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2016 Year in Review

From April’s EC225 crash and the effects of slumping oil to light helicopter initiatives and new drone rules, we highlight the most significant rotorcraft developments of 2016.

Drone Developments

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) aren’t a new concept, but 2016 was the backdrop for significant drone development. Outlined by a panel at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Technology Summit Sept. 19, as new technology and regulations come to market, the rotorcraft industry will have to be ready for airspace — and business — integration.

Possible in forms ranging from pocket-sized to full-sized helicopters, drones have a variety of capabilities applicable to many sectors. This was evident in Lockheed Martin’s November drone demonstration in New York. During the showing, a Kaman K-MAX, the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA), Indago and Desert Hawk 3.1 performed tandem search and rescue, firefighting and reconnaissance missions with each other and human controllers.

Aurora Flight Sciences had a demonstration of its own in November when it showed a manned Bell Helicopter 206 performing an Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) flight test. The company now has plans to upgrade a Bell UH-1H Huey, with an integration of AACUS and Aurora’s Tactical Autonomous Aerial Logistics System (TALOS). TALOS is being developed as a part of the Office of Naval Research’s AACUS program. However, Aurora is also researching its commercial applications.

Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have been picking up on these capabilities in recent years, and that didn’t slow in 2016. In March, news outlets reported that in California, the San Diego Sheriff’s Office was considering drone integration. Missing persons, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) and firefighting operations could be assisted by drones in the future. The office’s drone panel, organized in 2015, was looking to other Californian law enforcement bases, like FAA-approved drone operator Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, to learn more.

Aviation entities are also aware of drone capabilities. Bristow Group, Era Group, Boeing, Korean Air and FLIR Systems Inc. decided to try to capitalize on such technology in 2016.

In February, Bristow invested $4.2 million in Sky-Futures, a drone inspection data servicer in the oil and gas industry. This allowed the company to add drone inspection services to its offerings, and the contract included an exclusive partnership agreement.

Era partnered with Total Safety, an industrial inspection and safety services firm, to offer expanded flight operations, technology and data processing capabilities. Boeing and Korean Air partnered to renew a project to convert some South Korean military helicopters into UAS after the airline successfully completed a remodel of the ROK Air Force’s retired MD Helicopters MD500s into drones. Korean Air provides the aircraft; Boeing provides the technical support.

FLIR acquired Prox Dynamics AS, a Norwegian nano-class drone developer and manufacturer, in a $134 million deal. Now FLIR has an entire subsidiary dedicated to UAS and has plans to integrate the company into FLIR’s surveillance segment.


A common theme in 2016 among militaries around the world was the need to update and modernize helicopter fleets. Whether this meant ending or beginning contracts, however, depended on the country.

One of the most controversial modernization efforts of 2016 was the Polish Defense Ministry’s decision to cancel a contract for 50 Airbus Helicopters H225M Caracals. That came to fruition in October as the deal fell through. The ministry then struck a deal with Sikorsky’s Polish facility for Black Hawks. However, the modernization effort is still in progress and defense has put out a tender for new aircraft. Manufacturers including Airbus have reportedly been invited back to the table.

DARPA’s Tern program, among others, is scheduled to fly a demonstrator within the next two years.Photo courtesy of DARPA

Russian Helicopters spent the year signing various agreements in different parts of the world, including China, Peru, India, Iran and multiple African nations. A majority of contracts were culminated during trade shows, where the company also took the opportunity to show new helicopters. In November, Russian Helicopters announced a new “Arctic” variation, designated for the Russian Navy. The “Arctic” Mi-8AMTsh-VA made an appearance during a private showing at the country’s ARMY-2016. And back in February, an unmanned tiltrotor, created by a Russian Helicopters division, completed a new testing stage after a successful first flight.

In October, R&WI contributor Richard Whittle provided an update on U.S. military projects, which saw significant advances in 2016. “Over the next two years,” he wrote, “at least five manned and unmanned advanced vertical lift technology demonstrator aircraft for the military are scheduled to fly.” The Army-led Future Vertical Lift program to produce two Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator aircraft is set to see flight in late 2017 or early 2018. DARPA’s X-Plane program, headed by Aurora Flight Sciences, its Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) program, headed by Lockheed Martin, and its

Tern program, headed by Northrop Grumman, are all scheduled to fly demonstrators within the next two years.


In 2015, the oil and gas market was caught off guard, trying to find footing and adjust from 2014’s price plunge. But in 2016, no one was surprised.

Drilling routes have decreased by some 50%. Operators and manufacturers have been conducting mass layoffs due to the declining need for aircraft. Lessors are realigning with lessees, reacting to the over-supply of offshore helicopters. The entrance of super twin helicopters expected in 2014 didn’t happen in 2016 either. But predictions consistently say that the market will stabilize in 2020.

In fact, OPEC announced in November that it plans to limit production in 2017, which immediately hiked up prices in anticipation. BP announced not long after that it plans to start drilling in the Gulf of Mexico from its Mad Dog field off the coast of Louisiana. If approved, the project would not start until 2021.

Keeping the offshore market afloat until then is the need for rig maintenance. Helicopters are also needed to transport workers to and from them. There are still offshore projects in operation, though they are few.

CHC Helicopter, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016, also recently extended its 2012 contract with Shell Australia for three new Sikorsky S-92s.

Commercial Aircraft Programs

Many aircraft programs saw varied stages of progress in 2016, with location changes, unveilings and deliveries across the globe.

The year kicked off with Israel’s AirMule unmanned lift-fan demonstrator making its first untethered, autonomous flight in January. Airbus Helicopters announced in July that its H160 passed a few milestones during the flight-testing phase, validating the aeromechanical configuration.

Leonardo was able to resume flight testing of the AW609 prototype in August, following a delay after it had crashed.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. also completed a successful test flight in September with the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). It underwent weapons integration the following month.

XTI also saw progression with its TriFan 600 prototype, tapping Honeywell International for its HTS900 engine and securing Series B financing.

Prototypes were delivered in 2016 as well. The first two Kaman K-MAXs arrived at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, in May. Sikorsky accepted delivery of prototype T70 in June from Polish Sikorsky subsidiary PZL Mielec. It was designated for the Turkish Utility Helicopter Program. Marenco Swisshelicopter did not bring a prototype to Helitech in October, but the second prototype of its SKYe SH09 started extending its flight envelope to higher speeds and altitude earlier in the year. Its EASA certification is planned for 2017.

Certification for the Marenco Swisshelicopter SKYe SH09 is planned for 2017.Photo courtesy of Marenco

Bell Helicopter’s 505 Jet Ranger X program was moved from Louisiana to Quebec over the summer. In turn, the manufacturer would shift subassembly of 525 Relentless cabins from its Amarillo, Texas, facility to Louisiana. In September, Bell also unveiled a new program, which the company hopes will get picked up by the U.S. Marine Corps. Also that month, Bell unveiled its plan for the V-247 Vigilant — a single-engine, tiltrotor, Group 5 unmanned aircraft system. While not part of an official military program, the Vigilant is Bell’s response to the U.S. Marine Corps’ 2016 Aviation Plan.

2016 saw two particularly unique first flights in September. The U.S. Marine Corps Bell Helicopter MV-22B completed a successful first flight. Though it wasn’t the Osprey’s first flight, it was the first flight with a 3-D printed titanium assembly in the engine compartment that secures the engine to the primary wing structure.

The University of Maryland’s solar-powered helicopter was the first of its kind to fly. Its four rotors and eight blades flew for nine seconds and got more than 1 foot off the ground.

U.S. Presidential Election

Although the voting public may have been divided last election season, it is safe to say everyone might agree the 2016 election cycle was unconventional. From the start, it left the nation with many questions about not only the final outcome, but also the impact the election process would have on industry.

In July, we explored how an election might stall new FAA actions. Sources said executive officers are instructed not to do anything new regarding policy, as it could influence the election. Now that the Electoral College has secured Donald Trump’s place office, what will happen now?

During a session at NBAA in November, political analysts James Carville and Mary Matalin reinforced to the audience that Trump represented change far more than democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. To that tune, Trump has vowed a temporary freeze on all new regulation and a policy of eliminating two existing regulations for every new one. This puts a significant amount of discretion at the hands of the next Transportation secretary.

President-elect Trump and President Obama.Photo courtesy of The White House

Presumably, that person will be Elaine Chao, whom Trump nominated at the end of November. An advocate of privatization, she is also in favor of reduced governmental regulations. Her resume includes high-level transportation positions under President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s and Labor secretary under President George W. Bush.

With Trump, a consumer of helicopter services, and Chao at the helm, the incoming administration might surprise us.

Humanitarian Efforts

From search and rescue, to transport, to reconnaissance and more, helicopters flew humanitarian missions throughout 2016. With their unique capabilities, helicopters proved to be essential through various notable natural disasters.

Cyclone Winston whipped through Fiji in late February, and Airbus Helicopters Foundation responded within the first 48 hours. It chartered an AS355 Ecureuil 2, which was then used for damage assessment, and transportation of supplies and civil security experts. Later, the Royal Australian Navy deployed three MRH-90s (its version of the NHIndustries NH90) onboard the HMAS Canberra, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force used NH90s to airlift supplies.

Around the same time, Migrant Offshore Aid Station planned to deploy two VTOL unmanned aircraft during a search for refugees in Southeast Asia’s Andaman Sea. Oregon-based operator Precision Integrated Programs was tapped to deploy Aerovel Flexrotor drones off of the Aid Station’s search and rescue vessel, the M.Y. Phoenix.

In August, the GES Africa Conservation Fund dedicated $500,000 for helicopter support to fight poaching in South Africa. If purchased, helicopter support could save a number of endangered wildlife, including rhinoceroses, elephants and lions. The rotorcraft would operate in the Greater Kruger National Park region of northeast South Africa.

U.S. Air Force servicemen deliver supplies via CH-47 Chinook during an aid relief mission in Haiti.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

When Hurricane Matthew roared its way from the Caribbean to North Carolina in October, it caused more than 20 deaths in the U.S. and left Haiti in critical condition in its wake. The U.S. military immediately sent nine helicopters, including Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions and Boeing Ch-47 Chinooks, to Haiti carrying a military relief aid task force. Airlink partnered with Bell Helicopter to send charter flights to the country, delivering more than 100,000 pounds of supplies on a Bell 429 and Bell 412EP. The U.S. Coast Guard deployed at least one Sikorsky MH-60 Jayhawk to join the effort. At home, the Louisiana National Guard deployed two Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and two Airbus Helicopters UH-72 Lakotas for relief efforts in Florida and South Carolina.

NH90s were the first rotorcraft on the scene after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through New Zealand, killing two people. More than 1,000 tourists and residents were trapped at the earthquake’s epicenter near Kaikoura, requiring helicopter rescues. The USS Sampson was on course to the country to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the New Zealand Navy. With two Sikorsky SH-60 Sea Hawks on board, the ship changed course and headed to the disaster site to offer its services. New Zealand’s Civil Defense joined in the efforts as well, with commercial operator Christchurch Helicopters leading evacuation efforts.


At the hands of a sluggish market, many operators and manufacturers were forced to make undesirable business moves in 2016. Some, like Caverton Helicopters, Bristow Group and others, laid off portions of their workforces. Others, like Erickson and CHC Group, filed for bankruptcy.

Both CHC and Erickson filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2016 — CHC in May and Erickson six months later.

Chapter 11 is voluntary, and is also referred to as “reorganization” bankruptcy. This section of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code allows companies to propose a plan of reorganization to pay creditors over time and keep the business running during the process. The plan must be approved by a judge.

A U.S. bankruptcy court had cleared CHC to end 38 helicopter leases immediately in May. Leases included those for 16 Airbus Helicopters, 12 Leonardo and 10 Sikorsky aircraft. The company filed a plan on Nov. 11 and was to attend a court date set for Dec. 20, 2016. The company is still operational, displayed by a recent contract extension with Shell Australia.

Erickson received final court approval of debtor-in-possession (DIP) financing facility on Dec. 1. This allows the company to have access to the full $60 million it requested to keep the business operational.

Aircraft Setbacks

The KUH-1 Surion had failed cold-weather tests.Photo courtesy of Korean Aerospace Industries

The industry has faced some challenges this year, including the CHC Helicopter-operated Airbus Helicopters EC225 crash in April and the Bell Helicopter 525 prototype crash in July. Add to that this year’s preliminary report of the October 2015 Leonardo AW609 crash and the failed KAI Surion test, its clear that 2016 presented some setbacks for various aircraft.

The Airbus Super Puma crash in Norway is still making headlines, most recently with one oil and gas company turning away from the model and toward Sikorsky S-92s. That company is Statoil — the same one employing the helicopter during its crash. A gearbox malfunction is taking most of the blame for the crash that killed 11 passengers and two pilots, however Airbus said it stands by its product. After the crash, EASA issued then later lifted a temporary flight suspension for Airbus EC225LP and AS332L2 civil operations on the condition that new gearbox maintenance mandates be adhered to. Norway’s Civil Aviation Authority still has an Airbus Super Puma ban in place.

In June, Italy’s national agency for aviation safety said in a preliminary report that the Leonardo AW609’s behavior that led to the crash was not completely predicted by the manufacturer. The No. 2 prototype crash killed the two test pilots on board when the helicopter broke up in midair during high-speed tests in Italy. Bell partnered with then AgustaWestland in the development of the civil tiltrotor, with Bell playing a significant role in refining the flight-control software. Nonetheless, in August soon after flight testing resumed, an AW609 prototype arrived in Philadelphia, where another prototype was being assembled. It could be expected to join the test fleet in 2017.

The Airbus Helicopters EC225’s future is questioned.Photo courtesy of Jonathan Winton

In the last quarter of the 2016, deliveries of the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Airbus co-developed KUH-1 Surion were stopped. The cause reportedly was failed cold-weather tests. The previous winter, the aircraft performed safety tests in Michigan, and more ice had built up than was permitted on the engine’s air inlet. KAI Surions already delivered are not likely to be operated until the problem is addressed.


Longstanding conflicts in Iraq, Syria and areas of Africa did not diminish in 2016. Helicopters from around the globe continued to fly in war zones performing counterterrorism operations.

In April, an update on the French Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT), or light aviation of the land army, focused on its operations in Africa. Operation Sanagris was launched in the Central African Republic at the end of 2013. But despite intentions to decrease troops, ALAT and other French forces were still there in 2016, supporting the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.

An anti-insurgent operation launched in 2014, Operation Barkhane, had 3,000 French troops headquartered in Chad’s capital of N’Djamena this year. This is set to be a permanent occupation involving five former French colonies. With a total of 2,000 troops, ALAT had approximately 30 helicopters deployed this year outside its home country. Some of them supported the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, a multinational force in 13 African nations. Aircraft in service included Tiger attack helicopters, Airbus Helicopters SA330 Pumas, AS532 Cougars, SA341/2 Gazelles and EC725 Caracals, and NHIndustries NH90 Caimans.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk aboard the USS Gravely has assisted in Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State group.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy

In April, Germany was also in Africa as a member of the task force. The country was looking to bolster military forces there and in defense of possible Russian threats. But German helicopters were seeing wear and tear, as the country decided to move up the planned retirement of its Sikorsky CH-53Gs, which Airbus had been modernizing to the -53GA configuration. At the time, German troops were also gearing up to relieve Dutch units deployed to the West African nation of Mali as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission. In May, German officials approved a proposal to raise troop levels by 7,000, with another increase to follow.

At the time, Germany was also involved with bombings against the Islamic State group in Syria. There, too, was the U.S. Navy. The guided missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107) heavily relied on Sikorsky Sea Hawks, said contributor Richard Whittle’s May update.

At the time, the ship was leading a detachment of four destroyers that had been escorting the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) as the aircraft carrier’s jets struck targets of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Sikorsky MH-60Rs performed mine detection with the U.S. Navy in the Arabian Gulf. Iraq furthered its anti-Islamic State group operations, taking delivery of Russian Mil Mi-28NEs in July under a 2012 contract to support counterinsurgency.

Russia had used the same model in March to liberate the Syrian city of Palmyra. Later in 2016, reports said the Russian Navy was set to deploy an aircraft carrier with Kamov Ka-52Ks onboard. The ship was designated for the Mediterranean Sea near Syria to support air strikes, and it was marked by British forces as it passed the British Isles on its way in October. In addition to the KA-52Ks, the Kuznetsov’s air wing included 15 Sukhoi Su-33 and Mikoyan MiG-29K/KUB fighters, and Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopters.

Regulatory Highlights

Many industry professionals noted that in 2016, conversations about drones changed from airspace fears to acceptance and opportunities. This could be due, in part, to the fact that aviation authorities worldwide put drones on the priority list among other safety concerns. Drones were even the topic of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s first-ever workshop in August.

In February, Transport Canada proposed location-based drone rules. This meant the agency would not distinguish between recreational and commercial operators. The new rules would retain the Special Flight Operations Certificate process, but not for those operating drones weighing 55 lb or less. The FAA officially released Part 107 in the summer, after initially proposing its Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations in February.

In August, EASA released a prototype regulation on unmanned aircraft operations. That rule is considered a prototype since EASA does not have legal power to publish rules on small aircraft. The agency plans to push for that authority in 2017. More than 20 member states, including France, the U.K. and Finland, already have their own set of drone regulations.

One method the FAA uses for rule development is the creation of committees to provide the agency with recommendations. The FAA’s Micro Unmanned Aircraft System Aviation Rulemaking Committee submitted recommendations in April for the permitting of operations of drones weighing less than 4.4 lb. The recommendations include the designation of four micro-UAS categories based on weight and risk.

The FAA’s RTCA Drone Advisory Committee, created in May, met for the first time in September. It is chaired by the CEO of Intel Corp. and includes two helicopter professionals among its 30-some members: Steven Rush, president of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Assn.; and Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Assn. International. The following month, the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team held its first meeting. The advisory committee is similar to the FAA’s NextGen board, while the team is modeled on the Commercial Aviation Safety Team.

But, any object impeding national airspace is still a concern. In July, the U.S. Dept. of the Interior announced a prototype project aimed at preventing drone pilots from interfering with aircraft fighting wildfires. And an FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) was created in 2016 to focus on the original threat in airspace — birds. The FAA said it expects that the Rotorcraft Bird Strike Working Group will present recommendations in October next year.

R&WI News

The year proved to be a transformative one for R&WI. Not only are our aesthetics different — note the new magazine logo and vibrant new website design — but our team has new vibrancy as well.

Joe Milroy

In April, our longtime publisher, Randy Jones, left R&WI after 27 years to pursue new avenues. After Jones’ departure, R&WI parent Access Intelligence named its Vice President and Aerospace Group Publisher Tish Drake as acting publisher. In December, Joe Milroy joined the team as publisher of aerospace. Previously, he served as publisher of sales for sister publications Avionics and Via Satellite.

In July, we formalized an Editorial Advisory Board. Since 1967, R&WI has benefited from the counsel of forward-thinking industry leaders, with both its contributors and editors. With board members from a variety of key areas within the industry, their insight has and will continue to guide our presentation of print and online content, as well as our annual Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit set for Sept. 20 to 21 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Our inaugural members include: Jeanette Eaton, regional sales executive at Sikorsky U.S. and Canada for Lockheed Martin; Tony Fazio, president at Fazio Group International; Kenneth Pyatt, founder and president of Sky Helicopters; Ed Stockhausen, director of safety at Metro Aviation; Steve Townes, founder and CEO of Ranger Aerospace; Ed Washecka, founder and CEO of Waypoint Leasing; and Alex Youngs, vice president of strategy and analysis at Vector Aerospace. In August, the board welcomed HeliValue$ Inc. President and American Society of Appraisers International Vice President Sharon Desfor.

The improved R&WI digital edition was up and running in July. Three months later, our electronic newsletter, The Rotorcraft Collective, bumped its distribution frequency.

August saw R&WI’s Assistant Managing Editor Amy Kluber promoted to managing editor after a year with the publication. The new title reflects her role more accurately than the previous, and the University of Missouri journalism graduate continues to be a driving force for the magazine. At the end of the month, we signed on a new team member — R&WI Assistant Editor S.L. Fuller. She graduated from The State University of New York at Fredonia in May, armed with degrees in journalism and public relations.

In the last quarter of the year, our September issue bearing the new logo hit the stands at our Rotorcraft Technology Summit in Fort Worth, Texas. In November, we launched our new website. You may find that at R&WI