Dolphin multi­mission helicopter from USCG Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama.

For small-business owners, HAI staff reprised their popular Communications University sessions offering tips and techniques that operators can use to promote their businesses on social media and when hosting a visit from a member of Congress. Other Comms U sessions covered crisis communications and digital marketing.

Earlier in 2023, HAI had announced its Salute to Excellence winners. These vertical aviation professionals from all areas of the industry, nominated by their peers and chosen for outstanding achievement, were presented with their awards at a reception on Monday evening.

The show floor also featured a display of the winning photographs from ROTOR magazine’s annual photo contest. The contest invites entries in five categories, each representing an aspect of the helicopter industry, and receives submissions from hundreds of photographers around the world. In addition to the five category winners, ROTOR magazine also selects a grand prize winner. The winning photographs were also featured in the March 2023 issue of ROTOR.

A Year to Celebrate

On Dec. 13, 2023, HAI will observe its 75th anniversary. This year’s Expo kicked off a yearlong celebration of the association’s service to members and the greater vertical aviation industry that will culminate at HAI HELI-EXPO 2024 in Anaheim, California, Feb. 26–29. The theme: Building Tomorrow. Learn more at heliexpo.com and mark your calendars!

“When I talked with exhibitors, they said pretty much from Day 1 they’ve been steady with appointments and walk-ins, and that’s everyone from the big manufacturers to the smaller businesses that are the backbone of our industry,” says Viola. “More companies brought extra staff to meet with potential customers, and they were hitting their ROI [return on investment] right out of the gate.”


Supply Chain Woes and Creative Solutions

With pent-up demand causing an increase in orders, almost every vertical aviation OEM acknowledges that one key issue—the supply chain—is affecting delivery. Experiences differ, but the outcome is the same, as these HAI HELI-EXPO exhibitors explain.

“What’s holding us back is the availability of critical parts due to suppliers having difficulty purchasing raw materials,” says Leon Silva, vice president of global commercial and military systems at Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company. “Ukraine and Russia are both large suppliers of titanium, for example. So we’re seeing extended lead times for parts.”

Nicolas Chabée, vice president of helicopter engines marketing and sales at Pratt & Whitney Canada, adds that the foundries used to cast parts have limited availability. “We are above our targets in all platforms …, but we are competing with all manufacturing for casting,” Chabée says.

Chabée also notes that, in the past, demand in the helicopter industry sales cycle typically alternated between the commercial sector and the military/paramilitary sector. Increased tensions in Europe and a recovering commercial market mean demand is strong in both sectors, further increasing the need for engines.

Leonardo reports an excellent year with increased commercial sales and boosted military sales in part due to replacing grounded Russian Mi-8 helicopters. What’s more, Bell’s US Army future long-range assault aircraft (FLRAA) win in December for the V-280 tiltrotor provides validation for Leonardo’s investment in the civilian AW609.

But for Leonardo, getting parts and materials remains challenging and runs deeper than the supply-chain issue. “We have to be very careful with inflation, the supply chain, and the financial crisis, both with the war and international trade crisis,” says Roberto Garavaglia, senior vice president of strategy and innovation. “We aerospace and defense industries need to critically review our supply-chain sources and find new sources. We also need to attract new, young talent to STEM careers, as that is another shortage.”

OEMs are attacking supply-chain difficulties in a variety of ways.

Rolls-Royce is in a slightly better position than other companies, ironically because of a difficult situation before the pandemic, when it was experiencing massive turbine-wheel backlog and materials shortages. During the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, the engine manufacturer entered into favorable long-term purchase agreements for materials. As a result, it is now receiving its raw materials at significantly lower, locked-in rates.

“Our engines are built from … 40% [parts] made in-house,” explains Scott Cunningham, Rolls-Royce program director for helicopters. “We are in a strong position on the make side with raw materials.”

Robinson Helicopter Company is similarly limited by vendors’ abilities to deliver. Sales are back to prepandemic levels but could be even higher.

“Our biggest problem is we have too big of a backlog,” says President Kurt Robinson. The company is running two shifts with more than 1,030 employees and plans to hire another 70. The holdup now is outsourced parts and supply.

To free up space and labor at the factory, Robinson is outsourcing overhauls, work it traditionally performed in-house, to Robinson service centers wherever possible.

Bell is experiencing its own pressures. In addition to work related to its new FLRAA contract, the production line for all aircraft is almost sold out for 2023. What’s more, many of Bell’s suppliers support military contracts, which always take priority over commercial customers.

“When we have delays in getting parts, we have to be creative,” says Bell Director of Commercial Programs Michael Nault, although he notes that the workaround can create inefficiencies. “We skip the part installation and keep the aircraft moving down the line, coming back to add parts later as they come in.”

Airbus Helicopters has seen a 15% increase in helicopter sales over last year, but supply-chain concerns will cap how quickly the company can deliver, Airbus Helicopters President Romain Trapp told ROTOR.

With Airbus having both helicopter and commercial airplane divisions, “the demands on materials and parts manufacturing from the commercial airline industry are quite visible to Airbus Helicopters,” Trapp says.

To tackle the supply-chain issue, Airbus invested $150 million in parts inventory worldwide to anticipate customer need. The company also strengthened its ability to provide customer support by increasing that staff by 34%.

Author

  • 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.

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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.