Rotor & Wing International

Rotorcraft Report

Industry highlights since the previous issue.

525 Probe Points to Vibration, Frequency Response in Fatal Crash

Investigators have found that Bell Helicopter’s 525 prototype experienced rotor system vibration and frequency resonance in its airframe and flight control system seconds before the aircraft broke up in flight last July, killing its two test pilots.

Three people briefed on the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board told R&WI data analysis of a recovered flight-test recorder, telemetry from the accident aircraft and simulations conducted by Bell for the board indicate an onset of vibration and the subsequent response by the No. 1 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 NTSB refused to answer questions about findings of the investigation to date. It has provided no updates since July 29, 2016, when it posted a 71-word summary of the fly-by-wire’s crash, with evidence including the obscuration of two chase pilots in a Bell 429, the telemetry and flight-recorder information, and wreckage examinations.

The 525 crashed about 30 nm south-southwest of the flight’s launch point, Bell’s Xworx research center at Arlington Municipal Airport, to which it was transmitting telemetry. The individuals who spoke to R&WI described the accident sequence:

The 525 was flying at 183 kt with rotor power at 92% during a single-engine, never-exceed-speed test when a six-hertz appeared on recorded flight data that appeared to originate in the tail rotor system. (Flightradar24 reported July 6 that its last data on the 525 flight put it at 199 kt at 1,975 ft.)

Frequency resonance developed in the tail boom and then in the 525’s flight control system. Rotor rpm dropped; the NTSB’s investigator in charge, John Lovell, told R&WI in late July that retrieve data indicated “main rotor rpm dropped significantly.” Lovell leads a team of six investigators from NTSB’s Washington headquarters. Bell is a party to the investigation as is General Electric, maker of 525’s CT7-2F1 engines. The FAA by law is a party to NTSB probes.

The aircraft did not emerge from that flight condition, the individuals said. The breakup followed.

The NTSB’s Lovell in late July said that the pilots in the chase 429 reported that the 525’s main rotor blades “appeared to have dropped from their normal plane of rotation.” He added that examination of the wreckage indicated that main rotor blades sliced through the tailbone and the nose.

The 525 broke up over Italy, Texas.

The individuals said that Bell had not seen the vibration frequency resonance condition on any previous 525 flight. The company’s prototypes of that super-medium twin have been grounded since the accident, and no ground tests of them have been conducted. Its personnel are working with the NTSB to resolve open questions on the aircraft’s design and performance to clear the way for resumption of flight and ground tests.

In regard to its accident investigation, the NTSB told R&WI Feb. 22 that “we hope to complete it this summer.” R&WI

India Reviewing Bids to Support Pawan Hans Sale

India’s civil aviation ministry is 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’s government plans to sell its 51% stake in the company as part of a strategy to raise 725 billion rupees (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.

Pawan Hans offers helicopter services such as charter, commercial, passenger, and maintenance, repair and overhaul.Photo courtesy of Alec Wilson / CC BY-SA 2.0

Government officials were scheduled to hold a meeting on Feb. 27 to review submitted bids.

The operator was created in 1985 as Helicopter Corporation of India Ltd. primarily to provide rotary-wing support for offshore oil exploration. It also was charged with operating in India’s inaccessible areas and conducting charter flights to promote travel and tourism.

With a current fleet reported at about 45 aircraft operating from 14 bases and a staff of 450 regular employees and 334 contractors, Pawan Hans today also trains aviation maintenance engineers (or mechanics), pilots and safety auditors, operates heliports and sea planes and conducts helicopter maintenance, repair and overhaul joint ventures. It is an authorized capital level of 2.5 billion rupees (about $37.75 million), according to the civil aviation ministry.

The sales proposal comes 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.

Plans to sell off the 51% stake understandably have 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 its request for tenders, government said the selected advisor would be charged with assessing the value of a broad range of Pawan Hans’ assets, including its helicopters, equipment, plants, machineries, tools and inventory stocks, as well as its land and buildings, furniture and fixtures, workshops, institutes, civil infrastructure (like offices, residential facilities, roads) at all its bases on an “as-is where-is basis.” R&WI

Global Rotorcraft Shipments Down in 2016: GAMA

There were 861 rotorcraft shipments worldwide in 2016, down 16.9% from 2015, the General Aviation Manufacturers Assn. (GAMA) reported. GAMA’s report also showed that worldwide rotorcraft billings in 2016 were victim of a 23% decrease from 2015, representing $1 billion.

Robinson Helicopter has taken one of the biggest hits in shipments of those listed in GAMA’s reports. The manufacturer shipped 523 units in 2013. In 2016, Robinson shipped 234. This, among other factors, reflects a global economy that changed significantly over the course of those three years. Robinson President Kurt Robinson recently told R&WI that he thinks the worldwide market is starting to come back around.

“Everything seems to be picking up a little bit. It’s interesting to see,” Robinson said.

The industry reported decreased sales numbers for 2016 (some including military sales). But outlooks remain positive. Lockheed Martin’s revenues increased in 2016, aided in part by its acquisition of Sikorsky. Boeing said its full 2016 numbers reflected “strong commercial deliveries and services growth.” And Bell Helicopter CEO Mitch Snyder said in December that the company plans to combat misfortune by continuing investments for future platforms, relationships with policy leaders and innovation. R&WI

AW609 Ready for Icing Trials, STOL Tests

Leonardo’s AW609 has recently performed flight tests, allowing for the full testing of avionics and other systems, Leonardo said. This follows several weeks of unrestrained ground testing. Still on track for FAA certification in 2018, icing trials and short takeoff and landing tests (STOL) are the next steps.Photo courtesy of Leonardo

FAA Certificates AW169

Leonardo can now begin deliveries of its AW169 in the U.S., the manufacturer said, thanks to a recent FAA certification. This announcement comes some 19 months after the aircraft received EASA type certification.

The Leonardo AW169 is a light intermediate, twin-engine helicopter. New technology features have been incorporated in the rotor system, engines, avionics, transmission, and electric power generation and distribution systems. Leonardo is targeting VIP transport and emergency medical service market segments for the helicopter. Although it’s not yet in service in the U.S., it has been selected elsewhere for air medical, offshore and VIP transport, as well as utility roles. Agreements for orders and options on more than 150 units have been signed worldwide, and 20 have been delivered to date. R&WI

Leonardo to Deliver Japan’s First VIP AW139

Leonardo said a Japanese private operator has signed a contract for a Leonardo AW139 in the VIP configuration, making it the first Leonardo VIP helicopter in Japan. Delivery is expected later this year.

The manufacturer also said it has delivered four additional AW139s for firefighting and disaster relief to the Tokyo and Sapporo Fire departments and to the Mix and Tochigi Prefecture Disaster Relief departments, respectively.

There are now ore than 50 AW139s operating in Japan in firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement and electronic news gathering (in addition to the VIP customer). R&WI

Oil and Gas Could Bring ‘Surprises’ in 2017

The offshore market is in recovery. But the scale and for how long it will last remains to be seen. This was the topic of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) event, “The Road to Market Rebalance: Oil & Gas in 2017” on Feb 16.

Frank A. Verrastro, SVP and trustee fellow at CSIS; Adam Sieminski; James R. Schlesinger, chair for Energy and Geopolitics at CSIS, contributed to discussion. RBN Energy President and CEO Rusty Braziel, ESAI Energy LLC Managing Principal of Petroleum and Alternative Fuels Sarah Emerson, and HIS Energy VP of Oil Markets (Midstream and Downstream) Kurt Barrow presented.

“The rebalance is underway,” Verrastro said in opening. “We’ve learned the hard way that oil prices in excess of $120 don’t work, and prices below $27 don’t work either.”

All panelists expressed that the market is on the rise. This can be attributed to OPEC as it decided to cut production. But Emerson warned that if the market is going to continue on the road to recovery, OPEC would have to keep production rates low through the second half of this year. Barrow added that continued success also depends on the new administration and what international policies and actions it would take — be it border taxes or other items. The new administration is good for stimulation in the short term, but leaves uncertainty in the long term, he said.

He said that refining capacity expansions threaten product rebalancing during and after 2018. Barrow said he senses some changes down the road.

“After a period of volatile oil prices and rapidly shifting product demand and crude supply, a globalization of refining is creating a period of increased competition, and further disruptions are on the horizon,” he said.

Nonetheless, Braziel said the mood in Houston is pretty positive. His presentation showed that rig count in the U.S. is up — oil is at 591 and gas is at 149. Braziel said the number of rigs could be at 1,000 by the end of 2017. This positive outlook is dramatically different than that of 2016.

“What a difference a year does make,” Braziel said. Last February, “everything was collapsing. Crude oil prices were $30.66 that day; four days prior they had been $26.21. ... Rig count was falling to a level we hadn’t seen in 30 years.”

But looking back an additional year, the outlook does not look so cheery.

“Back in 2015 would we have called this a recovery?” Braziel asked. “Absolutely not. We would have called it a meltdown, a catastrophe.”

In this “recovery” stage, crude oil prices in 2017 are nearly $50 less than they were in 2013. But, Braziel showed prices are up from 2016 by $10 a barrel. The story is similar for gas. Prices are only part of the story.

Braziel noted four other factors: larger leaseholds, longer laterals, extra sand and more choking, yielding “the rise of the decline curve,” as he put it. Producers are seeing a decline in production rates. The factors are also changing the market right now. “‘Surprises’ might be the word of the year,” Sieminski said. R&WI

Leonardo Teams with UK for Rotary-Wing Drones

Leonardo and the U.K. Ministry of Defense are set to partner for the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air System (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator, U.K. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said Feb. 27. This is a two-year, $8.4 million research and development initiative to develop military drone capabilities.

Fallon announced a three-member Defence Innovation Advisory Panel at the University of Oxford, where he announced the helicopter drone project. There is an $847 million innovation fund backing the innovation initiative, but RWUAS is to be jointly funded.

This will not be Leonardo’s first time developing unmanned, rotary capabilities. The manufacturer’s SW-4 Solo and SD150 Hero are optionally piloted and unmanned, respectively. Having taken its first flight last December, the Solo is based on the SW-4 light single-engine helicopter, built for civil and military multirole operations. The Hero has an interoperable ground control station (GCS) with a human machine interface. The station is also compatible with the Solo. It, too, has multirole capabilities for both military and civil applications. R&WI

EHang Passenger Drone Continues Development, Testing

EHang has greeted the new year with several milestones from 2016 in hand. The EHang 184 passenger-carrying drone has been flying, has a new command and control center, and has undergone hardware and software testing, the company said.

As of the beginning of January, the company said, the drone has achieved some success in point-to-point flight testing. The company is now working toward an autonomous flight test under 4G network with load. One particular issue EHang mentioned with the multi-rotor is in-air stability. Last year the company’s engineers optimized algorithms and the performance of some hardware components, bringing flight stability, and hover and flight route accuracy. Engineers were also able to fully automate flight commands.

Photo courtesy of Ehang

Other hardware and software is currently going through research, development and testing. Three versions of the aircraft’s rotor blades have been designed, built to reduce noise and increase aerodynamic efficiency. Two different testbeds have been developed, as well as a host computer system for the testbed. Motors for the EHang 184 have also been upgraded to the third-generation iteration, as have the electronic speed controllers. This new motor can conduct sweep frequency experiments and detect real-time motor speed and motor rotation. EHang had to develop its own flight control system, which currently has full redundancy design with two system sets, each with two sets of sensors that can communicate with each other. The flight control system has begun to conduct simulation tests based on virtual prototype. Also in the third-generation variant is the battery management system. The upgrade is a high-pressure version with greater battery capacity.

The EHang Command and Control Center got up and running last year, functioning as a ground command center to monitor a variety of flight data for the EHang 184 and dispatch air traffic. Passengers in the air would be able to make video and voice calls to the ground station, and the ground station would be able to receive real-time flight sensor data. Not all capabilities are functional yet, but EHang sees command center as a vital project.

“Admittedly, the grandness and arduousness of this project is not as a simple future science fiction as people imagined,” EHang said. “We believe the autonomous aerial transportation ecosystem will only be successful with the participations of policy makers, regulators, entrepreneurial vehicle designer and manufacturers, application service providers, and many other partners and stakeholders from across the globe, who will be keen to interact with one another to shape the ecosystem together.” R&WI

China Remains Growth Driver: Report

Asian Sky Group has released its “Year End 2016 Asia Pacific Civil Helicopter Fleet Report,” showing a breakdown of the region’s helicopter fleet by size, replacement cost, segments, sizes and original equipment manufacturer (piston aircraft are excluded).

“With each issue of the Asia Pacific Civil Helicopter Fleet Report, [Asian Sky Group] better understands the data and information that readers and the industry need,” said Jeffrey Lowe, Asian Sky Group managing director. “Overall, the report continues to provide relevant information and has become an indispensable source on business aviation within the Asia-Pacific region.”

Asian Sky Group highlighted the following points from its report:

At the end of 2016, 3,924 helicopters (excusing piston-powered ones) made up Asia-Pacific’s civil fleet. China remained the region’s “growth driver,” with 85 new helicopters in 2016, an increase of 21% year over year.

The region’s fleet is still centralized in Australia, Japan, China and New Zealand, with helicopters in those countries making up 61% of the total region’s fleet. “Australia represents the largest market overall and is the largest market for Bell Helicopter, followed by Japan, the largest market for Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo, and China, the largest market for Sikorsky,” noted the report. “New Zealand follows these three, with the largest market for MD Helicopters.”

Airbus, Bell, Sikorsky and Leonardo make up 90% of the market.

54% of the fleet is used for multiple missions, 12% for corporate/private, 9% for offshore, 7% for search and rescue, and 5% for emergency medical. “In replacement cost terms, offshore has become the largest segment.”

“A more recent shift in the Asia-Pacific fleet has been the usage by local operators of aircraft dry-leased from dedicated helicopter leasing companies. By yearend 2016, Asia Pacific’s operators were using more than 170 helicopters dry-leased from third parties, with a replacement cost value of $1.5 billion.”

The largest lessors in the region include Milestone Aviation Group and Waypoint Leasing. R&WI

Heli-Expo 2017

Bell Lifts Curtain on Futuristic Concept Rotorcraft

Bell Helicopter has a new, futuristic concept rotorcraft on which the company literally raised the curtain during the first full day of Heli-Expo. The Bell FCX-001 is a demonstrator for new technology both inside and outside of the aircraft.

Photo by Ed Garza

“Being a pioneer in the aircraft industry is in our DNA and we want to share this renewed passion with the world,” Bell President and CEO Mitch Snyder said. “The FCX-001 points the way for our future – a renewed focus on innovative solutions and technologies. When the time is right we look forward to sharing more of what we’re doing behind closed doors.”

The airframe would be made from advanced sustainable material and would provide enhanced visibility with energy management capabilities. Bell is also planning landing gear with non-traditional geometries and morphing rotor blades. The Bell FCX-001 would contain a single pilot seat, allowing him or her to control it through augmented reality and an artificial intelligence computer assistance system. The passenger cabin would use that same augmented reality technology for entertainment purposes, like video calling and watching movies.

While the Bell FCX-001 is not on track to production, the technology comprising it could be. J. Scott Drennan, Bell’s director of innovation, said the new rotor blade design and landing gear could end up on some existing or future Bell aircraft. The Bell FCX was conceptualized seven months ago, leaving plenty of room for growth.

“The end goal to this is to show the marketplace the technology we plan to bring to bear on future [aircraft] that come out. It’s also a place we can experiment … It’s not just technology for technology’s sake,” Drennan said. R&WI

MD Helicopters Unveils 6XX Concept

MD Helicopters has unveiled its MD 6XX concept helicopter, previously announced at Heli-Expo in 2016.

With an emphasis on the company having moved production in-house to reduce costs and streamline its processes, CEO Lynn Tilton also explained the aircraft’s features in a press conference.

Photo by Ed Garza

Features include: Genesys Aerosystems IDU-680 all-glass cockpit; Helicopter Technology Co. S411 main rotor blades, which are bonded three-section airfoil designs; four-bladed tail rotor; extended composite boom; and IFR capability. “The MD 6XX is on track to become not only the fastest, highest gross-weight, quietest MD-brand helicopter ever; but the absolute best in its class,” said Tilton.

Delivery is expected by 2018. R&WI

Korea Coast Guard Receives Sikorsky Winged-S Award

The South Korean Coast Guard’s crews were honored with Sikorsky’s Winged-S Rescue Awards for their lifesaving achievements and search and rescue response efforts March 8 at Heli-Expo. Sikorsky President Dan Schultz presented the awards in a ceremony at the manufacturer’s booth.

Photo by Ed Garza

The unit was recognized for several achievements over the past several years. On Feb. 27, the Guard performed a mission off the peninsula after a crane accident caused injury to a crew member on a fishing boat. The unit’s S-92 was dispatched and hoisted the individual who was then transported to a hospital. On June 29, 2015, the unit with an S-92 transported another injured fisherman to a hospital.

Korea’s coast guard had been operating a single S-92 since March 2014. Later this year, it is preparing to take delivery of a second one, which is on display at Heli-Expo.

One month after the unit had received its first S-92, it had been called to help rescue survivors of the highly publicized MV Sewol ferry that had capsized off the southern coast. The guard with the S-92 transported rescue crews to the scene of theaccident. R&WI

Leonardo Unifies Customer Support with TeamUp Brand

Leonardo has reorganized its “Customer Support & Training” offerings into a unified group called TeamUp, the manufacturer said at Heli-Expo March 7.

“Our Customer Support and Training organization, under new leadership that has evolved alongside the requirements and demands of our customers, has launched a new image under the TeamUp brand that conveys our highest dedication and understanding of our customer needs,” said Daniele Romiti, managing director of Leonardo. “Our TeamUp approach brings together the best of our Customer Support and Training personnel and resources to deliver for our customers and their aircraft around the world.” R&WI