Power Vision

David Carr
July 11, 2007
By David Carr
Heli-Expo 2005 may well be remembered as the event when engine manufacturers flexed their muscle. Honeywell served notice it intends to aggressively restore its place as a major player in the civilian helicopter market. Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) launched the PW210 (see On The Fly) and Lycoming Engine’s new general manager, Ian Walsh, openly discussed the company’s innovation strategy.

Radical innovation does not spring instantly to mind when thinking of Lycoming, a reliable engine manufacturer that has steadily built up an impressive 70% share of the US piston-powered helicopter fleet on the strength of fine-tuning 60-year-old designs.

“That installed base is really solid. It is no different than Bell with a strong base in the marketplace,” Walsh told Helicopters. “We’re not departing from what we’re very good at. But one reason we have established a large share was because we didn’t have strong competition in the past. Now we do.”

Walsh, who cut his teeth on Textron military programs while still a student, is pegging the future on a new generation of engines that will be lighter, smarter and less reliant on traditional fuel sources. One of the most lucrative test beds for this innovation has been the experimental aircraft market. “The experimental market is growing rapidly. I don’t think there is one single thing you can hang your hat on and say that is the reason why it is growing. But I think that it presents a very attractive opportunity for us,” he said.

Lycoming is using experimental aircraft to test-drive the IO-390-X, a fourcylinder engine rated at 210 hp at 2,700 rpm.

Still, Lycoming’s greatest opportunity to increase market share lies in smarter engines and diesel-fuelled engines. “Look at commercial and military aviation. Fire up the cockpit and you’ve got a liquid crystal display that can tell you the exact health of your airframe. I would like to see that in the general aviation market,” Walsh said. “Sensor technology and individual awareness. It is clear to me that this is the differential that will move us forward.”

He compares the evolution of the smart engine with the cat-and-mouse game that has defined home computers. Software develops to the point where computer hardware has to catch up. “They are always playing off of each other. Airframe technology can increase and cockpit technology can increase. But it is up to us to make sure engine technology keeps pace.”

For now at least, Lycoming is content to exploit the piston market without taking a step up into turbine. “I think there is an interesting dynamic between pistonengine technology and turbine-engine technology. There is a race to get to the middle. Higher horsepower and better materials for us. Micro turbine and greater efficiency for them,” Walsh noted. “Everybody wants more horsepower and they want lighter weight.”

Diesel is a different matter, with Lycoming committed to leading the market by developing a line of diesel engines. “Is there a demand for greater fuel efficiency? Absolutely,” Walsh said. “But it is not necessarily going to be driven by fuel prices. Operators are going to look for choice. That translates into platforms that can use alternative fuels and offer greater flexibility.”

Finally, what will be the emerging trend in the civilian helicopter market over the next 25 years? “I don’t want to put a time line on it, but you are going to see infrastructure development to support vertical-lift technology being completely integrated with bus stations, train stations and as air taxis to airports,” he said. Keeping one step ahead of that trend should be enough to cement Lycoming’s market position for years to come.

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