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The Twin Decision: What Does The Future Hold?

February 20, 2008  By Ken Pole

It’s definitely a swinging singles market out there and despite all kinds of opportunities to double-date, Canadian helicopter operators are expected to stay with their old loves for the foreseeable future. This isn’t to say that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) would not like to see more twin-engine

Certified by Transport Canada last year, Eurocopter’s first EC135 was recently purchased by Vancouver Island Helicopters (VIH).
(Photo by Paul Morrison)

It’s definitely a swinging singles market out there and despite all kinds of opportunities to double-date, Canadian helicopter operators are expected to stay with their old loves for the foreseeable future. This isn’t to say that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) would not like to see more twin-engine

helicopters in the domestic market, especially the latest generation of light twins, and there seems to be some movement in that direction.

Our relatively stable economy and renewed interest by operators and OEMs could be the key, but current fleets of reliable and well-maintained singles present a challenge. Even though large numbers are 1960s technology, many have been significantly upgraded. A notable example of the latter is the Bell 206, with B and L models still in production at Bell Helicopter Textron Canada (BHTC) in Mirabel, Que. The latest upgrade kits for this fifth-generation platform, which first flew 41 years ago, are designed to enhance performance and payload while reducing operating costs. That could well mean this single-engine aircraft will remain the helicopter of choice for many operators in Canada and elsewhere.


Director of business development at BHTC, Michel Legault, demurred at the suggestion that the prevalance of older but still reliable single-engine aircraft is problematic. “The twin market is slightly different,” he pointed out, citing the fact that there were no really effective airframe/engine/transmission packages 20 years ago. “We’re still at the early stage in the market for light twins” and since capital costs are unavoidably higher, “if you don’t need a twin, then you’re not going to buy one.”

Bell’s latest entry into the light twin market is its 429.

Legault said it would be “tough” to forecast accurately the size of the potential Canadian market for light twins, but he speculated that “it’s probably going to go into two digits a year” in the not-too-distant future. He also said that BHTC’s director of marketing, Denis Lacroix, estimates that the market here is about 10 years behind the US. Given that there was a “big move” to light twins in the US 10 years ago, the time was ripe for Canadian opportunities.

In some markets, principally Europe, regulatory initiatives and proposals continue to drive growing interest in twin-engine helicopters – mainly because of perceived safety advantages. However, that perception is offset somewhat by higher operating costs, most notably fuel costs as world oil prices continue to hover at steadily rising record levels. European regulators evidently have been pressing the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to buy into the twins policy, but Brian Jenner, president of the Helicopter Association of Canada, suggested that ICAO has backed away because of counter-pressure from the US and Canada, where a lot of flying isn’t over densely-populated areas.

Of the hundreds of helicopters registered with Transport Canada as of December, the overwhelming majority are single-engine, with BHTC dominating the turbine market and Schweizer Aircraft, a New York-based Sikorsky Aircraft subsidiary since 2004, staying focused on the piston-engined end of the spectrum.

Of the nearly 240 twins on the Canadian registry (a number which fluctuates regularly) in December, 33 were in the heavy category at 6,000 kilograms or more, 164 were 3,000-6,000kg mediums and 41 were in the light category. Twenty-four of the light twins were in Ontario, including 14 Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) BO 105S models, eight Aerospatiale AS355 variants, two Bell 429s, one Bell 427 and a Eurocopter EC135 P2+. There are five AS355s and three 427s in Quebec; three AS355s, an Agusta A109All and an MBB LS A-3 in British Columbia; another 427 in Nova Scotia; one AS355 each in Alberta and Manitoba.

Broken down by their OEMs, that works out to 18 Aerospatiale light twins, 15 MBBs, seven Bells, two Eurocopters and one Agusta. Not included in those is the newest addition to the light twin fleet: the first EC135 sold in Canada by Eurocopter (its Ontario aircraft is a corporate demonstrator). It has been bought by Vancouver Island Helicopters (VIH), which plans to use it for general utility work before eventually deploying it on the company’s EMS contract with the provincial government.

Certified by Transport Canada last year, as was the medium-class EC145, the EC135 “breaks the new generation light twin-engine barrier in this market,” says Tony Brown, vice-president, sales, for Eurocopter Canada. “Traditionally, Canadian helicopter operators have chosen single-engine rotorcraft due to their lower purchasing and operating costs. However, the redundant safety margin offered by twin engine helicopters is changing minds here.”

A US registered law enforcement 902 used in New York.

Canadian operators’ preference for light singles is long-standing. Honeywell Commercial Aerospace – whose involvement in the rotary market ranges from components to fully integrated systems, from new build to retrofit – regularly assesses the situation. Details of Honeywell’s 10th Turbine-Powered Civil Helicopter Purchase Outlook weren’t being released until Heli-Expo 2008 February 24-26 in Houston, but a perusal of previous outlooks is informative, given their “directional” accuracy. While the eventual numbers may not be precise, the trends have been spot-on. These kinds of forecasts are vulnerable to an array of factors such as economic downturns, surges in fuel costs, and increased user fees and/or taxes.

The Phoenix-based company’s latest forecast, released at HAI-Expo 2007 in Orlando, was based on inputs from nearly 1,000 flight departments in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The survey queried 919 chief pilots and flight department managers at companies operating over 2,400 helicopters worldwide. The 2007 outlook was for deliveries of some 3,500 new civil helicopters through to 2011, driven partly by strong demand for light singles and intermediate twins. “Global demand projections now stand at over 8,000 new … deliveries in the period 2007-2017, reflecting industry conditions that have never looked stronger in recent history,” added Vicki Panhuise, vice-president (commercial and military helicopters) in Honeywell’s Defense and Space Division.

Law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS) and corporate helicopters were expected to account for more than 60% of all new civil buys during the forecast period. Panhuise said avionics capabilities, performance and direct operating costs were main drivers in prospective new buys. “The decision to acquire new helicopters is driven primarily by the age of current aircraft which is usually reflected in an operator’s desire for better technology, more range, more power and lower operating costs.”

In North America, law enforcement was expected to account for fully 35% of all prospective acquisitions, with Homeland Defense funding for local acquisitions in the US a key factor in the post-9/11 environment. EMS demand in North America was expected to be relatively stable in 2007 at 25% of planned new purchases compared with 24% in the 2006 survey, second only to law enforcement. Planned corporate purchases were expected to decline slightly, to some 11%.

“The 2007 outlook projects annual turbine helicopter delivery levels exceeding 700 units in the near term, with survey-based indications that latent demand could drive rates even higher if capacity limits are not encountered,” Panhuise said. “The improved … outlook is also boosted by potential new OEM entrants offering affordable high-value platforms stimulating demand and drawing new operators into the turbine segment.”

The survey continued to show that there was little trade-up expectation globally as more than 80% of new buys in 2007 were expected to be replacements for older aircraft in the same size/capability and price class. Only 11-12% of operators planned to move up to more capable and, hence more expensive, platforms. “There is no indication that a demand decline is likely to occur in the near future,” Honeywell said.

Previous surveys had indicated that more than half of European fleet renewal and expansion involved twins, reflecting regulatory changes. The pattern was expected to hold true for 2007 with 53% of new buys being multi-engine helicopters. That said, singles were nearly as strong for the second year in a row at 47% of planned buys compared with an approximately 30% average in 2005 and earlier.

In North America, where there are no current or pending regulations which compel the purchase of more twins, 70% of new buys were going to be single-engine aircraft in 2007. Barring unanticipated changes, Panhuise said the singles share of the market was not expected to change in the foreseeable future.

Of the light twins available to the domestic market, Eurocopter Canada, based in Fort Erie, Ont., says its EC135 “showcases tomorrow’s technology for today’s cost-conscious missions while keeping operating costs to an absolute minimum.” It features a Full Authority Digital Electronic Control (FADEC) system for state-of-the-art power management, optimizing performance, safety and fuel efficiency from startup to shutdown. It made its North American debut in 1995 at Heli-Expo in Las Vegas and sales have since topped the 700 mark.

Both the Pratt & Whitney PW206B2-powered 135P2i and the Turbomeca Arrius 2B2-powered 135T2i provide “exceptional” performance on one engine with maximum emergency power of 609 kW/816 shp. With one pilot and up to seven passengers or with two pilots and up to six passengers, it tops out at 259kph or 140 knots at a maximum weight and has a range of up to 635km or 342 nautical miles. Its flat cabin floor suits the EC135 particularly well to a range of missions due to the ease with which the interior can be swapped out.

Eurocopter Canada’s new president, Marie-Agnès Veve, an aerospace engineer with extensive experience on the EADS company’s other rotary platforms, is buoyed by the recent sale to VIH even though Tony Brown says it remains to be seen just how many twins will be sold in Canada because of their higher capital and operating costs. “What I can say is that overall demand for helicopters has been growing in Canada; particularly in the corporate sector. Interestingly, the oil and gas companies don’t just want twins for passenger carriage – they also want to use them for aerial seismic work.”

Veve, meanwhile, is confident of long-term prospects for the twin market. The parent company’s order book does have an unspecified number of EC135s on the list, including eight P2i versions ordered by the Austrian interior ministry for police operations. The first four are scheduled for delivery by March and will be deployed at the globally televised 2008 European Football Champ­ionship.

Bell, meanwhile, seems to be pinning its light-twin hopes on the 429, on which the design team “froze” the final exterior profile in October after months of development flight testing with two prototypes. “This moves us much closer to our certification and beginning delivery goal of the end of 2008,” said Robert Fitzpatrick, senior vice-president, marketing and sales at Bell Helicopter Textron headquarters in Fort Worth, Tex.

The EC135 meets FAR 29 requirements, which is exactly what oil-and-gas clients are looking for. (Photo by Vitek Zawada)

Billed as “quite possibly the most advanced light twin ever created”, the 429 concept was unveiled at Heli-Expo 2005 in Anaheim, Calif. Bell, which is understood to have received more than 240 “customer purchase agreements,” plans to ramp up annual production at Mirabel to 60 aircraft by 2011.

Most flight testing of the two 429 prototypes has taken place at Mirabel with only the “hot” and “high” elements being done in the US, explained Michel Legault, director of business development at BHTC. They were being sent north for cold-weather testing, likely in February, and the addition of the three first production models off the line at Mirabel to the test fleet will set the stage for certification later this year.

“Performance specifications, low operating costs and onboard advanced technology equipment make the 429 extremely adept at typical helicopter missions,” Bell says. With an empty weight of 1,950kg and a useful load of 1,225kg, the 429 has an average cruise speed of around 260km/h, and a no-reserve range of 648km. (The respective numbers on Bell’s other light twin, the 427, are 1,760kg, 2,971kg, 246km/h and 716km.)

“It is particularly suited for the emergency medical evacuation mission with a large cabin, easy access doors and a rear-door entry option,” Bell says of the 429. “Also, law enforcement agencies have found that the 429 will efficiently carry the people and equipment necessary for their vital missions.”

Bell’s first venture into the light-twin market was the Honeywell/ Lycoming-powered 222, which was announced in 1974 and had its first flight in August 1976. It incorporated advanced features for the time, including dual hydraulic and electrical systems, stub wings housing retractable undercarriage, and a vibration reduction system developed for the 214ST. Deliveries of the 222 began in early 1980 and variants followed in 1982 and 1983. An Allison-powered 230 variant followed with other refinements and production continued until 1995 as Bell replaced it with the stretched and more powerful 430, which now is a medium-category aircraft.

Notably absent from the Canadian light twin registry is MD Helicopters, formerly an arm of McDonnell Douglas which merged with Boeing in 1993 and which then was sold off in 1998 when US authorities blocked Boeing’s plans to sell MD to Bell. Headquartered in Mesa, Ariz., MD offers only one aircraft in that class,

the P&WC-powered MD902 Explorer, with its unique NOTAR anti-torque tail and an all-composites airframe. The eight-place aircraft weighs in at 1,531kg empty and 3,130kg loaded; it cruises at 248km/h and has a range of 476km.

Market resistance is often difficult to fathom. Pilots who have flown the NOTAR platform love it for its relative quiet and simplicity (conventional tail boom driveshafts and supplementary gearboxes are replaced by a fuselage-housed fan exhausted out the boom), but others who haven’t flown it are discomfited by the notion of a helicopter with no tail rotor.

Colorado-based Brett Gardner, MD’s Central Region sales and marketing manager whose marketing area includes Canada, acknowledged that although MD Helicopters has had promising leads for potential MD902 sales in this country, the order book still had nothing to show for them at the end of 2007.

“We’re seeing a bit of penetration for new aircraft … but we haven’t really been able to make it work out on the twin side with any Canadian customers,” Gardner says. He also acknowledged that MD has not made “a major push up there with … demo ships or anything like that.”

He predicted that once exposed to the MD902, which he said is possibly the best light twin in the world on a single engine, Canadian operators would quickly come to appreciate its capabilities, especially in over-water environments which add to safety concerns.

Shell Oil, which has extensive operations worldwide, many of them offshore, has been in the forefront of the shift to twin-engine heli-copters. Tony Cramp, its Houston-based senior aviation advisor (Americas), explained that the company has been studying the issue intensely in recent years with a view to reducing the petroleum industry’s overall “unsatisfactory” accident rate.

“The twin-or-single debate is one of the issues we’ve identified that should have a significant impact on improving safety,” Cramp said. “Obviously, where you have a lot of accidents caused by engine failures and failure to make a safe forced landing afterwards, then the obvious way of eliminating those accidents is to fly around in a twin-engine helicopter.”

The former Royal Navy pilot with 19 years in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft quickly added that flight over terrain also is fundamentally safer in twins. “We do use single-engine aircraft within Shell, but our policies drive us toward avoiding the use of single-engine aircraft over what we consider ‘hostile’ terrain. If the terrain does not make it likely that you can carry out a safe forced landing, then we need to be looking at the use of twin engines where possible…. By and large, that’s the direction we’re going, those are the policies we’re pushing and why we’re looking, certainly within Canada, to identify alternatives in the light twin market. At the moment, unfortunately, the majority of the Canadian fleet is what we’d term ‘legacy’ aircraft…. That generation of aircraft is one that we want to move away from as a group policy.”

Asked whether he is considering any specific helicopters, Cramp demurred. “Not that I’m going to say at this stage!” he chuckled. “We’re doing studies at the moment to look at what aircraft are available. We already operate some light twins offshore…. I know there’s a certain amount of interest up there at the moment as to which way our study’s going to go and which light twins we’re going to be pointing at.

“We operate the (Agusta) 109 and the (Eurocopter) 135 offshore, but we’ve got to look at what the job is and how those particular aircraft are suited for that particular job. A lot of our onshore helicopter support is vertical reference and we’ve got to be sure that whatever aircraft we go to is not only safer in terms of number of engines but is also capable of carrying out the task we need it for.”

Cramp did admit that “probably the single most important factor or the one that’s going to have the most influence” on Shell’s choice of aircraft is a preference for newer-generation aircraft because of the vast number of safety features that are now built into late-certification JAR27, JAR29 or FAR27-FAR29 aircraft. “Just moving to those gives you a huge amount of added safety.”

Although that might imply an insurance cost offset to higher capital costs, he said that has been a difficult issue. “It’s something we’ve approached the insurance industry about on a number of occasions,” he said. “It’s very much market-driven as to how interested the insurance industry is in either the aircraft type, the equipment fit or the standards of the operator. Some of the insurance companies do give some alleviation for that; others don’t. It’s something we’d certainly like to see and would encourage, that if an operator is a particularly good one with good systems and standards in place and operating aircraft to a higher specification, then, yes, we’d like to see some incentives. It would encourage people to upgrade and to bring in new machines.”

That view is obviously shared by Charlie Mooney, general manager at VIH, headquartered at Victoria International Airport with operations throughout Western Canada as well as in Newfoundland, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska and China. VIH Helicopters flies 65 helicopters of varying sizes and has 26 more on order.

“The EC135 meets FAR 29 requirements, which is exactly what our oil-and-gas clients have been asking for,” Mooney said. “They want new technology equipment with twin-engine reliability.”

As Tony Brown put it, “times are changing in Canada.”


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