July 29, 2015 By Rick Adams
Helicopters are not the main event at the Paris Airshow; the annual Airbus-Boeing commercial aircraft derby garners the most attention.
Nonetheless, the rotary sector generated plenty of interesting news and speculation this year from major manufacturers and niche players alike.
The dominant discussion was United Technologies Corporation’s intent to sell or spin off Sikorsky Aircraft by the end of this year. The deal went final as Helicopers was going to press, as Lockheed Martin stepped up to the plate to the tune of $9 billion.
UTC and its predecessors have owned the iconic Igor Sikorsky’s legacy for 85 years, but CEO Greg Hayes, who took over the US$65-billion conglomerate last November after the abrupt resignation of Louis Chenevert, said the $7.5 billion helicopter operation no longer “fits” with their portfolio of Pratt & Whitney engines, Otis elevators, Carrier air conditioners and Kidde fire extinguishers.
Sikorsky, of course, is strong in the large-cabin sector, (S-76, S-92) favoured by the offshore oil and gas industry, which president-since-April Bob Leduc says accounts for 80 per cent of its commercial sales. With the recent 40 per cent drop in oil prices and reduced exploration, many customers are deferring deliveries, awaiting more efficient future models. Leduc said a new medium-lift model is planned “around 2020,” but that of course will be determined by the new owners.
After Sikorsky lost in April to Airbus Helicopters on a contract from Poland for 70 multi-purpose military choppers, the Stratford, Conn. OEM announced job cuts of 1,400. They also operate Schweizer and Keystone Helicopter completions.
The Sikorsky speculation spilled over to Bell Helicopter, which in April had announced a workforce reduction of 1,100 worldwide, including 300 more positions at Mirabel in Quebec (which is down to about 1,200 staff, roughly 40 per cent less than a year earlier).
But Textron chief executive Scott Donnelly said, “We love our helicopter business. It’s a profitable business. It’s a great technology business. We’re investing a lot.”
A pair of Bell 505 Jet Ranger X prototypes are test flying, and the first certification is expected to be via Transport Canada.
The first flight of the clean-sheet Bell Relentless 525 took place July 1, delayed by supply chain issues and the regulatory hurdles for fly-by-wire controls. The entry into service target is now 2017. In Paris, Bell announced a letter of intent from Milestone Aviation Group for 20 of the super-medium 525 models.
Bell also has an agreement with the Urals Civil Aviation Plant in Yekaterinburg, Russia to assemble 407GXP light single-engine helicopters. This is the first time the Fort Worth, Texas-based company has handed over assembly to a foreign partner. The first three aircraft are expected to be ready before the end of the year.
Airbus is looking to eventually replace the Super Puma, nagged by accidents and rotor shaft problems, with its new “X6” twin-engine heavy-lift concept.
The five-blade main rotor design reflects the recently launched H160 medium helicopter (maiden flight June 13), but the X6 will incorporate fly-by-wire control and a full de-icing system. Fuel burn and overall operating costs are expected to be 20-25 per cent less than current-generation aircraft. CEO Guillaume Faury told reporters that first flight could be in the “early 2020s” and service entry within seven to eight years.
Toronto-headquartered Vector Aerospace, Airbus, and Rockwell Collins also announced an agreement in Paris to jointly develop Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics upgrades for Airbus platforms. Mission-specific operational profiles will feature offshore platform approaches, hover in place, and extended search-and-rescue patterns.
Thales is eyeing civil helicopter markets (law enforcement, emergency medical), as well as business jets and military aircraft, for a simplified helmet-mounted display system called TopMax.
The HMD shows basic flight info, navigation data, and engine parameters, and is claimed to be compatible with night vision goggles.
Finally, former Sony chief financial officer Robert Wiesenthal is leading start-up company Blade, which hopes to be the “Uber of helicopters,” providing on-demand shuttle services ordered through an online app. Last I knew, that was called a charter service.
Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy based in the south of France, and is editor of ICAO Journal. He has been writing about technology and training for 30 years.