Times of crisis breed innovation in business practices, and helicopter engine makers and maintenance vendors are demonstrating this in their operations.
Turboshaft engine manufacturers Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney Canada, Rolls-Royce and Safran Helicopter Engines (the newly rebranded Turbomeca) responded to the Great Recession in the more recent oil-price collapse by pairing costs and fortifying service offerings and capabilities. Maintenance vendors like industry leader StandardAero have done the same.
As malaise in major economies persists and oil markets offer no hope of a rebound before 2018 or 2020, engine makers and maintainers are pressing on with efforts to help make customers’ operations more efficient and to streamline their own activities.
They are seeking ways to improve the performance of existing engines, investigating technologies to support greater capabilities and next-generation ones and taking a wide variety of steps to reduce engine life-cycle costs.
They also are embracing information technology and new processes to help them keep engines “on wing” by better analyzing current performance and heading off pending failures.
StandardAero VP Helicopter Programs Manny Atwal’s observation echoed those of leaders at the other organizations.
“We really have to make sure that the service level we provide meets or exceeds what customers are looking for,” said Atwal. “That’s where we really want to try to differentiate and help our customers and operators.”
This year marks a notable achievement for Scottsdale, Arizona-headquartered StandardAero. The company has been overhauling the Model 250 turboshaft for 50 years and has
established itself as an expert in that stalwart powerplant of the light helicopter fleet.
“We’ve been trusted for 50 years,” said Atwal. “We’re committed to continue to move forward as well,” adding that the company has invested in product enhancements like elements of the Value Improvement Package that Rolls-Royce developed for the M250 repair. He also highlighted StandardAero’s investment in facilities.
“We’re committed to this market, and to the M250 program,” he said.
Each industry leader we interviewed for this story emphasized his company’s commitment to the helicopter market, perhaps individual efforts to dispel some of the doubt that hangs over the rotorcraft industry in the midst of what they also generally described as the oil-price crisis.
A recent gathering of helicopter industry analysts in Washington, D.C. offered further evidence of that crisis’ severity. Rotorcraft OEMs already have said deliveries are off on the order of 50% over the last two years, and some engine makers noted that some industry segments’ flight hours — a leading indicator for maintenance demand — have dropped by about 30%.
The Washington meeting of the group, which gathers at least twice a year, included a discussion of eight separate forecasts by OEMs and others. Each forecast was made with its own data sets assumptions, and the group’s discussions were preliminary. But a collective summary of the forecasts indicated that projections of helicopter deliveries over the next 10 years had dropped by more than 5% since the groups’ 2016 meeting and had fallen more than 20% since the prognosticators met at the start of last year.
Despite today’s bleak conditions, the engine leaders we spoke with all said their companies’ commitments to the helicopter industry is based on their confidence in its long-term growth potential.
While this year and next might be in a crisis, “we do believe that the helicopter market in the long term will continue to grow and to be very significant,” said Cyrille Poetsch, Safran Helicopter Engines’ EVP of programs. “Our forecast is that up to 2030, there will be an average growth of 3%.” Safran expects that growth to be driven by countries outside Europe or North America.
Pratt & Whitney Canada’s objectives is to “be part of the solution and to get our customers through the downturn and into the growth that’s inevitably ahead,” said Tim Swail, that company’s VP of customer programs.
The leaders we spoke to did point to some bright spots. Rolls-Royce’s SVP for helicopters, Jason Propes, observed that while new helicopter deliveries have slowed, “the services side of the business has stabilized and hasn’t seen nearly the deterioration that new acquisitions have seen.”
Safran’s Poetsch pointed out that his company’s long-standing campaign to improve its customer service is paying off, with that engine maker being rated close to poor with competitors and customer-satisfaction surveys conducted last year.
Honeywell’s HTS900 is gaining traction through Eagle Copters’ supplemental type certificate conversion of the Bell Helicopter 407, which replaces the M250-C47 for improved high-altitude, hot-temperature performance. Honeywell’s helicopter engines product line director, Doug Kult, noted that Calgary, Alberta-based Eagle Copters delivered a converted Eagle 407HP to Helicopter Express of Atlanta, Georgia, late last year, and Heli Niugini of Papua New Guinea has purchased the upgrade.
The HTS900 is based on the engine Honeywell developed a decade ago for Bell’s failed Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter for the U.S. Army. Bell targeted for use in another canceled program, the civil 417. In 2015, Marenco Swisshelicopter selected the HTS900 for its single-engine SKYe SH09.
In its pursuit of greater efficiency in the engine development, Honeywell elected to use a twin-compressor design, which has become a staple in the company’s product line. He explained that the twin compressor gives the engine an 11-to-1 pressure ratio, which drives its fuel economy.
“What goes along with that is a piece of Honeywell-patented technology called a ported shroud,” Kult said. In engines that use axial stages or an axial-centrifugal stage, some anti-surge device must be placed in front of the compressor to maintain the engine search margin. Such devices often use guide vanes or other moving parts that carry maintenance costs. The ported shroud is a passive device; it has no moving parts to be maintained.
“It basically just uses physics to maintain the surge margin,” said Kult. “That’s a nice piece of technology.”
The HTS900 also uses what is called a segmented shroud around the high-pressure turbine. A big challenge for small-engine designers is maintaining the small clearance between the high-pressure turbine’s blade tips and the shroud that encases the turbine section. Any amount of the burning, expanding fuel air mixture that escapes between the tips and shroud robs the engine of efficiency.
The segmented shroud is manufactured in pieces that fit together like a puzzle to allow the shroud to expand and contract at the same rate as the turbine blades as the section heats up and cools.
“We maintain that gap consistently throughout the power band, and that keeps us from losing a lot of efficiency,” said Kult. That’s what drives HTS900 fuel usage that he said is 10% to 15% better than competing engines.
Eagle Copter launched the HTS900 upgrade at the onset of the Great Recession, which prompted Rolls-Royce to unveil a series of upgrades under the Value Improvement Program (VIP) kit. The kit includes modifications to the M250 C47B impeller, diffuser and first-stage turbine nozzle to provide additional power in high and hot conditions and reduce fuel burn without increasing engine weight.
The upgrade has since become the production standard for the C47B (which is now designated the C47B/8), and Bell is installing the upgrade on the production line for its 407GXP.
Rolls has an additional refinement of the C47B/8 called the C47E that introduces a dual-channel, full-authority digital engine controller that the manufacturer shows will improve or reduce pilot workload, reduce overall life-cycle costs for operators and boost component reliability.
“It will also bring additional engine health monitoring and data recording capability, up to 2,000 hours,” Propes said.
The C47E upgrade also provides an additional 15 hp “pad” that he said can be used for extra electrical power generation for customers. The upgrade is in use on the U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman unmanned Fire Scout and Boeing’s attack AH-6i, Propes said, and is certified for use on the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. Rolls last year signed an agreement with MD Helicopters to develop a C47E version for that company’s single-engine helicopters.
StandardAero also has refined the C47 with a custom overhauled hydromechanical unit designed by its engineers to boost performance by lowering starting temperatures on engines experiencing warm starting conditions. Warm starts can cause operators to resort to alternate starting procedures, said Atwal. Analysis of customer operations by StandardAero engineers found that average start temperatures range between 725 deg C and 735 deg C. The enhanced hydromechanical unit can reduce that by more than 120 deg C, the company said.
StandardAero also worked with Rolls on a compressor-case life-extension program for M250 Series 2 engine, developing the EnduroCoat 3500 advanced technology coating system to reduce “plastic breakout” problems common on M250 compressor cases. Those problems can lead to aircraft downtime for operators. Series 2 compressor cases are used in more than 6,000 helicopter engines worldwide.
“We’ve had about 400 cases done” since the upgrade was announced last March, said Atwal. “We’re approaching 500 to 800 hours in service on some applications. It’s doing what we thought it would do so far, so it’s meeting expectations. We are pretty excited about it.” StandardAero is offering a conditional lifetime warranty guarantee for compressor-case customers.
Atwal said projects like those illustrate one of StandardAero’s key strengths: the company aims to stay close and familiar to its customers and their operations.
“We don’t just fix your engine, and send it back to you at a competitive price and great turn time,” he said. “What we try to do is look into your fleet of aircraft. Why are your engines coming off aircraft for removal? Are you getting the most out of your engine that you could? Are there any recommendations that we can make from a technical and engineering standpoint that can either increase your time on wing or improve your overall margins to help you meet your mission profile.”
Much of that interaction is personal. Atwal said StandardAero customers aren’t inclined to spend the time or money for health and usage monitoring or flight analysis systems on their light helicopters. Most of their data is captured on logbooks and maintenance records, he said.
“Collecting data is one thing,” he added. “But how are you actually going to crunch it and then how are you going to use it? Typically in the light market, they don’t have the wherewithal, resources or expertise to try to do much with that.”
Pratt & Whitney Canada also aims to maintain close relationships with its customers. It has about 100 representatives in the field to cover all its engine products.
“We feel very strongly about that network and their proximity and intimacy with the customers, their decisions and what’s facing them in their operations,” said the engine maker’s Swail. “And we put tools in their hands to continue to improve their reach.”
The company now is rolling out to field reps Onsight collaboration to connect with aircraft technicians and remote specialists and enable rapid diagnosis and resolution of field issues. Swail said the system provides a live, interactive link between the customer, field reps and the P&WC customer engineer and allows the capture of high-quality video and images even in low-bandwidth areas where Wi-Fi and cellular signals are weak.
In addition to its other powerplant and support technological initiatives, P&WC is focusing on improving its ability to do prognostics and “be increasingly proactive with our customers, helping them both operationally and in improving availability,” Swail said. One example is its new oil analysis “clinical trial.” The engine maker has gotten customers (free of charge) to enroll more than 3,100 engines across all product families in this effort to refine its ability to analyze metal traces in engine oil to better find early precursors of component failures. The company plans to spend the next two years or so maturing that capability.
For its part, Safran is revamping much of its operation. The company this year plans to demonstrate a new free-turbine design, the last main component of its Tech 3000 initiative aimed at developing technology to support a new family of engines rated up to 3,200 shp. It already has demonstrated the performance of the project’s new-design compressor and hot section. It is pursuing greater standardization of parts among its various engine lines and looking into the development while new civil engines that are completely free of U.S.-based export restrictions.
The company launched the first phase of its “factory of the future” strategy in December when it started its first automated production line dedicated to turbine blade manufacturing at the Bordes, France, plant. Safran has another initiative, Cap 2020, aimed at reducing turnaround time on engine repairs and overhauls to an average of 30 days from 62 in 2016 and 100 in 2011. R&WI