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Appetite for Disruption: A Rotorcraft Program Update

Rounding up aircraft programs from Bell Helicopter, Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo, MD Helicopters and Sikorsky.

Bell Helicopter

Something big is happening at Bell Helicopter. CEO Mitch Snyder has given his innovation team orders to challenge the laws of physics, which the team is doing with the use of an unmanned platform powered by 12 individual motors each with 15 pounds of thrust. Called HYDRA, the unmanned aircraft system is what the innovation team is using to study dynamic control laws.

Bell is focused on ramping up production and meeting customer commitments for the 505, which entered service last year. The Textron subsidiary also has a major unveiling planned for Heli-Expo that was still under wraps at press time.

But what is evident is that Bell has a modern vision for its aircraft. The way pilots control throttles on current and future Bell rotorcraft types will expand, every in-production Bell model type features a glass cockpit, and the futuristic FCX-001 features no avionics at all.

The Bell Helicopter Jet Ranger X received a host of certifications in 2017, including FAA and EASA.Photo courtesy of Bell

“The entire Bell fleet is now all-glass cockpits and dual-channel [full authority digital engine control] engines. On the 505, there is still a manual throttle grip, but it’s not connected to the throttle cable anymore. It’s fully digital, and that’s the way we saw all of our future cockpits being configured,” Michael Nault, program director for Bell’s light helicopter division said during a pre-Heli-Expo media tour of its facility in Mirabel, Quebec.

Nault said one of the future goals for Bell is to eliminate tail rotors in future designs, which of course would require the manufacturer to overcome the complicated aerodynamic reactions that occur between the main rotor, tail rotor and fuselage when in sideward flight.

Regarding the 525 — the manufacturer is moving on from the fatal crash of its next-generation, super-medium, fly-by-wire rotorcraft near Italy, Texas, July 16, 2016. The NTSB mid-January confirmed vibration as the cause of the fly-by-wire rotorcraft. Bell had resumed flying the July before.

“Two of the 525s are back in flight about 80 hours since we resumed our flight testing activities,” said Cynthia Garneau, president of Bell Helicopter Textron Canada. “The customer advisory board is staying very connected to progress.”

“It has not scared any customers away, we’ve kept our customer advisory board informed about incorporating the changes recommended by NTSB, and they have been implemented and are in use on the current flight testing aircraft,” she said.

Airbus Helicopters

“The program is quite extensive at this stage,” said Bernard Fujarski, SVP and head of the H160 program at Airbus Helicopters. Airbus first announced the H160 at Heli-Expo 2015, and three years later the aircraft is the fixture of its flight testing and certification efforts.

The H160’s flight testing program has achieved more than 600 flight hours and has proven capable of operating in temperatures as low as negative 40 deg C “with no issue,” said Fujarski. “This is the first time that a civil rotorcraft is built with a full composite airframe.”

But Fujarski admits that the manufacturer encountered challenges flight testing of the H160, like loads measured on some of the main gearbox components that were higher than expected, leading to redesigning the main gearbox.

The Airbus Helicopters H160 features the Helionix avionics system, which gives the pilot the ability to push one button when in distress to allow the aircraft to automatically enter a safe flight condition with no pilot intervention.Photo by Anthony Pecchi, courtesy of Airbus

There has also been a focus on testing the H160’s inlet barrier filter, which is designed to reduce engine erosion and provide more power than alternate filtration systems.

H160 also features the Helionix avionics system, which gives the pilot the ability to push one button when in distress to allow the aircraft to automatically enter a safe flight condition with no pilot intervention.

Both Fujarski and former Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury see the H160 as a game changer, and they’re building it to be capable of serving nearly every civil and military mission type available. For example, the French armed forces’ replacement for light military helicopters will be based on the H160, said Faury. The H160 is scheduled to enter service in early 2019.

As Faury exited Airbus Helicopters on his last annual call before moving on to Airbus’ commercial airplanes division, he stated that Airbus would compete for the future urban air mobility market, as well. It hopes to fly its CityAirbus this year, a battery-powered VTOL aircraft meant to autonomously carry up to four passengers over “megacities” on fixed routes. It would be manned, however, in its initial operations.

“Long-term, there will be a fusion between where the drones are and where the helicopters are,” Faury said. “Helicopters will be more automated, and flight control systems will take over from pilots, for large and critical parts of the mission. Maybe one day, we will see flights of passengers with no pilot on board, but I think there is still a bit of work to do on the psychology of human beings before we reach that point.”


“This is poised to be the first civil certified multirole tiltrotor in the market with certification expected in 2019,” said Carlo Gualdaroni, chief business officer at Leonardo Helicopters, in reference to the AW609.

Leonardo, too, has suffered delays toward certification of its fly-by-wire tiltrotor. Its second prototype broke up in 2015 over Santhià, Italy, when the blades of its right- and left-hand prop rotors all flapped extremely and struck the wings’ leading edges during a flight test.

In 2017, Italian safety investigators recommended that the AW609’s aerodynamic behavior at high-speed conditions be reviewed, along with verification of its control laws when the aircraft is in extreme flight condition, including verification of the effectiveness of the flight controls inputs given by the pilots to avoid the possibility of uncommanded coupling effects.

Certification for Leonardo’s AW609 tiltrotor is expected in 2019.Photo courtesy of Leonardo

Gualdaroni said these recommendations are being incorporated into the flight-testing program, moving forward. One AW609 prototype is currently flying in the U.S. and has amassed 1,300 flight hours. Another prototype is being assembled with completion imminent.

The Italian manufacturer is also introducing a new variant of the AW169 and has other projects under research and development.

“A special variant of the AW169 designed for Rega Swiss Air Rescue will also feature full ice protection system, becoming the first light helicopter with true all weather flight capability,” said Gualdaroni. “We’re leading the development of a next-generation tiltrotor under the Clean Sky 2 program in Europe, and we’ve also tested active rotor blade and all-electric tail rotor technologies under European initiatives.”


“We architected the Raider system from the beginning to transition to being an optionally or optimally piloted aircraft,” said Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky’s VP of technology and innovation. “Our forward-thinking development on Raider sees us moving from traditional circuit breakers to software-controlled circuit breakers, from traditional throttle controls to digital throttle controls, and going to the full fly-by-wire flight controls.”

One of the U.S. Army’s key research and development focus is driving competition among original equipment manufacturers, as the service evaluates precursor models to its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. That Army-led program intends to usher in a new generation of rotorcraft across the military, based on five capability sets, or mission profiles, within the next two decades.

Van Buiten leads Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider program, which is focused on matching the FVL program’s light variant requirements for light attack, reconnaissance and special operations missions.

The Sikorsky S-97 program takes advantage of the Raider’s autonomy suite.Photo courtesy of Sikorsky

One of the demonstrations of the S-97 program takes advantage of the Raider’s autonomy suite — allowing a flight crew on a “scramble mission” to jump in the Raider, push a button and enable a high-speed autonomous flight while they perform mission planning, alignments and prepare for their mission while the Raider flies itself.

Sikorsky’s partnership with GE Aviation has also been helpful in research and development around new engine control and engine interface technology.

“The digital engine control is so advanced that pilots can largely just load their flight plans and the aircraft will do the rest,” Van Buiten said. “The pilot is just putting in cyclic commands using the collective in low-speed flight. In high speed, we don’t even use collective; it’s just cyclic.”

In August, a flight-testing prototype version of the Raider suffered substantial damage after a hard landing during at Sikorsky’s developmental flight center in Florida.

“Experiencing that hard landing helped us learn how to sharpen the flight controls,” Van Buiten said. “We’re sharpening the software development process and focused on operations where the aircraft is transiting from ground to flight, as well as when it gets into high speeds above 200 kt.”

MD Helicopters

“This development effort is still very much in a market/concept validation stage,” said Andy Pillado, the newly appointed VP of military and commercial sales for MD Helicopters. “Although we have received nothing but support since the MD 6XX Concept aircraft debuted with a single-patient EMS/air ambulance configuration at HAI Heli-Expo 2017 in Dallas, we are committed to completing an exhaustive market assessment across multiple mission/market segments before moving in to production.”

MD Helicopters’ 6XX four-bladed tailrotor, high-speed quiet cabin helicopter represents the company’s next-generation air ambulance concept. Pillado said MD expects law enforcement and military operators to be the earliest adopters of the 6XX.

New platform developments in the industry generally take five to seven years to go from concept to certification to customer delivery.

“While we believe we have the ability to complete this effort in less time — perhaps even significantly less time — we have no intention to rush,” said Pillado. “We are not ruling out the release of variants on the MD 6XX concept.”

MD Helicopters expects military and law enforcement operators to be the earliest adopters of its MD 6XX.Photo courtesy of MD

Meet Kopter

What was once Marenco Swisshelicopter became simply Kopter Feb. 1. In front of a crowd of media, employees, Swiss business partners and others, CEO Andreas Löwenstein unveiled the new brand.

“We are stepping away from an engineering company,” he said. “We were an engineering company. And we are becoming — I would say, ‘today,’ — a full-fledged helicopter manufacturer.”

Kopter’s SKYe SH09 gets to keep its name, though. It’s still the same design that includes a cabin that can accommodate a pilot and up to seven passengers, a Honeywell HTS900-2 1D engine (the first rotorcraft to have it as standard equipment) and the ability cruise at 140 kt. The SH09’s ability to offer benefits of a twin-engine rotorcraft as a single-engine platform is a quality that Löwenstein said is key. The price is also set to be competitive at $3.3 million in 2019.

That’s the year Kopter aims to start delivering its helicopter. The plan is for the SH09 to achieve EASA certification in the first quarter of 2019, with FAA certification following no more than eight months later. Kopter has received 27 firm orders with down payments, and 19 more are contingent on certification. Löwenstein said the company also has 120 letters of intent.

Kopter CTO Michele Riccobono told R&WI that the company is being taken more seriously now. with the industry approaching the company, wanting to be part of the program. Operators are wondering how to order, and vendors are wondering if Kopter is looking for partnerships. Business would be worldwide, according to the company’s plans. Already, a Kopter facility in Munich is responsible for engineering support, houses the certification systems center, and should one day house mission equipment and related supplemental type certification activities. There’s a branch of Kopter setting up shop in Dallas to work sales and market development and final assembly facilities are expected to be multinational. RWI