Oil Glut Shows Signs of Easing, But Not Soon Enough for Operators
The global glut of oil may be showing signs of easing, but such promise cannot be fulfilled soon enough for helicopter operators supporting oil and gas exploration and production or their aircraft makers and vendors.
Oil prices were flirting with the $50-a-barrel mark at press time in mid-August. The inventory of oil floating on ships in the North Sea, which exceeded more than 11 million barrels in July, began to shrink last month.
Late this month, the 14 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) plan an “informal meeting” during the International Energy Forum in Algeria to discuss options for stabilizing the global oil market. Analysts are beginning to talk about a rebound in oil prices (to levels that would support increased exploration and production) in the 2018 timeframe, which is on the rosier side of projections.
But the glut has recast the exploration and production business, with producers pressuring all of their vendors to provide critical services at ever lower prices. In some cases, they are pushing vendors to take on greater risk through contracts tied to the outcome of projects in lieu of traditional fee-for-services work. Helicopter operators have the added pressure of a portion of their heavy-aircraft fleets of Airbus Helicopters’ EC225s grounded by safety edicts.
The total pressure is forging changes. CHC Group in early August asked the U.S. court overseeing its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case to give it more time — until Jan. 3 — to work without interference from creditors and others on securing new equity, reducing its aircraft fleet and renegotiating aircraft leases.
Erickson Inc., which on Aug. 15 said it had been “unable to secure material business wins in a timely manner” or “reduce our costs fast enough to align with” revenue generation, is being pushed by a key lender, Wells Fargo, to repay a $140 million revolving credit facility. Its agreement with the bank required a $3.5 million penalty payment on Aug. 29 if the loan was not paid off, with penalties of $1.5 milion on Sep. 12 and $500,000 each week or two thereafter.
For its part, Era Group launched a new unmanned aircraft system partnership with Total Safety. R&WI
FAA Prioritizes Part 27 Policy Review
The FAA Rotorcraft Directorate is prioritizing a review of certification policy for light helicopters to “facilitate a more rapid incorporation of advances in technology,” a top official said. Directorate Manager Lance Gant said his team is developing a proposed Safety Continuum policy statement for certification of systems and equipment under Part 27 of Federal Aviation Regulations and aims to release it before year’s end. He is to discuss that and other certification streamlining efforts Sep. 19 at R&WI’s Rotorcraft Technology Summit in Fort Worth, Texas (www.rotorcraftsummit.com).
The proposal would establish Part 27 classes “based on aircraft weight and passenger capacity for rotorcraft up to 7,000 lb,” Gant said in a July 25 letter responding to four industry groups’ proposal to revise guidance for single-engine IFR helicopter certification.
“The purpose of this Safety Continuum concept is to facilitate a more rapid incorporation of advances in technology for systems and equipment by recognizing a balanced approach between the risk and safety benefits for installing such technology.” R&WI
525 Probe Eyes Tail,Nose Blade Strikes
The No. 1 525 prototype’s main rotor blades seem to have struck its tail and nose during a high-speed, engine-out test ending with the July crash that killed its two pilots.
The fly-by-wire Bell Helicopter super-medium, twin-engine helicopter broke up in midair during a flight to expand its operating envelope that included a test of the 525’s performance in one-engine-inoperative conditions as the aircraft approached its never-exceed speed (Vne), said the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigator-in-charge for the probe, John Lovell.
Bell early last March said it had flown the 525 above 200 kt in a shallow dive. A flight tracking service, Flightradar24, had reported July 6 that its last data set on the 525 flight put the aircraft at 199 kt at 1,975 ft.
Prior to the breakup, Lovell said, “data indicates that main rotor rpm dropped significantly.” He also said some of the aircraft’s main rotor blades “appeared to have dropped from their normal plane” of rotation.
Test pilots in a Bell 429 chase aircraft reported that some of the main rotor blades were moving out of plane before the aircraft broke up about 30 nm south-southwest of the flight’s launch point, Bell’s Xworx research center at Arlington Municipal Airport.
Data also indicates vibration in the main rotor during the accident sequence, Lovell said. Investigators are working to identify when and why that vibration began.
Lovell leads six NTSB investigators. Bell and the FAA are parties to the NTSB’s investigation as is General Electric, maker of 525s’ CT7-2F1 engines.
“This is one of the few accidents where we have so much data,” Lovell said. That includes telemetry that the 525 was transmitting back to the Xworx, telemetry from previous 525 flights and the observations of the test pilots in the chase 429. NTSB specialists extracted data from a flight test recorder retrieved from the wreckage, Lovell said, adding that the recorder data aligns with the flight’s telemetry. He said there don’t appear to have been any significant breaks in the telemetry stream.
Bell also has a full 525 systems simulator that includes main rotor mast, swashplate and actuators and other flight control and systems hardware as well as the current version of the flight control’s software. It can be used to re-create actual flights using telemetry data and to test refinements of flight control software. R&WI
Drone Safety, Integration Focus of White House Workshop
The first-ever workshop by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy about drones and the future of aviation provided a platform for discussions on drone opportunities and challenges in the U.S.
According to an Aug. 2 White House blog post, that office announced commitments from both public and private entities to safely integrate and adopt drone use across the U.S. Such initiatives include research funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Interior Dept.’s commitment to using drones in search and rescue operations, a $5 million down payment by New York to support drone growth across the state and commitments by industry associations to implement educational efforts on privacy issues surrounding drone use.
“Drones as a Business Opportunity” is a featured topic of R&WI’s Rotorcraft Technology Summit this month.
The White House event followed the FAA’s June announcement on new drone regulations generally restricting drone use to daytime hours and within a pilot’s line of sight. Those rules were to take effect Aug. 29
The White House, which has recognized unmanned aerial applications benefitting various areas (such as firefighting and emergency response), said the workshop should result in new collaboration to accelerate drone technology and integration into U.S. airspace. R&WI
Outdoor ‘Miss Saigon’ Features 1966 UH-1H
An ex-U.S. Army UH-1H, number 66-16624, flew in a July-August outdoor performance of the Tony Award-winning musical “Miss Saigon” at the Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. Built in 1966, the Bell Helicopter bird was restored and is operated by the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in Hampton, Ga. The “Lucky Star” Huey bears the markings of the Army’s 61st Assault Helicopter Co., the first unit with which it served in the Vietnam War. It also flew with units in Germany and South Korea. FAA-certified now (N623HF), today it flies air shows and tours for the foundation. R&WI
Sikorsky Eyes Colombia as Black Hawk Service Hub
Sikorsky plans to build its operation in Colombia into a hub for supporting Black Hawk operators throughout Latin America.
The manufacturer in 2012 established facilities in Colombia to support operations there. Colombia is the largest Black Hawk operator in the region, Sikorsky said. That nation’s army, air force and national police together have more than 100 Black Hawks and that country has operated the type since 1988.
Sikorsky Colombia operates a 32,000-sq-ft Black Hawk depot repair facility at the Tolemaida army base near Melgar, about 50 nm southwest of Bogota. With more than 30 engineers and mechanics, the company said, that facility is tooled and equipped to provide complete Black Hawk airframe structural repairs.
That base also has a Black Hawk Helicopter Flight Simulator Center, which opened for pilot and flight crew training in early 2013. The center has the region’s only full-motion, five-axis, high-fidelity display Black Hawk simulator, according to Sikorsky. The center is managed by Corporación de la Industria Aeronáutica de Colombia, an aerospace support provider for the Colombian defense ministry.
Sikorsky said it is pursuing approvals to allow support teams from Colombia to travel for field repairs to Mexico, which has Latin America’s second-largest Black Hawk fleet. The manufacturer said Mexico is expected to double its Black Hawk fleet in the next five years. Today, 23 Black Hawks fly with Mexico’s federal police, air force and navy and the state of Jalisco.
Sikorsky said it is in the process of obtaining approvals to offer the same services to Black Hawk operators in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.
“Securing the appropriate approvals to be able to offer support and training for our customers in Mexico is a step toward fulfilling our long-term plan to position Sikorsky Colombia as the support hub for all Latin American countries that operate Black Hawk aircraft,” said Adam Schierholz, Sikorsky’s regional executive for Latin America. R&WI
US System Might Prevent Drone InterferenceWith Firefighting
The U.S. Interior Dept. is developing a new system to reduce the risk of drones interfering with aircraft fighting wildland fires.
The department developed the system with drone manufacturer DJI and airspace intelligence providers AirMap and Skyward. It said the prototype project uses a smartphone app and initial wildfire location data to provide real-time alerts and geofencing alarms intended to help drone pilots avoid interfering with firefighting operations, whether deliberately or inadvertently.
Drones can pose dangers to firefighting helicopters and other aircraft, which fly low in smoke-obstructed environments while crews are focused on releasing water or fire retardant. A drone’s presence in the vicinity can delay or stop firefighting efforts.
According to the department, 30,000 wildfires burned 2.7 million acres this year in the U.S., and more than 15 drones have interfered with firefighting operations. Several incidents resulted in the suspension of aerial firefighting operations.
DJI, AirMap and Skyward obtain wildfire information from the Interior Dept.’s Integrated Reporting Wildland-Fire Information program. That information is then sent to drone pilots through the app, AirMap’s API and DJI’s GEO geofencing system.
The department said data obtained from the prototype will be used in a planned release of the system beginning with the 2017 fire season. The system is expected to prevent drones from operating in restricted airspace when faced with a geofence.
Similar systems have been implemented for other uses, such as in prisons and nuclear power plants, the department said. R&WI
MV-22B Flies With 3D-Printed Part
Honeywell Engine to Power XTI’s First Prototype
XTI Aircraft has picked Honeywell International’s Aerospace division to supply its HTS900 engine for use in XTI’s subscale prototype of the TriFran 600 vertical takeoff and landing airplane. Honeywell also is to provide an additional engine for use in XTI’s Ground Propulsion Test System.
XTI plans to build an operational propulsion jet stand to house the Honeywell engine, drive train system, fans and flight controls. XTI would then complete development of the two-thirds piloted flying prototype.
The announcement follows XTI reopening its call for investments in the TriFan. The startup previously refunded more than $1.2 million in investments it had garnered through a crowdfunding campaign after it failed to reach its $3 million milestone by April 30. R&WI
US Presidential Helo Clears Critical Review
Sikorsky’s VH-92A meets U.S. Marine Corps requirements for transporting the U.S. president after completing a critical design review earlier this month, company and military officials said.
The review cleared the Lockheed Martin unit to begin assembly, test and evaluation of the VH-92A under a $1.24 billion fixed-price incentive engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract the Navy awarded Sikorsky in May 2014. The contract includes production options; the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) plans to acquire two test and 21 operational aircraft.
The aircraft are being modified at Sikorsky’s Stratford, Connecticut, facility. First flight is planned for 2017.
The successful review “demonstrates this helicopter system meets the requirements of the USMC and gives them exceptional mission performance” said Marine Col. Robert Pridgen, program manager for Navair’s Presidential Helicopter’s Program Office.
Today’s main presidential transport is the Sikorsky VH-3Ds flown by Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), which also operates Sikorsky VH-60Ns and Bell Boeing V-22s. Pridgen said some of HMX-1’s VH-3Ds have been flying since 1974 and some of its VH-60Ns since the 1980s.
An effort to procure a new presidential transport was killed in 2009 after it received heavy criticism for anticipated cost overruns and delays.
After the EMD VH-92A’s first flight, Pridgen said, the government is to take delivery of it for government testing one year later in 2018. R&WI
Leonardo Resumes AW609 Flight Tests
Leonardo’s first AW609 prototype has resumed flight tests and has been relocated from Texas to the manufacturer’s Philadelphia facility.
Leonardo voluntarily suspended AW609 flight tests after the Oct. 30, 2015, crash of the No. 2 prototype.
That civil tiltrotor prototype crashed after breaking up in midair during high-speed tests southwest of Leonardo Helicopters’ Italian headquarters in Cascina Costa. Both test pilots were killed. Italy’s ANSV accident investigation agency late last month said they are assessing what role an unexpected feature of the AW609’s high-speed flight-control software may have played in a prototype’s fatal October in-flight breakup in Italy.
Leonardo said the No. 1 aircraft resumed flight testing in Arlington, Texas after it was modified to the current aircraft configuration. The company plans to move it to Italy for additional flight tests.
The third prototype, which was built and ground tested in Italy, is being shipped to Philadelphia for certification flight testing activities later this year. R&WI