U.S. Regulatory Highlights
The U.S. welcomed a new administration into the White House in 2017. With it came a new secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, alongside structural changes the FAA had needed to make for years. Add to that impending mandate deadlines and evolving rules on disruptive technologies — and recently helicopters themselves — and it’s apparent that the industry likely experienced the beginning of long-term transformation.
In March, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration published its plan for the fiscal year 2018 budget. In the FAA’s section was the “privatization” of air traffic control, a multi-year reauthorization initiative to take ATC out of the FAA’s control and into an “independent, non-governmental organization.” This drew backlash from a number of associations and other entities, including Helicopter Association International, who are concerned that the proposal could give airlines too much power and diminish the rotorcraft industry’s already small voice.
The FAA did restructure in 2017, though, and it had nothing to do with privatization. Both the agency’s Aircraft Certification Service and Flight Standards Service were overhauled in the U.S.’s summer months. These were, according to the FAA, driven by the agency’s inability to keep up with technology.
In July, after more than a year of work, the FAA adopted a functional alignment of certification activities. A significant result of that alignment was that the FAA’s Transport, Small Airplane, Engine and Propeller and Rotorcraft directorates — which oversaw certification and manufacturing of aircraft and products in those categories — went away. Taking the place of the directorates will be the new Compliance & Airworthiness Division (bearing the organizational designator AIR-700). That division will be headed by Lance Gant, formerly the manager of the Rotorcraft Directorate. However, it will not inherit the former directorates’ manufacturing oversight responsibilities, which will fall under the new System Oversight Division (AIR-800) headed by Jeff Duven, former manager of the Transport Airplane Directorate.
In August, the FAA detailed plans to reorganize oversight of flight operations, airmen certification, aircraft maintenance and training. Instead of relying on a decentralized organization model for flight standards — as it did for 30 years — the FAA announced it would change flight standards to a functional-based service, much like the overhauled certification service. According to FAA documents, Flight Standards’ eight regional offices and 100 or so local ones will be replaced by offices organized under four divisions: the Air Carrier Safety Assurance Office, the General Aviation Safety Assurance Office, the Safety Standards Office and the Foundational Business Office. Those divisions will be led by directors, who will report to the executive director of the Flight Standards Service.
Just like the FAA realized technology was outpacing its operations, the FAA realized technology was outpacing its rotorcraft certification standards. In a November Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FAA revealed its plans to change Part 27 and 29 certification standards. This is similar to the FAA’s December 2016 issuance of the new Part 23 rule for small general aviation aircraft. (The FAA has also opened the door to the “flying car” community to use Part 23 as a certification vehicle.) Pointing out that rotorcraft certification standards were penned in 1964, the FAA said the motivation for rewriting the rules is technology.
Who will be advising the FAA and all this activity? Not anyone with recent, direct work in the rotorcraft industry. At the end of September, the FAA welcomed seven new members to its Management Advisory Council. This included people with backgrounds in airlines, government, investment and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Yes, one of the new members is Brian Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The seven joined a group of incumbent members who are representatives of the government, the U.S. Air Force, air traffic control, cargo airlines, airports and outer space.
It’s difficult to speak of 2017 regulatory highlights without talking about two significant impending mandates. Although the deadlines have not yet occurred, the FAA (and R&WI) spent a fair amount of time in 2017 talking about the agency’s 2018 mandate for flight data monitoring in air ambulance helicopters and, of course, the 2020 ADS-B Out mandate. The deadlines aren’t being pushed back and it is time to equip.
As of publication, the NTSB has not reported anything final about the investigation into Bell Helicopter’s crashed 525. In fact, the NTSB thus far has refused to answer questions about its factual investigation findings and hasn’t issued any official updates since its preliminary report from July 2016. When R&WI inquired to Bell in September, we were told the investigation is essentially at the finish line.
What we do know about the 525’s 2016 accident in which its two test pilots were killed is that the prototype experienced rotor system vibration and frequency resonance in its airframe and flight control system, seconds before the aircraft broke up in flight. Three people that were briefed by the FAA told R&WI in March that data analysis of a recovered flight-test recorder, telemetry from the accident aircraft and simulations conducted by Bell for the safety board indicate the onset of the vibration and the subsequent response by the No. 1 Relentless prototype. Analysis of the aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder was not possible because the device was not powered during the July 6, 2016, test flight. One official said FAA guidance permits a CVR to be unpowered during a test flight.
The industry does have closure regarding the Leonardo AW609’s fatal 2015 crash. That final report was issued in May by the National Agency for Flight Safety, known by the Italian abbreviation ANSV. Like the NTSB, the ANSV was dealing with a civil fly-by-wire-aircraft — this one a tiltrotor. The ANSV concluded the No. 2 AW609 prototype broke up over Santhià, Italy, after the blades of its right- and left-hand prop rotors all flapped and struck the wings’ leading edges during the test at the aircraft’s design dive speed of 293 kt (calibrated airspeed).
Among the safety recommendations included in report, the ANSV calls on the FAA and EASA “to verify that the aerodynamic behavior of the aircraft at high-speed conditions will be reviewed, if necessary making use of wind tunnels tests in addition to updated models and simulations that can be representative of the complex flight conditions of this peculiar aircraft.”
The ANSV also called on those agencies “to verify that the control laws of the aircraft will be reviewed in the management of the extreme flight conditions in which the aircraft could possibly fly. That verification should be addressed to ensure the effectiveness of the flight controls inputs given by the pilot avoiding the possibility of unexpected and un-commanded coupling effects.”
In an investigation report that would both give closure and leave questions was final findings of the 2016 fatal Airbus Helicopters EC225LP Super Puma crash. A new preliminary report was published in April, nearly a year exactly after the main rotor separated from the CHC Helicopter Service-operated aircraft, causing it to fall out of the sky and kill 11 passengers and two pilots. Accident Investigation Board Norway (AIBN) said its probe pointed to a fatigue fracture in the main rotor gearbox as the cause of the crash. But it was unknown at that point what caused the fracture. Focus was put on design and subsequent certification, as investigators claim the fracture was unlike anything expected during the design and certification processes — and happened in a way that was unlikely to be found during maintenance.
The AIBN noted similarities between the 2016 tragedy and the 2009 crash of a Eurocopter AS332L2 Super Puma in the North Sea. The main rotor gearbox caused the main rotor to break away from the aircraft, resulting a crash that left both crewmembers and 14 oil platform workers dead, according to the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch. A possible gear failure warning was deployed for the 2009 crash.
As of publication, no final conclusions have been drawn on the 2016 crash.
Although headlines have generally said the oil and gas industry is not interested in putting full trust in the EC225LP at this time, the aircraft is not banned from operation. In July, the civil aviation authorities of the U.K. and Norway said they planned to lift operation restrictions on the 225LP and 332L2 — so long as some measures are met. EASA had released the Super Puma back into service October 2016. But the U.K. and Norway wanted operators to perform checks, modifications and inspections. Airbus also made some changes and modifications to the helicopter and maintenance.
An alternative to the Super Puma for offshore oil and gas operators could be the Sikorsky S-92. However, that aircraft type went through its own share of investigations in 2017. To start the year off, Sikorsky told customers to immediately inspect their S-92s before next flight Jan. 10. The manufacturer was also reviewing health and usage monitoring (HUMS) data for S-92s at that time. That was prompted by a non-fatal incident that occurred in the last days of the previous December. The U.K. took on the investigation and initially said the CHC-operated aircraft had on board two pilots and nine passengers. During the event, it spun more than 180 deg to the right and rolled 20 deg to the left while landing on the rig more than 100 nm east of Aberdeen, Scotland. The S-92’s left main landing gear gouged the helideck on the Elgin Process, Utilities, Quarters rig before the pilots were able to land the aircraft. The failure appeared to be traced to a seized bearing in the servos. Just 4.5 flight hours before the accident, the aircraft’s health and usage monitoring system captured the first indication of trouble with the bearing. But detailed analysis did not reveal that until after the accident.
In March, Ireland’s Air Accident Investigation Unit was investigating the crash of an Irish Coast Guard CHC Helicopter S-92. Dublin-based R116, a search and rescue helicopter, lost contact with its base. There were four Cost Guard members on board. From pieces of the S-92 that were recovered, it was surmised that that the tail hit the rocky surface of Blackrock Island. This was reiterated in the investigator’s preliminary report, published in April. The investigation is, at press time, ongoing.
Taking on Nature
While helicopters are there to bring people to nature’s beautiful views in hard-to-reach places, they are also there to rescue people trapped by nature in hard-to-reach-places. This year had more than its fair share of high-damage natural disasters.
Three hurricanes swept across the southwest U.S. and the Caribbean, one after another. It seemed as though as soon as squadrons were flying to Houston after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city, more were gearing up to fly to Florida as Hurricane Irma threatened to travel from the Caribbean up its west coast. Hurricane Maria ripped through again the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, not too long after. From August until now, personnel from the National Guard, active duty military, first responders, utility workers and others have been responding to the call for help in these damaged areas as the ultimate life-saving tools do the same.
With so many aircraft flying to Houston, adding to the aircraft that routinely fly in its airspace, having well-managed infrastructure was key after Hurricane Harvey. Digital landing zone databases proved to be important tools. LZControl, which provides a digital database with information about helispots all over the world via a free mobile app, provided an exchange of information in real time. When heliports are restricted or closed to the general public and temporary landing zones are created, which is what happened during relief response, real-time data is crucial. HAI also offered its emergency response database to aid in the hurricane relief efforts. Instead of landing zones, this database provided a list of helicopter companies able to provide additional support upon request.
CHI Aviation sent a Sikorsky S-61 to Texas. Air Evac Lifeteam deployed 14 aircraft and crews after a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide critical care transport. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard provided aid from multiple states. Virginia sent seven National Guard helicopters to Texas. South Carolina deployed its Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Teams. Reports said Fort Hood was designated a FEMA Incident Support Base and recently hosted guardsmen from New York.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) was on the scene for Harvey, Irma and Maria. CBP AMO and other agencies were in south Texas Aug. 30, bringing relief in the wake of Harvey. Sikorsky UH-60 aircrews were conducting search and rescue missions while Bell Hueys were performing emergency flights for people and critical assets, like blood. Several weeks later, CBP AMO’s relief efforts continued. Aircrews flew across Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands Oct. 26 with UH-60s, supporting FEMA to transport supplies and emergency personnel.
Alabama’s Fort Rucker needed to keep its aircraft undamaged from the threat of Hurricane Irma so they could fly as soon as the storm passed. Keeping its fleet on the ramp was not an option, so the unit evacuated a portion of the fleet Sept. 6 and 7. Fort Rucker ended up putting two-thirds of its fleet in the hangar. The rest were flown to Tennessee, Mississippi and Northern Alabama.
The last in the demolition trio was Hurricane Maria. Thousands of people responded to the devastation, as the U.S. territory lost electricity and the ability to supply its own basic necessities. On scene was the Pennsylvania National Guard, which sent two Black Hawks and personnel. Eighteen soldiers were sent to facilitate timely employment of aviation resource. Pennsylvania had guard members in the U.S. Virgin islands, Texas and Florida to assist in relief efforts for all three hurricanes. While more than 20 Pennsylvania guard members were in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a 20-member aviation crew and two Boeing CH-47s had returned from Puerto Rico.
Mother Nature also breathes fire. Various news reports claimed that 2017 brought one of the state’s worst wildfire seasons on record. Partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of acres burned was a massive wildfire outbreak in northern California in October. All eyes were on the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Air Operations Program’s Golden Gate Division Air Operations. By the end of October, the CHP air division said it had rescued 46 people within the fire areas of Sonoma and Napa counties since the fires began.
Fires flared up again in California in December. Six wildfires were ripping across the southern part of the state at once. CNN reported that the affected area is larger than the combined size of New York City and Boston. Working alongside California’s Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) were various U.S. military units and other agencies, dropping water and assisting with evacuating residents.
It was an exciting year in military aviation, as research projects reached new milestones and forces geared up to procure new airframes. While initiatives for “new and improved” technology usually focus on upgrades to pre-existing aircraft, 2017 was headlined by developing models.
A hot topic for R&WI readers was the U.S. Army-led Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. The narrative in 2017 followed, for the most part, Bell Helicopter and its V-280 Valor tiltrotor. Though the program calls for technology demonstrators, the manufacturer finished building in September what it proudly calls a “prototype,” ahead of the Army’s request for one and ahead of the other FVL participant — a Sikorsky-Boeing team’s SB>1 Defiant.
The V-280’s first flight occurred mid-December, as the aircraft hovered at Bell’s Amarillo, Texas, facility. In November, the V-280 achieved controlled conversation from 95- to 75-deg pylon and back. That was announced a month after the prototype reached 100% rotor rpm.
Sikorsky’s VH-92A Presidential Helicopter Replacement Program aircraft made its first flight in August. With the flight completed, the manufacturer was able to begin full aircraft system qualification in a flight test program. The VH-92A is expected to enter service in 2020.
Sikorsky’s HH-60W Pave Hawk replacement aircraft, the Combat Rescue Helicopter, in October completed a program training systems critical design review. The aircraft could enter assembly, test and evaluation and is scheduled to fly in late 2018.
Perhaps the most excitement surrounding Sikorsky military aircraft (besides the government shelling out billions for Black Hawk work) was aimed at the CH-53K King Stallion in 2017. The U.S. Defense Dept. gave the OK for low-rate initial production, after four test aircraft accumulated more than 430 hours in flight tests at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility. This has the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) spending almost $304 million on two production CH-53Ks that are to be delivered in 2020. Low-rate initial production also meant GE Aviation received an award of its own. Worth more than $140 million, a contract allowed the company to start low-rate initial production of 22 T480-GE-400 engines.
GE Aviation in 2017 also completed the first full-level testing of its powerplant design under Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE). The program, which calls for development of a 5,000- to 10,000-shaft-horsepower turboshaft, could power FVL aircraft or be incorporated into new engines. The second engine is set to start testing in 2018.
As for the King Stallion, news reports said the CH-53K has been approved to make its international debut in 2018, flying at the Berlin air show in April. It has already flown potential international clients. In November, the CH-53K gave a ride to a commander of the Israeli Air Force at Navair’s Patuxent River, Maryland, facility. Congress had previously targeted Israel for a potential King Stallion foreign military sale.
Boeing was busy in 2017 with another teammate besides Sikorsky: Leonardo Helicopters. The team entered the MH-139 in the U.S. Air Force’s competition to replace its fleet of aged Bell UH-1Ns. When the deadline for bids passed, there were three notable aircraft in the running, and the other two were UH-60s. Sikorsky bid its HH-60U Black Hawk — which the Air Force originally said it wanted before Congress forced it out of a sole-source solicitation — and Sierra Nevada Corp. bid its “Force Hawk,” which is a customized UH-60L. The U.S. Air Force is expected to award this contract in the third quarter of fiscal year 2018.
As mentioned before, the U.S. Defense Dept. spent parts of 2017 awarding Sikorsky potentially billions of dollars in Black Hawk-related contracts. The U.S. Army in August said it wanted to add another 114 Black Hawks to a five-year, $3.8 billion deal it signed with the manufacturer in the previous month. Those aircraft would be in addition to a deal worth up to $5.2 billion the company signed with Sikorsky June 30 (that deal included foreign military sales deals). The manufacturer was already contracted to deliver its new UH-60Ms and HH-60Ms under a $3.8 billion contract, with options for additional 103 aircraft, potentially adding $1.4 billion more to the deal. The Pentagon will decide production quantities on a year-to-year basis, with the first deliveries to begin in October and continue through 2022.
MD Helicopters inked itself a deal from the Army for U.S. and partner nation army aviation forces that could be worth nearly $1.4 billion. A five-year contract, the deal initially has MD handing over 30 new MD 530F Cayuse Warriors for the Afghan Air Force. This is worth $176.6 million. As a whole, the contract covers an estimated 150 MD 530s, as well as required production services.
Despite activity around new models, military forces are definitely still interested in modernizing older aircraft. The U.S. Marine Corps started fielding modernized Bell H-1s in the fourth quarter of 2017 under the H-1 upgrade program.
Northrop Grumman said its mission computers were installed on the UH-1Y and AH-1Z. The effort aims to replace UH-1Ns and AH-1Ws with upgraded aircraft, improving capability, commonality, reliability and maintainability. The Tech Refresh Mission Computer is now in full-rate production.
Another aircraft fleet in need of improved commonality, reliability and maintainability is the Marine Corps’ Bell-Boeing V-22. Although the manufacturers were able to celebrate the global fleet surpassing 400,000 flight hours in 2017, the military is dealing with fleet readiness. In February, the military said it was dealing with 77 different MV-22 variants, which, among other items, increases maintenance complexity. This point was reaffirmed at the beginning of November when an official noted that ready basic aircraft rates for the MV-22 were currently at 48%. To combat that figure, the Marines launched the Common Configuration Reliability and Maintainability Initiative (CCRaM), which involves reconfiguring the aircraft to a common variant. Currently, a multi-year procurement contract for V-22 allows the service to capitalize on savings and support CCRaM.
A potential escort for the tiltrotor is seeing its program progress. In April, Aurora Flight Sciences and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that the XV-24A LightningStrike subscale vehicle demonstrator completed its planned flight test program. The full-scale demonstrator is currently in production, with the flight test program slated to begin late 2018. Aurora said it can imagine that, in the future, the autonomous, electric tilt-wing could operate as an armed escort for the V-22. Or, just as the Bell Helicopter XV-15 was an experimental aircraft that paved the way for the V-22, the full-scale LightningStrike could be a test bed for future aircraft.
For Northrop Grumman, manned/unmanned teaming was a reality in 2017. The U.S. Navy’s Fire Scout program, which consists of the MQ-8B and MQ-8C, completed several successful demonstrations and tests. In May, a two-part demonstration with two radar-equipped MQ-8Bs proved controls could be handed off from one mission control system to another during operations between Naval Base Ventura County, California, and Naval Auxiliary Landing Field San Clemente Island, California. The demo concluded with Fire Scout providing manned/unmanned teaming laser-designation for a Sikorsky MH-60S Hellfire missile shot.
China, India, Germany and Russia, among others, were preparing for new aircraft in 2017. While some countries were buying airframes from others, some were celebrating their own domestic models reaching significant milestones.
News reports said in May that China’s Z-19E attack helicopter, produced by Aviation Industry Corp. of China Harbin Aircraft Industry, took its first flight. This brought the company one step closer to bringing it to the international market, as reports have said it is specifically designed to meet foreign military requirements.
In August, India’s defense ministry cleared Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) to begin initial production of the light combat helicopter based on its Dhruv. India’s Defense Acquisition Council previously had approved the 29-billion-rupee ($437.5-million) procurement of 15 “limited series production” aircraft, and its Center for Military Airworthiness and Certification had signed off on HAL’s design, which is derived from the Advanced Light Helicopter (or Dhruv). The country’s army reportedly has committed to acquiring 114 of the aircraft, and the air force another 65. (India also plans to acquire Boeing-designed AH-64E Apaches starting next year.)
That same month, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract with state-owned Russian Helicopters to develop a new, high-speed combat helicopter. The two-year contract covers the determination of technical appearance of the helicopter. By the contract’s end, appearance for the new combat helicopter would be determined, and the experimental construction tasks would be formed.
Russian Helicopters also produced the first batch of Mi-28UBs — the new version of the Mi-28N Night Hunter. The main difference in the new version is that the Mi-28UB has a dual-control system. It can be piloted from the pilot-in-command cockpit, or the pilot-operator. Ergonomics have also been improved, with new armchair designs. The avionics have also been improved. It can be used to support ground forces and anti-tank defense.
Back in India in November, new reports said the country’s Defense Acquisition Council approved funding for the purchase of 111 utility rotorcraft. This followed reports that the defense ministry wanted manufacturers to submit proposals to supply its navy with 123 multi-role/anti-submarine warfare helicopters and 111 light, armed utility rotorcraft. The acquisition council approved more than $3 billion in funding.
In Italy, the country’s first domestically assembled Lockheed Martin F-35B took its first flight late October. The aircraft successfully operated in short-take-off-and-vertical-landing mods for the first time during its third and final acceptance flight. Early next year, an Italian pilot is scheduled to fly the country’s first F-35B to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. While there, the aircraft would undergo required electromagnetic environmental effects certification.
The German Navy is awaiting deliveries of augmented NHIndustries NH90 — NH90 Sea Lions. Although Airbus called the program’s timeline “demanding,” the second Sea Lion prototype made its first flight at the end of November, which keeps the program on track. Airbus was then able to enter a development testing phase, planning to focus on avionics over coming months. Efforts to qualify the delivery configuration are slated to start next year, once additional modifications have been made to the prototype.
Civil Aircraft Program Developments
Some OEMs unveil designs that will never become production aircraft. For example, Bell Helicopter announced its FCX-001 during Heli-Expo in Dallas. A concept and technology demonstrator, that specific design does not have a future in someone’s hangar. Similarly, MD Helicopters unveiled its plan to develop a new single-engine aircraft during 2016’s Heli-Expo and brought a concept MD 6XX to 2017’s show.
2017 saw some progress in new aircraft programs that were unveiled years ago.
Sometimes obstacles lie within the processes of the certificating authorities. Leonardo’s AW169 had been approved by the FAA in February — 19 months after the aircraft received EASA type certification. Already operating outside the U.S., the AW169 had been selected for air medical, offshore and VIP transport, as well as utility roles. It had certifications from the Italian Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC), EASA for its Level D full-flight simulator and for an increased maximum gross weight kit, and one from Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC).
Bell’s 505 Jet Ranger X racked up the certifications in 2017. It collected certifications from EASA and Argentina’s aviation body, Administracion Nacional de Aviacion Civil, in November. This added to the list that already included the FAA, Transport Canada and aviation authorities from Australia, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, South Korea, Argentina and, most recently, Japan.
A Chinese customer is set to be the largest buyer of the 505. Reignwood International Investment Group Company Ltd., which had been set to own the most 505 Jet Ranger Xs in the world, has purchased 50 more in November. Bell said the company also agreed to act as the exclusive reseller for the 505 in China and establish a 505 delivery and maintenance center.
For everything the Bell 525 program has been through and is still going through, the manufacturer got the program back in the air in 2017. In July, Bell announced the FAA had renewed the fly-by-wire aircraft’s experimental type certificate, and flight testing had resumed. Certification is still planned for 2018.
Leonardo’s AW609 was able to perform flight tests, allowing for the full testing of avionics and other systems, in February before the final investigation report in May. The tests followed several weeks of unrestrained ground testing. The program was, at that point, still on track for FAA certification in 2018. Icing trials and short takeoff and landing tests (STOL) are the next steps.
Airbus’ third H160 prototype, PT3, completed its maiden flight in October. Airbus said the first two prototypes have accumulated more than 500 flight hours since the model’s first flight in June 2015. The flight envelope has already been fully tested and the domain has been opened. Remaining development activity includes hot weather testing, antennas and optional equipment. Those tests are to be completed using all prototypes. The aircraft is expected to enter into service in 2019. The first version to enter is to feature a passenger transport configuration, for either commercial transport or oil and gas. Following would be the EMS version.
In August, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency issued a type certificate for Russian Helicopters’ Mi-171A2, clearing the way for that manufacturer to begin serial production and delivery of the IFR-capable, medium, utility helicopter to commercial customers. The aircraft is a modernized version of the Mi-8/Mi-17 whose design aims to adhere to modern civil airworthiness standards, reduce operating costs and improve performance. Its many upgrades include a new-design main rotor system with all-composite blades and a more efficient X-shape tail rotor. Russian Helicopters said in December it had begun flight testing its modernized Mi-171E.
It was reported at the end of November that the Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC) AC312E completed its first “plateau flight test.” News reports said the AC312E is China’s “first” four-ton, dual-use, lightweight domestic civil helicopter. It is a variant of the Harbin Z-2, which is based on the Eurocopter AS365, and took its first flight in August 2016. AVIC expects to receive airworthiness certification in 2018.
At publication, Enstrom’s plan to certificate its TH-180 before 2017’s end had not yet happened. In June, the company said the program is on track to do so. It has two prototypes in the certification program: one in flight test and the other engaging in ground tests. Along with its ownership in China, Enstrom was, at that point, finalizing the design, based on results from the developmental flight test program. Test plans are progressing to completion and would then be submitted to the FAA for approval. Enstrom is working with both the FAA and EASA for concurrent certification. Certification was originally planned for 2016, but was delayed when the No. 1 prototype was damaged during an accident.
The Future is Now
R&WI predicted that 2017 would be the year of the drones. The validity of that prediction ultimately depends on perspective. It’s hard to dispute that the aerospace industry as a whole glimpsed into a not-so-far-away future during 2017 — a future where skies play host to all sorts of new flying machines, including, but not limited to, UAS.
VTOL made mainstream headlines in 2017, thanks in large part to rideshare giant Uber. After it held an inaugural urban-mobility-focused Elevate Summit in Dallas in April, the company spent the rest of the year spreading the word about its air taxi initiatives. Uber was at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit in September talking about its hopes to bring a pilot program to Dallas. A few weeks later, news reports said Uber was in Portugal announcing plans to do the same in Los Angeles in time for the 2028 Olympics. Uber also reportedly tapped NASA to help develop new traffic concepts for robotic flight systems operations. The addition of Los Angeles brings Uber’s list of target cities to three. Dallas and Dubai are already slated to host pilot runs for the air taxi project in 2020. And the addition of NASA adds to a list of Uber’s official Elevate partners, which includes Bell Helicopter, Aurora Flight Sciences, Embraer, ChargePoint and more.
Aurora, a pioneer in autonomy research, announced Nov. 1 its optionally piloted Bell UH-1H had received an FAA special airworthiness certificate. The helicopter is being developed under a U.S. Marine Corps program. Aurora said the latest certification permits optionally piloted aircraft
operation with only a safety pilot required to monitor the controls. The autonomy-enabled UH-1 (AEH-1) is part of the Office of Naval Research’s Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) program.
The reason Uber has teamed with OEMs is because the electric VTOL aircraft it envisions using in its infrastructure still have yet to be designed, for the most part. Airbus’ Silicon Valley outpost, A3, started in 2017 an on-demand urban mobility network of its own. Voom, however, uses helicopters and their current operators to fly people around. A beta program, Voom launched in São Paulo, Brazil. The concept had a short trial run in the same location in 2016 during a partnership with Uber. Voom works similarly.
That’s not to say, though, that Airbus didn’t headline with future aircraft of its own. A3’s Vahana prototype was scheduled to make its first flight before the end of 2017 (it had not yet happened at press time). An electric, autonomous vertical takeoff and landing, passenger-carrying future aircraft concept, Vahana went from conceptual drawings to ready for flight in just over a year. A full-scale Vahana arrived at its Pendleton Hangar at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, announced in November. The flight test team had already demonstrated its first end-to-end flight test simulation.
Airbus talked up two more of its futuristic projects during the Paris Air Show in June: its newly revealed Rapid And Cost-Effective Rotorcraft (or Racer) and the CityAirbus air taxi. The high-speed Racer is part of the European Union’s Clean Sky 2 research program to develop cutting-edge technology aimed at reducing aircraft CO2 gas emissions and noise levels. The Racer’s operational concept includes shutting down one engine in cruise flight to increase efficiency and fuel burn as well as aerodynamics, since the helicopter’s twin pusher props would provide thrust in the crew stage and its boxed-wing configuration would provide substantial lift. The 200-volt, direct-current generator would enable that performance by ensuring a fast restart should the second engine be needed. (It also might provide additional power for “connected” services like streaming video in the cabin and advanced flight management capabilities in the cockpit.)
The design of CityAirbus’ mockup is notable for the shrouds around its four main rotors, part of the manufacturers’ efforts to reduce the aircraft noise signature (specifically in the range of noise admissions that are particularly irritating to human physiology). CityAirbus also will use lessons of Airbus’ Blue Edge project, which built on the research of the French and German agencies ONERA and DLR to develop reduced noise-signature, high-efficiency rotor blades.
Airbus planned to begin full-scale “iron bird” systems integration tests of CityAirbus this year and conduct unmanned flight tests next year. Its current goal is to conduct the first flight of Racer in 2020.
One futuristic aircraft available for preorder now is XTI Aircraft Co.’s TriFan 600. In February, former AgustaWestland North America executive Robert J. LaBelle joined the company as its CEO. Following an appearance at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show, XTI received more than 60 orders under its presales program. XTI said it also garnered “several more large investors.” This added to orders during the Paris Air Show and the National Business Aviation Assn.’s convention. In September, XTI said it had begun to assemble a scaled test version of the ducted lift-fan aircraft. The company hoped to fly it within a year. Using a scaled version also would save money, he said. Testing of full aircraft systems would await completion of the first full-scale prototype, which LaBelle said would start as soon as additional investments were secured.
On the regulatory side of drones, ICAO held its Drone Enable conference in Montreal in September. Among other activities there, Chinese drone company DJI delivered two white papers on unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM) and drone identification. DJI is also part of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, which met four more times in 2017. Drone identification and tracking, as well as authorities at the local level, are some of its working topics.
In October, the White House announced an unmanned aircraft system integration pilot program. This would give the U.S. Transportation Dept. the power to enter into agreements with state, local and tribal governments to test drone operations and integration models. According to the FAA, the program would help develop a regulatory framework for low-altitude operations and identify ways to balance the interests of local and national authorities. Addressing security and privacy risks, and accelerating the approval of operations that currently require special authorizations, are other program objectives. The new program would also address night operations, package delivery, detect and avoid, counter-U.S. methods and datalink security.
In November, the FAA did a “first” and asked the public to help form airworthiness criteria for a drone. FlightScan Corp. wants to certificate the Camcopter S-100, a helicopter-shaped unmanned aircraft system originally from Schiebel. FlightScan applied June 1, 2015, for a special class type certification. The FAA is now asking for comments on proposed design standards for the drone to fly in controlled airspace. The period for public comment closed Dec. 18.
Business and Market Outlook
Mergers, bankruptcies, restructures — 2017 hosted some significant business moves.
CHC Group’s plan to emerge from Chapter 11 of U.S. Bankruptcy Code was approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas in March. The operator had already been working toward a restructure, having filed for bankruptcy May 2016. Since that time, CHC introduced a logo and website with a look that it said aims to capture both its early roots as Okanagan Helicopters (as this 2017 its 70th anniversary) and its current presence in the industry. The company also declared a new slogan and redesigned its website. In July, CHC finalized its board of managers, following the completion of its financial restructuring.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas also approved a plan of reorganization in March for Erickson Inc, which had filed under Chapter 11 less than five months prior. Under the plan, Erickson was to reduce its pre-bankruptcy debt by more than $400 million upon emergence. Erickson emerged from bankruptcy protection in May. Effective immediately, Erickson proceeded as a privately held small business. Doug Kitani became Erickson’s new CEO and director Oct. 31.
Elsewhere in the world, India’s civil aviation ministry in March was reviewing bids by asset-valuation firms to conduct reviews of Pawan Hans Ltd. as part of the government’s plan to sell that state-controlled operator and transfer management of it to new investors. India plans to sell its 51% stake in the company as part of a strategy to raise about $10.9 billion this fiscal year in the divestment of what it calls central public sector enterprises. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. of India holds 49% of Pawan Hans. The sales proposal came as Pawan Hans has outlined a tripling of its fleet, in part to support the government’s Regional Air Connectivity Scheme — an effort to bring low-fare, subsidized flights to underserved areas of India. The plan understandably provoked resistance from Pawan Hans employees, and the overall effort to sell off state-owned enterprises has been criticized by some officials in government ministries opposed to giving foreign investors control over those outfits.
In June, Bristow Group said it would be reorganizing its structure and business operations, dropping a global approach to air services and narrowing its pursuit into new business areas to focus on meeting offshore energy firms’ demands for greater efficiency in specific world regions amid a chronically severe downturn. Under the plan, Bristow planned to reduce its corporate headquarters operation in Houston, Texas, cutting its overhead costs to 12% of revenue and splitting its global structure into two regional hubs. Many executives have left Bristow as a result and others were expected to follow. In November, Bristow announced it has sold Bristow Academy to a “private entity” as part of its “aggressive portfolio management efforts to improve returns, liquidity and credit quality.” That sale included all Bristow Academy aircraft.
Boeing announced its intention to acquire Aurora in October. The deal was official Nov. 8. The new Boeing company retains an independent operating model. Matthew G. Hutchison is Aurora’s COO. Former COO Mark C. Cherry was named head of Boeing Phantom Works shortly after the acquisition was announced. Hutchison had been serving as Aurora’s VP for engineering. Aurora is now a subsidiary under Boeing Engineering Test & Technology. This deal gives Boeing an entry into the urban mobility movement, as Aurora is an official Uber Elevate partner.
PHI Inc. in October announced plans to acquire HNZ Group’s offshore business in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
Vector Aerospace officially became part of StandardAero in November. Airbus finalized the acquisition that had been announced in July. The two companies were to merge under the StandardAero name. Annual revenues for the new firm, according to Airbus, is $3 billion. It has more than 42 locations across five continents. With the acquisition, StandardAero becomes a giant in its field. It is owned by the private equity firm Veritas Capital, which acquired the company two years ago for a reported price of $2.1 billion.
Good news — rotorcraft shipments and billings are trending in the right direction. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) said rotorcraft shipments have increased by 7.7% year to date. Compared to last year, rotorcraft billings increased by 8.8% to $2.7 billion.
GAMA said that during the third quarter of 2017, there was an increase in piston helicopter shipments from 168 to 190 units in the first nine months of 2017 compared to last year. Turbine helicopter shipments, the association continued, increased by 5.6% to 471 units. As of the November report, Airbus had moved the most helicopters in 2017. In the third quarter, the manufacturer shipped 67 aircraft for total billings of $369.5 million, according to GAMA’s report. Airbus has so far this year shipped 242 units for more than $1.19 billion in total billings. With top numbers for the manufacturer, the H125/H125M has accounted for 85 of those units. That aircraft was also the top mover in the third quarter.
Toward the end of 2017, Waypoint Leasing published two reports that outlined some promising opportunities for helicopters in a couple offshore markets. The emerging class of “super-medium” helicopters — which includes the Airbus H175, Leonardo AW189 and the in-production Bell 525 — are probably worth investing in. Waypoint said that there is life in the oil and gas market as it has stabilized and is showing signs of upward trending growth. The emerging super-medium class could be a good fit for some mission profiles.
This super-medium trend is exemplified by an initiative CHC Helicopter launched in July. It announced it was introducing the AW189 and H175 to its global fleet in what the company called its “super medium aircraft program” for operations in the North Sea and Australia. In October, Safran Helicopter Engines unveiled a new, 2,500 to 3,000-plus shp engine family for super-medium and heavy helicopters. Its first application would be on the AW189. A super-medium efficiently closes the “gap in the payload range offering,” as well as the acquisition price gap, between mediums and heavies, according to the lessor’s study.
In Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway and the U.K., the vast majority of offshore beds — a proxy for number of passengers — are located between 125 and 150 nm from the nearest helicopter base, according to Waypoint. This means that most can be serviced by a super medium carrying a full, 16-passenger load and no need to drop weight to go further. This is especially true if the aircraft has an underbelly fuel tank, like the AW189 has, depending on payload. With only 14 passengers, the helicopters can go close to 200 nm. Waypoint also concluded that the super mediums available are less expensive to operate than new-build heavies, largely due to lower capital cost and lower maintenance costs, as well as some improved efficiencies.
The other emerging offshore industry is wind energy. Waypoint identified offshore wind farms as a market that could stimulate the helicopter market with demand. Wind energy is not a new market. But Waypoint said many wind farms were originally developed in near-shore areas, readily accessible by boats. Now, as developments move further offshore, helicopters have started to act as the “more economical” transportation platform to and from the installations, Waypoint said. As wind farms grow and are located farther from the shore, helicopters become a more favorable tool. Light twin-engine and medium helicopters could fit the job description. Leonardo is marketing its AW169 and AW139 to wind energy companies.
“Helicopter support for wind power is still in a nascent stage — the first deliveries of aircraft specifically for wind power support were made in 2015, and its estimated that there are no more than 30 aircraft worldwide currently dedicated to providing wind power support,” said Waypoint. “The research noted here, however, makes us confident that there will be at least 100 aircraft servicing these types of installations by 2021.” RWI