Heli-Expo 2002: A Sign of Returning Normalcy?
Special Report. Sometimes, an average result is an extraordinary outcome. So it was at Heli-Expo 2002. Despite the incessant blows that the rotary-wing crowd has recently suffered, the convention stats nearly matched those of last year. Companies who have literally been precluded from operating their businesses for several months rebounded and attended the show with new products in hand. AVweb's Dave Higdon reports.
Orlando - Many segments of general aviation suffered unnecessarily under the often-nonsensical constraints of our "post-nine-one-one" airspace system: flight training, electronic newsgathering and other operations heavily dominated by helicopters. In fact, some helicopter-dominated segments continued to bleed the red ink borne of illogical restrictions for nearly a dozen weeks after the terrorist attacks-by-airliners; some still do.
This state of affairs generated questions about what to expect for Heli-Expo 2002 when the rotorcraft community came together last week for its annual gathering. Coming right up to the start of the convention, HAI officials confessed that they truly lacked a sense of what to expect. "That's what we're about to find out," said HAI Vice President Glenn Rizner a few days before the convention opened.
Vendors had already purchased about 3 percent more booth space than in 2001 and Heli-Expo consumed more overall hall footage than last year. The number of helicopters expected to fly in for display inside the OCCC nearly matched the number of last year.
But the rotorcraft community gave itself something of a Valentine on February 14 by turning out in strength for the convention opening. That opening-day turnout included strong on-site registration activity, exactly what was needed to buoy advanced registrations toward the total numbers for 2001. Thereafter, it continued to grow each day to a level that surprised convention organizers by matching the attendance at last year's gathering in Anaheim.
By the end of its three-day run, on-site registrations carried attendance figures for Heli-Expo's first visit to the Eastern Time Zone in a decade comfortably into the mid-11,000 level. For comparison, Heli-Expo 2001 drew about 11,700, according to HAI.
"I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised, as you might understand," said a beaming Roy Resavage, president of the Helicopter Association International, which hosts the annual event for the benefit of its members and the helicopter community at large. "Considering what they've come through in the past few months, I think this is a proud moment for our community and a promising sign that we've come through despite the experience."
Although new product announcements were not the rule, there were new products to see and new equipment to hear about. The progress of ongoing development programs helped add a sense of progress and continuity.
But the attitude on the convention floor said as much about the strength of this community as numbers and statistics. All across the floor there were signs of recovery and a renewed sense of confidence that flavored Heli-Expo 2002.
Returned From The Brink: Some Are Back; Some Are Gone Forever
From Sales To Service To Service Sales, Recovery Seems Underway
You needed only to ask the most common question in aviation "How's business?" to hear the most-quoted answer of the convention: "It's coming back."
While it's great to know that survivors abound and new abundance appears imminent for some, there were those in the helicopter community who didn't make it through the end of 2001 with their businesses intact. It's difficult to generalize about what segments suffered most and impossible to say with certainty how many didn't survive to see Heli-Expo 2002. It is not a challenge, however, to support the perception that everybody in the community suffered to some extent.
The grounding of all VFR ops for weeks precluded factories and shops from performing production and experimental flight tests and conducting post-maintenance check flights. Flight schools could not teach. Aerial applicators could not apply their treatments. Customers could not take delivery or use their aircraft.
And the ripple effect reached into every shore of the small pond that is the helicopter community. Customers delayed orders, which caused factories to slow work, which backed up component deliveries from other vendors who were forced in turn to lay off workers or delay hiring.
While not necessarily incalculable, the assessment of the damage must go to someone better qualified than I. "It's safe to say it's into the billions," said one OEM executive, who asked not to be identified.
"And it wasn't just damage done here at home," the executive noted. "The impact rippled across continents and oceans far away because companies here at home couldn't conclude the work needed to conduct business with those overseas customers."
The operational constraints of the post-9/11 world served only to compound the problems some operators and manufacturers already suffered at the hands of struggling domestic and world economies. The uncertainties of future, unknown, restrictions served to make many a prospect even more cautious than usual at least through the end of the fourth quarter of 2001. In the weeks since New Year's Day, as the voices proclaimed, business "is coming back."
Bouncing Back: Sales Rebound On Post-9/11 Realities
Homeland Security Ripples Buoy Demand For Helicopters And Hardware
Although the long-term forecast for helicopter sales appears flat, there was little doubt that many manufacturers were celebrating a return of sales action that contrasted sharply with the doldrums of late 2001. The reasons quoted varied according to who you asked, but a common thread ran through almost every respondent's quotations: national security.
"Look, since 9/11 the government has asked a great deal more out of state and local law enforcement. We're dealing with new concerns and new needs and it all means more spending," noted an executive with one helicopter manufacturer.
Said an exec from a competing company, "A year ago, the politicians and bureaucrats couldn't pinch a penny any harder; today, they are all in line for more money to cover more ground in more ways."
Border security, local emergency needs, better preparedness. All these reasons and more are leading more government entities to find more money for more hardware. "These folks aren't embarking on a spending spree," said a supplier of specialty medical equipment, "as much as they're looking to fulfill needs they've long known about but lacked the bucks to fulfill."
"More defense department spending, new spending for homeland security, and more concerns about local needs it's all driving a sense of need that officials are finally ready to address."
That said, forecasts of flat long-term growth don't seem to portend a long-term impact on helicopter sales. That is to say, what's sold in the next few years could be at the expense of sales later in the decade.
According to Forecast International's World Rotorcraft Forecast, sales through 2010 will total just over 9,200 helicopters worth about $18 billion. Last year brought a reversal of a three-year decline with an increase in helicopter deliveries attributable primarily to piston helicopter sales with most of those coming from Robinson.
That reversal of fortune combined with an outlook for stable future sales to help buoy attitudes at Heli-Expo 2002 in marked contrast to the last three somewhat depressing conventions. But it's not necessarily all good news for everyone. Competitive positions change. For example, last year Eurocopter booked 375 orders, overtaking perennial turbine-helicopter sales leader Bell. But Bell put on a solid show and a new front designed to show customers that it's paying closer attention to support and quality in hopes of recapturing its lead slot, making note that former Cessna chairman Russ Meyer is actively involved in Textron's aviation segment as the head man over Bell, Cessna and Lycoming.
And there's juggling likely to happen among the other players in the field, such as MD Helicopters Inc., Sikorsky, Schweizer and industry sales leader Robinson. It should be a dynamic decade.
The New, The Improved, And The Innovative
Humans seldom show signs of wanting to stand still at least, humans with dreams of wings and flying machines at the core of their being. So it is in all other segments of aviation; so it was at Heli-Expo 2002.
As noted earlier, this year's HAI convention won't go down in history on the basis of its new-product announcements. And realistically, every year can't be a banner year for using the new-and-improved as a yardstick for success. Nonetheless, Heli-Expo 2002 still delivered a few pearls worthy of the label, "Newsworthy." Here's what stood out.
Jag Brings Turbine Power To The World Of Homebuilt Kit-Copters
The biggest attention-getter of Heli-Expo 2002 came not from a major manufacturer, but from a fledgling upstart of a company that brought a full-size static model to Orlando the same way customers can expect delivery of their Jag 255 from Jag Helicopter Group LLC on a truck. That's because this sleek, sexy machine arrives as a kit, the world's first kit-copter designed from the start for turboshaft power.
"We think this is something overdue for the market," said Joe Rinke, a principal in the limited-liability company based in Roseville, Mich. "Using the Allison (Rolls-Royce) 250 solves most of the shortcomings of other homebuilt helicopters," Rinke said.
Seating two, the Jag 255 uses the 317-horsepower 250-C18 version of Rolls' venerable turboshaft engine to power a five-blade main rotor and a five-blade tail rotor with a fenestron-like shroud. The composite shell encloses a tube frame that carries the engine and transmission in a position that leaves a substantial luggage compartment aft of the cabin.
Although a prototype is still a few weeks away from its first flight, tests on the powerplant and running gear have been ongoing for weeks, according to Renke. "We're running everything to the breaking point, beyond what would be needed for a certified helicopter, so there aren't any problems in the field," he noted.
Presuming that the first flight matches Renke's confidence level, the company plans to accelerate its flying program to the point that they can display and fly the new ship in Chopper Town at EAA Sun 'n Fun in April. "We should be ready," Renke said.
What the audience will see is a homebuilt helicopter capable of cruising at 145 mph for a dry-tanks distance of 399 miles, according to company specifications. The company is working hard to keep the projected equipped empty weight at the specified 1,100 pounds so that, with 55 gallons of Jet A, the owner can enjoy a full-fuel payload of 1,600 pounds.
The price for this performance and capability: starting at about $125,000,
including engine, plus an estimated 400 hours in sweat equity. And if the
program progresses as planned, look for a four-seat growth model next year. (www.JagHelicopter.com)
A Kit Of Another Color: S-52-Inspired Kit-Copter On Comeback Trail
This bird closely resembles a Sikorsky S-52 in configuration but lacks a bit in size and horsepower. But if Vertical Aviation Technologies, the developer of the Hummingbird, gets its way, soon anyone with about $140,000 to spend can build a four-place helicopter capable of cruising at 95 knots. The kit, under development by the Sanford, Fla.-based company, actually started life in the early 1990s before being shelved after the sale of 14 kits. The price quoted includes a 260-horse IO-540 Lycoming six-cylinder engine, airframe, all the running gear and landing gear. The builder adds paint and avionics to their work to make the finished ship. Expect about an 800-hour build time, according to the company.
Eye Spy: FlyMotionCam Offers Multiple Modes For Aerial-Video Needs
Anyone who watched Turner Network Television's epic mini-series "Gettysburg" has seen just one aspect of this new ship's capabilities in the low, bird's-eye shots of soldiers streaming across a farm field. The developers of the FlyMotionCam say that early use of this diminutive radio-controlled ship is only the beginning.
Also on tap are an autonomous-flight mode in which the FlyMotionCam follows a pre-programmed GPS-derived course and a so-called user-friendly flight mode in which the 80-pound helicopter can be flown by almost anyone capable of handling the two-axis control yoke of a simple PC-based flight-simulator program. With a diminutive six-horsepower two-cycle engine, the FlyMotionCam can carry still and 35-millimeter motion-picture camera gear, infrared and night-vision imagine gear and transmit data or images to a ground station via an integral telemetry system.
Although developed by an individual radio-controlled helicopter hobbyist, FlyMotionCam is now a Dutch company owned by RDM Aerospace. As the full capabilities and potential of the little ship become more viable, the company expects to place FlyMotionCams in roles ranging from law enforcement to news gathering to environmental monitoring, coastal patrol, even pipeline and power-line patrol work. Depending on the equipment installed, prices range from the low-$20,000 range up to about $100,000 for one equipped for autonomous flight.
But don't expect the FlyMotionCam to deprive helicopter pilots of work. At
its size and lift capabilities, there will still be plenty of work for full-size
helicopters lifting logs, installing roof-top equipment, rescuing the stranded
and airlifting the injured.
Say No More: PS Engineering Unveils New Helicopter Audio Panel
As usual, the folks in Lenoir, Tenn., have been busy over the winter with new projects designed to improve the hearing capabilities of general aviation pilots focusing this time on the helicopter segment. Among the new products introduced by PS Engineering at Heli-Expo 2002 was the PAC24, an audio panel designed as a plug-and-play replacement for the King KMA24-71 or KMA24H.
Common in many high-performance airplanes and rotorcraft, the King unit lacks the advances built into the PAC24 including PSE's exclusive IntelliVox voice-activated intercom control, split and patented "swap" modes, CVR output, a full-duplex mode for use with a cellular phone system, and IRS or "Internal Recording System" for playing back up to 60 seconds of radio traffic.
PSE also debuted a new Tactical Radio Adapter aimed at easing the communications demands for special-mission aircraft such as SAR and ENG ships. Basically, the TRA allows for the simple integration and control of multiple non-aviation transceivers of the kind used by police, emergency response aircraft, news and others. So PSE made the TRA to be adaptable to all aviation audio panels and non-aviation transceivers from Motorola, Icom, Midland and others.
Finally, PSE also unveiled a new product designed to improve the safety of helicopter operations: an audio-warning system for helicopter use. The PRD60 is a derivative of the Digital Warning System available with the company's popular PMA7000M-S audio panel designed to provide the pilot with a specific voice warning of a problem instead of an audio alert tone. So if the helicopter's systems detect a chip in the engine or gearbox, the PRD60 annunciates the words "Chip Detect!" It announces "Low Fuel" if fuel level drops below a specific point. The unit comes programmed with a total of six messages at a price of $499.95, with additional custom messages available for a modest charge.
Building A Better Blade: Carson's Swept-Tip Design Improves Lift
One of the most-proven ways to get a better aircraft is to start with a good one and improve its weaknesses exactly the approach taken by Carson Helicopters of Perkasie, Penn., for the venerable Sikorsky S-61. And, as is often the case, the path to improvement involved aerodynamic tweeking with an improvement in materials thrown in.
Carson is near STC approval for a new carbon-fiber, swept-tip main-rotor blade that improves the S-61 in several ways. Perhaps most notable of those improvements is a 2,000-pound increase in lift capacity over the original all-metal blades. The new blades also will enjoy a 20,000-hour lifespan, double that of the original blades. The new blades also improve the ship's cruise speed and fuel efficiency. And the company isn't resting there.
Other improvements slated for the big Sikorsky include a new design for the
tail rotor blades, fuselage strakes to improve crosswind capabilities and a
redesigned landing gear that should deliver a further enhancement in cruise speed
by as much as six to eight knots. Carson enjoys a reputation as a specialist in
the S-61 thanks to improvements the company designed and implemented in its
Sikorskys in support of logging and other heavy lift applications.
Thinking Light: Eurocopter Testing Fly-By-Light Helicopter Controls
Yes, we said "fly-by-light," as in a technology already tested by Raytheon Aircraft for potential use to command movement of flight-control surfaces. European manufacturer Eurocopter has flown a test-bed aircraft using light impulses passing through fiber-optic cables to command movement of the primary flight controls of an EC-135. With fly-by-wire controls only now coming into use on the Bell Agusta 609 civil tilt rotor and V-22 Osprey bringing with it savings in weight and complexity the advent of fly-by-light holds promise for further weight and complexity savings, plus improvements in handling and a resistance to some problems inherent in control systems based on electrical impulses traveling through wires.
Stimulating Simulation: Low-Cost Units Expand Training Options
Now for something completely different, if you'll pardon the Pythonism, in training devices: a Level 2 helicopter flight training device, mounted in a trailer for under a hundred grand. Hard to believe? We thought so, too, until we sampled the Professional Helicopter Simulator, or PHS, from FlyIt Simulators of Carlsbad, Calif.
That trailer sports a dual-control flight deck with functioning faux instrumentation on a flat-panel monitor and an animated ground display shown on a rear-projection screen that measures 93 inches wide by 78 inches tall. Yes, all in a trailer that stretches 18 feet in length. Configurable to match almost any helicopter, the FlyIt is approved for logging primary and instrument time, for competency checks, and for the fun of it.
The company also has approval for use of the FlyIt as a fixed-wing training device. The helicopter version includes software for Robinson's R22 and R44 piston-powered models, Schweitzer's 300 piston two-seater as well as Bell's 206B and MD Helicopter's 500E turbine helicopters.
Another option is available from Environmental Tectonics Corp. in the form of
the General Aviation Trainer II or GAT II. Although not as portable as the
FlyIt, it does offer the advantages of low costs and a motion platform for
Fight Fire With Flight: Columbia Helicopter's Chinook Hauls
It creates a downwash that would make a storm chaser run, a blast of air and debris so strong that it stings your ankles on landing. But the world's largest fire-fighter only hurts when it's hovering in ground effect, and when the Boeing 234 Chinook is used to beat down the flames of wildfires it spends less time hovering that it does dumping.
And this is one big dumper, with the ability to lift 28,000 pounds 125 percent of its empty weight. That translates to 19 hotshot firefighters headed for a hot spot, plus a 3,000-gallon Bambi Bucket with a new Powerfill pump system and a Torrentula valve capabilities that make the big ship unique.
It takes two 4,355 shp turboshaft engines to make it all work, so that at work the Chinook can dip its Powerfill intake into water only 18 inches deep, take on 3,000 gallons in about 100 seconds, and then race off to the hot spot of interest. Or you can sling a piece of equipment like a Caterpillar earth-mover and haul it up into wildfire country as high as 7,000 feet MSL.
Columbia is posting this Chinook one of eight the company owns in
Tallahassee starting this week. So if you happen to be flying around Florida
during the upcoming wildfire season, keep your head on a swivel. At the
altitudes this ship works, you'll probably be well above it when it's dumping on
fires but it's a sight you're going to want to see in action.
In The End: Gratification And Guarded Optimism
Heli-Expo 2002 May Signal Aviation's Latent Health
"I'm truly gratified that we've had a normal show," HAI president Roy Resavage told AvWeb shortly before this year's Heli-Expo ended. "We're all hoping it's a sign of how far we've come in returning to some level of normalcy despite the challenges that remain."
And challenges do remain. Operators continually fret over the frequency and nature of ever-changing rules and constraints. The creation of yet another Transportation Department bureaucracy is creating concerns within all segments of aviation and within the FAA itself, according to a number of staffers from 800 Independence Avenue in D.C.
Add all that to the moving target of security concerns among the secretive national security apparatus and you have the makings for an industry assassin. "FAA, Office of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, the NSC, local FSDO misinterpretations and local communities asking for their own special restrictions it's a wonder this industry hasn't collectively gone bankrupt," noted one FAA staffer.
But the very fact that vendor and member attendance matched last year's Heli-Expo added a sense that the worst may hopefully be behind the rotorcraft community. "I think it's a testament to the resiliency and persistence of our members that this show is the success it is," said Resavage.
If we can say some of these same things for Heli-Expo 2003, the helicopter community will have proven its long-term staying power. But that's another story for another year. Getting from here to there will be the test.