The association’s rebranding, record-breaking attendance make this year’s show one for the ages.

The numbers confirm it: HAI HELI‑EXPO 2024 was an astounding success. A record-breaking 15,000 attendees from 87 countries walked the halls of the Anaheim Convention Center in California in February, up from more than 12,400 last year. News of the show’s attendance levels was eclipsed only by the major announcement of the event: the unveiling of the association’s new identity, along with the new name of its annual conference and trade show.

At the Welcome Reception and Rebrand Reveal on Feb. 26, HAI Chair Nicole Battjes revealed that the organization would henceforth be known as Vertical Aviation International, or VAI. Designed to represent the association’s support of the entire vertical aviation community, the rebranding included renaming HAI HELI-EXPO, the world’s largest vertical aviation trade show, as VERTICON.

Overnight, new VAI branding went up throughout the convention center and VAI-branded shirts, name tags, publications, and swag were pulled out for the first day of exhibits on Feb. 27.

“This year’s show was historic because of three things: celebrating our 75th anniversary; being back in California, where our organization was founded in 1948; and unveiling our new branding,” says VAI President and CEO James Viola. “As our industry changes with new technology, it is important for our organization to evolve to ensure we are representing and supporting the entire industry.”

One of the biggest stories from HAI HELI-EXPO 2024 in Anaheim, California, was the news that the show’s producer, Helicopter Association International, was adopting a new name and identity, Vertical Aviation International (VAI). Here, Board Chair Nicole Battjes, flanked by the association’s Board of Directors, makes the announcement at the Monday Welcome Reception and Rebrand Reveal.

And, notes Viola, while the association’s name no longer includes the word “helicopter,” the aircraft will continue to be important to the group’s purpose. “Helicopters are not going away,” he affirms. “They are vital in so many critical missions around the world.

“Just as when we changed our name years ago to include ‘international’ as an acknowledgment of our growing global membership,” Viola continues, “our new name today encompasses all aspects of the vertical flight industry, including helicopters, eVTOL, UAV, UAM, and all the developing and future technology that drives these modes of flight.”

Supply-Chain Issues Persist

The mood on the show floor was optimistic during the three days exhibits were open, Feb. 27–29, with hundreds of sales of aircraft and products taking place and historic partnerships and agreements announced.

Bart Reijnen, president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. and head of the company’s North America region, accurately summed up the state of the industry as “a time of transition.” For the OEM, this transition included not only Reijnen taking the helm from Romain Trapp (the new EVP of customer support and services at the firm’s parent company, Airbus Helicopters) but also, from Reijnen’s point of view, the industry as a whole dipping in 2023 after two years of steady post-COVID growth.

“In terms of North America bookings, when you include all the different OEMs, the market is down 15% or more, which came as a surprise after two years of growth,” Reijnen said. “That’s why I call it a transition. It’s also a transition in the sense that [Airbus has] invested a lot in new helicopters. [In] 2024, we’ll see deliveries of those aircraft and their entry into service.”

Reijnen suggests the dip is a result of the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world we live in today. Everything from the air ambulance market’s uncertainty surrounding the No Surprises Act to an overall industry-wide difficulty acquiring insurance and meeting higher insurance premiums to dealing with labor shortages adds to the complexity for the entire vertical aviation community.

The Wisk Aero Generation 6 air taxi drew lots of visitors. The company’s four-seat electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft is designed for autonomous operations.

The primary challenge across the industry, however, remains supply-chain issues. Whether raw materials or manufactured components, engines, and parts, reduced supply and skyrocketing demand continued to increase costs and competition.

“Nobody wants to hear COVID as an excuse, but we’re still feeling the impact of the pandemic, coupled with the fact that small- and medium-sized suppliers aren’t buying a ton of material,” explained Eric Schreiber, international business development director for Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company. “[Suppliers] are first going to liquidate their current stock, which then causes lead times across the entire supply chain to elongate, which in turn creates much longer lead times on high-demand raw materials.”

Now a full year out of bankruptcy, MD Helicopters is continuing to see significant increases in lead times from suppliers, pushing the recovering OEM’s timeline out another 6 to 12 months before it’s reached its targeted levels of parts supply available to ship within 24 hours. The company has made progress in the past year, with 80% of its targeted parts in stock. Like many others, the company is adding more suppliers.

“We’re working our way down the supply chain, with each step [requiring] people and face-to-face meetings,” said MD Helicopters President and CEO Brad Pedersen. “We’re sharing production and aftermarket plans and signing LTAs [long-term agreements] to help suppliers prepare to support our needs.”

Engine manufacturers lamented similar constraints, with Rolls-Royce, Safran, GE, and Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) all facing long lead times for both raw materials and precision parts made from those materials as demand for engines and engine support increases.

“Demand is huge right now, with utilization increasing, especially with replacement aircraft for grounded Russian helicopters, as well as older helicopters needing parts and replacement,” said Nicolas Chabée, VP of helicopter engine marketing and sales at P&WC. “We’re seeing backlogs of two years–plus that are actually growing to almost three years. The supply is where the challenge continues to be. A lot of that comes from raw-material availability.”

Hill Helicopters’ HX50 model is a clean-sheet design still in development. It promises a range of 700 nm, cruise speed of 140 kt., payload of 1,760 lb., and styling on a par with luxury automobiles—all at a base price of about $756,000.

OEMs are being creative in how they help tip the supply-chain scales in their favor, from purchasing suppliers outright to encouraging them to buy extra materials and commit to higher parts quantities in order to respond quickly to potential increases in demand. For example, Airbus and Safran last year partnered with a private equity firm to purchase raw-material processing company Aubert & Duval. MD Helicopters, meanwhile, signed longer-term contracts with suppliers to encourage the latter’s investment in increased materials procurement. And P&WC offers suppliers training in demand projection and materials purchases to help them prioritize their purchases and capacity.

“It does pay back, and we’re seeing improvement, but there are still issues,” Chabée said of P&WC’s hands-on approach with suppliers.

Guimbal reported strong sales of its Cabri G2 but with deliveries hindered by the same supply challenges. The company is continuing development of a four-seat helicopter. While both Guimbal and P&WC battle supply-chain issues, their collective steps forward in the past year highlight the tenacity of OEMs of all sizes to succeed in a VUCA world.

“For us, 2023 was dominated by the hunt for supplies, suppliers, and materials,” said Guimbal President Bruno Guimbal. “While we didn’t deliver more than 30 helicopters as we’d hoped, we still delivered, and we have almost sold out 2024.”

Historic Announcements

While HAI’s rebranding to VAI was the most visible news at HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, several other big announcements at the show also had historic significance for the industry.

On Day 1 of Expo, Kurt Robinson, president and CEO of Robinson Helicopter Co. (RHC) and son of RHC founder Frank Robinson, announced his retirement. He named former Bell engineer and senior executive David Smith as the OEM’s new president. Smith joined RHC last year as VP of operations.

The move marks the first time since the company’s founding in 1973 that RHC has not been led by a Robinson family member. The company remains privately owned by an investment firm, with the retiring Robinson holding a large share. Smith’s position at the helm marks a new era for the world’s most prolific helicopter manufacturer.

“To keep the company successful, you always have to be looking 5, 10, 15 years out, so this is not something I suddenly decided; it’s been in process for some time,” Kurt Robinson revealed. “Dave has been with us for a year and has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. His enthusiasm for the industry and Robinson has been phenomenal. The R66 has taken off, like the R22 and R44 before it, so what do we do next? This is the perfect time for a transition of leadership.”

At HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, Kurt Robinson, president and CEO of Robinson Helicopter Co., announced he would move to an advisory role in the company while remaining on its board of directors. Kurt, shown third from right with Robinson staff members and Expo visitors, was a familiar sight at the Robinson booth, having worked for 40 years in the company that his father, legendary aircraft designer Frank Robinson, founded in 1973. The company named David Smith, VP of operations, the new president and CEO.

What’s next for RHC is still under wraps, but Smith has already increased the company’s engineering team by 50%. One plan he did share during Expo was an emphasis on updating the R22 to ensure it remains relevant and modern.

“We’re having real good success with recruiting engineers,” Smith teased. “We have race-car guys, electric-vehicle people, and system-safety specialists, so it’s helped us with the early design for any project.”

Across the hall, Leonardo and Bell announced that their on-again/off-again relationship was enthusiastically back on to work together in the tiltrotor market. The two OEMs signed a memorandum of understanding during the show to evaluate opportunities for cooperation. Their first mutual project will be for the NATO Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability concept study #5, for which Leonardo will take the lead on a tiltrotor architecture proposal, with Bell in a supporting role.

“This alliance with Bell is important,” said Roberto Garavaglia, SVP of strategy and innovation at Leonardo. “We believe—as we saw when Bell’s tiltrotor was chosen [for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft program]—the rotorcraft of choice for this generation is the tiltrotor.”

Industry newcomer Hill Helicopters made its Expo debut with a mock-up of its much talked about, customer-built HX50 personal helicopter. Designed entirely in-house from the ground up, including avionics and engine, the sleek carbon-fiber aircraft was surrounded by a steady, curious crowd throughout the show. The HX50, which more resembles a luxury automobile than a conventional aircraft, is not yet in production. However, Founder and Chief Engineer Jason Hill reported that more than 1,200 orders are already in for the experimental helicopter and its commercial counterpart, the HC50.

Meanwhile, underdogs Schweizer and Enstrom reported steady progress and growth, with the two piston OEMs announcing industry-first insurance programs and advancements for their airframes. Both manufacturers have negotiated with insurance providers to develop favorable rates for their aircraft’s owners and operators based on their helicopters’ lower accident and incident rates compared with other aircraft in their categories—mainly Robinsons.

With the cost of insurance becoming a barrier to aircraft ownership, both Schweizer and Enstrom noted the importance of securing lower-cost insurance. Schweizer also hinted about conducting research into a future five-seat model. The current S300 series seats up to three people, while the OEM’s turbine S333 seats four.

Both companies reported international sales and busy assembly lines, and Schweizer highlighted its new OEM Certified Helicopters offering, an overhaul and refurbishment program in which the OEM purchases Schweizer 300C and 300CBi models regardless of airworthiness and either overhauls or refurbishes them for sale at lower than new prices.

“There are a lot of good aircraft still out there that have [been waiting for] parts,” Schweizer CEO David Horton said. “This program helps get that existing fleet back in the sky while giving customers options based on their budget.”

As the lights went down on HAI HELI-EXPO 2024, attendees were reminded again of a new chapter for the annual trade show, with an invitation to join VAI at VERTICON in Dallas, Texas, Mar. 10–13, 2025 (exhibits open Mar. 11–13).

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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.