THE HELICOPTER INDUSTRY BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES
By Frédéric Lert
Copyright : Airbus Helicopters
Helicopter manufacturers continue to wait for better times. In an ever-challenging economic climate combined with multiple accidents that have not spared any of the sector’s major players, the helicopter industry is still facing strong headwinds. The storm is not expected to abate before 2018, at the earliest.
IT WILL STILL BE SOME TIME BEFORE A CELEBRATORY MOOD RETURNS TO THE HELI EXPO TRADE SHOW, WHICH WILL BE HELD THIS YEAR IN DALLAS, TEXAS. IN EARLY 2017, THE COMMERCIAL HELICOPTER WORLD STILL REMAINS PROFOUNDLY IMPACTED BY THE COMBINED EFFECTS OF A SLUGGISH OIL ECONOMY, WITH PRICES THAT ARE NOT WORTH GETTING THE MACHINE GOING AGAIN, ALONG WITH A SERIES OF PARTICULARLY UNSETTLING ACCIDENTS. YET, HELICOPTER MANUFACTURERS HAVE NOT LOST HOPE AND CONTINUE TO PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE BY INVESTING IN NEW MODELS. THEY ARE ALL VYING TO BE WELL POSITIONED WITH INNOVATIVE AIRCRAFT WHEN GROWTH PICKS UP AGAIN.
Airbus Helicopters is still claiming the leader title in the civil and parapublic market with 47% of deliveries in 2016, outperforming its closest three competitors combined: Leonardo (21%), Bell (18%) and Sikorksy (5%). The French and German helicopter manufacturer delivered 418 rotorcraft and racked up orders for another 353 last year, all segments combined. An encouraging figure that is 20 units higher than in 2015. It is also slightly above expectations and will undoubtedly give the Marignane-based manufacturer some welcome news after the accident in 2016 of an H225 operated by CHC in Norway. The flight ban is still in place in the United Kingdom and Norway, even though the EASA lifted its restrictions. The paradox however is that military sales of the H225M family kept up a steady pace over the year, with contracts signed in Kuwait and Singapore and a victory in Poland marred by the political aspect of the deal. Besides the H225 family, Airbus Helicopters is working hard on its two new rotorcraft, the H160 and H175, to carry it into the future. The H160 – that is currently undergoing its certification trials and whose launch customer may be announced during the trade show – must be able to outshine Leonardo’s AW139 (formerly AgustaWestland) that has rapidly been gaining ground from the Dauphin family. The H175 still however needs to prove a commercial success in the face of a very turbulent and unfavorable environment.
US manufacturer Bell also experienced its fair share of trouble in 2016 with the loss of its first B525 Relentless prototype in July during a high-speed trial. The remaining aircraft have been grounded but Bell is still counting on certification by late 2018, the test aircraft 4 and 5 are expected to be completed before the end of the year to take part in the trials. Bell still reports 80 letters of intent to purchase, and the manufacture of long-cycle parts for the first aircraft series has already begun. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bell 505 received its Canadian certification at the end of 2016 and is expected to receive FAA certification at the time of publication. The helicopter manufacturer Mirabel, having announced the end of production of its 206L4 model in the first half of 2017, reported that of the 400 letters of intent 80% were transformed into firm orders. But even assuming the commercial success of the B505, this alone cannot safeguard Bell’s future. That would require beefing up the mid-range segment with a replacement of the ageing 412 model. Could Heli Expo be the occasion for it to announce its successor, and why not by using breakthrough technology (tilting propellers) that are currently on the agenda in the military sector?
New technology is also an outstanding question for Leonardo as it pursues at all costs the certification work on its convertible AW609. Flights started again in August, ten months after the accident that destroyed a prototype and resulted in the loss of its crew. The current objective is to obtain certification in 2018, planned for use in the oil & gas industry in partnership with Bristow, as well as remote medical evacuation in collaboration with the ERA Group and maritime rescue (the United Arab Emirates are studying the use of the aircraft for this purpose). Not to mention the possibility in Italy of an AW209 that could replace or support the AW109. Closing in on the lead of the “majors”, Sikorsky is still suffering more than its competitors from the drop in civil sales related to the current difficulties in the oil sector. The only two aircraft in its civil segment, the S76D and S92, depend directly on the oil & gas industry. The situation became even more dire with the accident on December 28 of an S92 on a platform in the North Sea, which has resulted in the grounding of the entire fleet. Lastly there is Robinson, whose successful entry into the turbine helicopter market with the R66 enabled it to maintain its head above the water. Robinson delivered 347 aircraft in 2015. However, this figure dropped sharply in 2016 with only 234 deliveries, including 63 R66 and 140 Raven 4-seaters. The remainder include Cadets (optimized for training) and the R22 two-seater. However on this last point Robinson is being overshadowed by the French manufacturer Guimbal, which is expected to report on its 2016 performance and 2017 forecast at the Heli Expo trade show.