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The Future Then & Now

A helicopter in every driveway; back in the 1940s, some helicopter promoters believed that the U.S. civil market would one day reach a million machines.


March 20, 2009
By Drew McCarthy


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A helicopter in every driveway; back in the 1940s, some helicopter promoters believed that the U.S. civil market would one day reach a million machines. That prediction, of course, never materialized. Those early proponents had underestimated many factors, especially the cost of buying and operating a helicopter. They also overestimated the ease with which people could learn to fly. Looking back, we can easily attribute these predictions to pioneering exuberance. Still, the promise of broader helicopter use has not disappeared. Almost 70 years later, in spite of the economic crisis, helicopter manufacturers are increasingly excited about the future of vertical flight.

Not surprisingly, OEM executives at the recent 2009 Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Ca., spoke cautiously about the short-term industry situation. At the airframe level, manufacturers are still working with backlogs and making deliveries. Nevertheless, the issue of customer financing remains one of the major concerns and will assuredly impact sales a little further down the road.

In spite of this reality, many executives took the opportunity to take a big picture look at the international helicopter industry, and the future of the helicopter itself. The strategy was comforting for those who came expecting gloom and doom scenarios.

Among the many presenting a positive outlook was AgustaWestland CEO Giuseppe Orsi. Orsi put things into perspective by telling an audience that the helicopter industry is in good shape and isn’t likely to suffer as a result of the economic downturn. “Our industry is solid, … doing fine,” he said. “We have a backlog of [US]$13 billion, and Eurocopter has at least the same or more. My suggestion is to look at what’s going on, not with dark glasses, but…with a lot of confidence for the future.”

Orsi went on to talk more about the future. AgustaWestland, he says, believes that the future is in the tiltrotor. The BA609, undertaken in partnership with Bell, has a maximum cruising speed of 275 kt, a service ceiling of 25,000 ft, and a maximum range of 1,000 nm. It’s that speed and range that manufacturers are counting on to expand the helicopter market.

Sikorsky VP and chief marketing officer Carey Bond was equally optimistic, not only about the near future, but also about the longer-term applicability of helicopters. Much like Orsi, Bond addressed the current situation, and then turned the conversation away from today’s issues and on to the future. Echoing comments from across much of the industry, he stressed the need for investment in technology. He also talked about the X2 Technology Demonstrator, pointing out that Sikorsky sees the future reflected in some of the key characteristics of the aircraft.

“It’s all about speed,” says Bond. “It’s all about retaining commercial helicopter flying characteristics, but [with] the productivity of higher speed.”

Sikorsky, says Bond, has also identified the goal of increasing “autonomous flight” or reduced crew flight as a way of increasing productivity. Add to this the concept of a “self-actualizing” aircraft with technologies that will allow rotor systems to reconfigure themselves based on the density-altitudes that they are flying, aircraft with the ability to understand their surroundings, to miss wires or see them, to fly in formation with other aircraft without input from the pilot, and then, yes, ultimately technology that will allow aircraft to become “self-aware.”

It’s all about technology getting to the point where these machines can do more and more things, says Bond.
While Sikorsky has positioned itself as moving determinedly towards a new technological world, virtually all of the major manufacturers are likewise heading in the same direction.

Frank Robinson has repeatedly spoken about the future of all-weather flight and the development of quieter, safer aircraft that will figure prominently in the urban transportation landscape.

And, Eurocopter is also focused on increasing its R&D. American Eurocopter president and CEO Marc Paganini pointed out at a press conference that although they talk less about what they are doing on the technology front, that doesn’t mean that they are not doing anything.

Speed, range, self-aware aircraft, reduced crew workload – some of it is already possible, the rest, many believe, is within reach. Most of it is already happening, not overnight, but in increments. The helicopter has advanced enormously over the last decade. The next 10 to 20 years promise even greater change. Will it happen? Will it be affordable? The technology is being developed; it’s not whether or not these things will happen, it’s more about when they will happen – and who will be able to take advantage of them, once they become available.


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