Helicopter Association International expects this year’s HeliExpo to be one of the busiest in recent memory, and the event comes amid much industry discussion about the areas that may present global business opportunities, including electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) and emergency medical services.
Some 18,000 people are expected to shoulder their way into and through the cavernous Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta, where between 50 and 60 aircraft are on display on both the show floor and in the heritage display area.
Remember, and this is a bit ironic, that no attendee is permitted to even bring a drone or unmanned aircraft onto the convention center property. The policy is listed on the HAI website right next to the children’s attendance and stroller policies (children under 18 can attend if accompanied by an adult, no stroller).
Integrating drones into the future National Airspace System and promoting their safe flight is sure to be on the minds of attendees.
Overall, 2019 looks to be an important year for aircraft certifications by the FAA and EASA, including those that await the Bell AW609 — what is to be the world’s first civilian tiltrotor — and the Airbus H160, which the French military has selected for its Helicoptere Interarmees Leger (HIL) program and which may present opportunities for Airbus in a number of civil market segments, including EMS.
Indeed, this year looks to mark a resurgence of sorts for the global helicopter industry. It should see the first single-engine IFR certification in the U.S. in decades, as both the Bell 407GXi and Leonardo Helicopters TH119 are seeking an FAA greenlight to fly in instrument meteorological conditions. The Bell 525, one of which is in Canada undergoing cold-weather testing, also is expected to be certified this year.
Across the pond, Kopter is set to gain EASA certification of the SH09 single-engine utility helicopter while a long-awaited certification is due the AW609 civilian tiltrotor this year.
Increasing oil prices are usually good news for helicopter companies serving oil and gas rigs, as those firms had felt a stagnation in the business since the drop in oil prices in 2014. But helicopter overcapacity in the oil and gas business may dampen company production of such rotorcraft in the near term, as oil and gas operators look to capitalize on their underutilized fleets, said Ray Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst at Forecast International.
Oil and gas has been a key market segment for civil helicopters.
However, helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) — designated as helicopter air ambulance by the FAA — search and rescue, law enforcement, firefighting, corporate transport and offshore wind look to be growing business segments, he said. Aerial firefighting may rise in importance because of the longer, harsher fire seasons the U.S. has seen over the last few years.
While the U.S. has been the largest HEMS market, demand has decreased in the past few years because of healthcare reimbursement issues for HEMS providers and the consolidation of EMS providers. Yet, Jaworowski noted that the EMS segment has been growing in China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region and the region “has significant potential for market growth and should help offset somewhat the slowing U.S. HEMS market.”
Jaworowski said that HEMS sales may indeed “kickstart recovery in the market,” and, as the industry “waits for demand from the oil and gas segment to revive, the HEMS segment will likely account for at least 18 to 20 percent of global demand for civil turbine helicopters.”
China looks to be an area of growth not only for its growing HEMS demand, but for other helicopter markets as well.
On the military side, the U.S. Army in 2019 will continue its work on Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft. Bell’s V-280 Valor will continue to expand its flight envelope, although the company is dubious about pouring more money into the program without more Army funding.
Boeing and Sikorsky still are hoping to fly the SB-1 Defiant compound helicopter prototype for the first time and eventually at speeds of 200 knots or more by the middle of 2019 as part of a phased flight test program worked out with the Army.
The Army has awarded General Electric (GE) a $517 million engineering and manufacturing development contract to produce its T901 single-spool engine for the Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP) to re-engine the Boeing AH-64 and Sikorsky UH-60 helicopters, and industry observers will be watching to see how this valuable project shakes out.