Acceptance of high maintenance expenses as a cost of doing business with helicopters is steadily becoming the practice of the past.
Top managers in business attire, flight suits and uniforms alike are focusing more and more on finding ways to decrease costs of their operations. As one of the highest fixed-cost factors of any aviation business, maintenance is getting a great deal of their scrutiny. That is translating to pressure on rotorcraft, engine and systems manufacturers to lower the cost of both acquiring their products and keeping them in the air, through more efficient manufacturing and material use and greater reliability.
That collective pressure from operators promises to forge a permanent change in the cost structure of the industry in the years ahead, numerous operator, manufacturer and support executives told us.
To answer that pressure, those parties are scouring the landscape for data sets that can help them boost the efficiency and reliability of their products, both in their manufacturing and their use in the field. This is propelling efforts to make more effective use of the capabilities of health and usage monitoring systems and flight data monitoring as well as other analytical tools.
Pratt & Whitney Canada’s assessment is that customers are looking for it “to continue to move to an increasingly frictionless environment and an environment that is more predictable for them,” said Tim Swail, the engine maker’s VP of customer programs. Swail is among the executives citing the potency of this operator focus on reducing costs and increasing efficiency.
That focus is part of a larger trend in business, one that can be traced the Toyota-inspired lean philosophy that gripped executives around the world at the turn-of-the-century. But the drive to take costs out of rotorcraft operations became a hard reality in the past several years.
In the commercial world, that reality came in the form of the plunge into 2008 oil prices. Their sustained depression has clobbered sales of medium- and heavy-lift helicopters — the industry’s most lucrative products — and has driven a transformation of cost structure among offshore operators and, consequently, helicopter OEMs.
In the military world, the U.S.’s Budget Control Act has severely constrained defense spending increases since 2011, intensifying competition for rotorcraft program funding within the services and among them. Programs that had been flush with money in the height of the War on Terror and combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa now are scrambling to make do with largely fixed funding.
Reflecting one effect of that, Lt. Gen. Kevin Mangum told the annual gathering of the Army Aviation Assn. of America in late April in Nashville, Tennessee, that the service wants aircraft and systems that its own troops can support and maintain in the field, without having to deploy contractors to combat areas or fly maintenance-needy aircraft out of them. Now retired, Mangum spoke as deputy commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
A focus on rotorcraft maintenance costs is hardly new. (As Kurt Robinson notes on page 44, when his father, Frank, launched development of his R22 in the 1970s, a key requirement was that the helicopter be relatively inexpensive to fly.)
When the U.S. Marine Corps launched in the early 2000s what would become the program to replace its CH-53E heavy-lifter, its aviation leaders said one reason was the Corps was spending upward of $20,000 per flight hour to operate the aircraft. One objective for the replacement program, Sikorsky’s CH-53K, is to significantly reduce maintenance costs while increasing payload and performance.
Likewise, when the Army set the terms of its current Improved Turbine Engine Program to develop a new, 3,000-shp powerplant for the AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk, it was demanding. In addition to targeting a 65% better power-to-weight ratio, 25% lower specific fuel consumption and 20% longer life over the current T700 engine, the program seeks a powerplant with 20 to 25% lower production and maintenance costs. Also, the new engine must be a “drop-in” replacement for the T700, requiring no major airframe modifications for installation. GE and the Honeywell-Pratt & Whitney joint venture known as Advanced Turbine Engine Co. (ATEC) are vying for that contract.
In their own cost-reduction efforts, Bell Helicopter and Airbus Helicopters embraced the Maintenance Steering Group-3 philosophy in designing their 429 and H175. First developed in the late 1960s to support Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet program, the philosophy aims at establishing a well-defined maintenance program during the design phase. That program is intended to take advantage of design targets for reliability and redundancy to reduce scheduled maintenance tasks as well as the prospect of unscheduled removals. The 429 and H175 were the first rotorcraft to take advantage of the MSG-3 approach.
Experts are convinced that approach has worked well in creating cost-effective scheduled maintenance for airliners, but it can be cumbersome. The world’s regulators have committed to streamlining the process through their International Maintenance Review Board Policy Board.
Part of the drive to cut maintenance costs is focused on improving the industry’s ability to detect major problems in critical components, such as drivetrains, before the result of problems that interrupt flights or destroy aircraft and take lives. Accidents involving offshore helicopters since 2009 have spurred research into more effective sensors and monitoring systems. In its probe of the April 29, 2016, EC225LP crash that killed 13 year Bergen, Norway, the Accident Investigation Board of the country has found that the aircraft’s transmission failed in a way that was not detectable by scheduled inspections or anticipated by certification procedures.
Few items are being overlooked in the search for lower maintenance costs. P&WC, for instance, has an ongoing effort to learn more about predictable problems through refined analysis of engine oil. RWI