Helicopter developments at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show


Even if Farnborough International Air Show is not the place where helicopter manufacturers are expected to make major announcements, five large OEMs attended the show and displayed aircraft this year: Bell, Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo, Sikorsky and Turkish Aerospace.

And this was actually more fruitful than we expected. As Senior VP Strategy & BizDev of Leonardo Roberto Garavaglia told us, the helicopter market is facing a challenging environment, even if the recovery has now started. However, even with a higher oil prices, no helicopter OEM expects the market to quickly reach its 2008 level. To sustain its activities during this downturn, Leonardo has developed a large range of kits to allow its helicopters to perform various kinds of missions including EMS and SAR. Highlighting the importance of these markets within the helicopter business, both the medium twin AW169 and the super medium twin AW189 displayed on Leonardo’s booth were equipped with stretcher and EMS equipment.

The company has also presented its AW101 super heavy used for the Norway SAR contract to the Canadian delegation to tease them on what could be their CH-149 after a mid-life upgrade. The Canadians, who already operate 14 CH-149 Cormorants, could be interested in modernizing and expanding their fleet to 21 aircraft. The AW101 Norway SAR configuration, which is the last standard of Leonardo in terms of SAR mission equipment, could as such inspire the Canadian requirements.

Like Leonardo, Sikorsky officials have also seen some recovery signs on the market with an increasing flight hour record of the helicopter fleet. For instance, in 2017, the number of S-92 flight hours has increased by 3% year on year and should grow by 6-8% in 2018. To support this recovery, Sikorsky has increased the flexibility of each platform. The company has made several retrofits to add SAR equipment capabilities to its former O&G dedicated aircraft. Thanks to that, the operators would be able to perform with the same asset both O&G and SAR missions within a very short timeframe. In addition, the company announced that it will offer a new range of kit modifications for the S-92 next year. These modular improvements will increase the performances, range and cost of the aircraft, Nathalie Previte, Sikorsky’s VP Strategy & BizDev told us. Moreover, as these future improvements will be retrofitable, the company expects a large part of its customers to adopt them.

Regarding Bell, its Q2 strong results have pleased Patrick Moulay, the group’s Senior VP Marketing. Indeed, with 57 commercial helicopters delivered during Q2 2018, compared to 21 during the same period last year, Bell has reached a high level of profitability close to 14%. These results, driven by its light single Bell 505 production, reflects the very good situation of the company which has nicely flown over the crisis, Patrick Moulay told us. With more than 100 Bell 505s delivered worldwide, including 20 in China, the company keeps following its growth path and spreading its new aircraft all over the world. To sustain this popularity, the company is betting on its customer demonstration program. As Patrick Moulay explained us, the best way to convince customers that his helicopters will address their needs is to bring the helicopter in their environments and let them fly their missions. Bell has done customer demos to promote its aircraft during all this year all over the world. Currently, 2 Bell 505 are fully dedicated to customer demonstrations. Eventually, the plan is to have 5 light single in the demo fleet.

In parallel, Bell is also hunting on the military market with its new V280 tiltrotor. The 13-ton aircraft has been built to demonstrate its capability to the US Army in order to answer the FVL medium aircraft program requirements expected to replace the Black Hawk. The aircraft has flown at 195kts, on its way to reach the 280kts expected by the program manager. The next step will be to convince the Army of the high level of agility of this aircraft. In addition to its modular architecture, its fly-by-wire system will allow Bell to develop the optionally piloted function on that aircraft. In the company’s mind, the V-280 would open the path to a new tilt rotor family, whose the around 13-ton V-247 UAV could be the next member.

Following the appointment in April of Bruno Even, the former Safran Helicopter Engines CEO, Airbus Helicopters news flow was quite slow during the show. However, just before the FIAS started, the company announced that the Ukrainian State had ordered 55 helicopters including 21 H225, for $643 million. Furthermore, the company also indicated that it continued to invest on UAV technologies. The company expects to perform the first flight of the 700kg VSR700 Cabri-based UAV soon.

Surfing on its biggest export orders – i.e. a contract with Pakistan for the delivery of 30 T129 attack helicopters, the training of pilots and mechanics and spare parts to sustain the helicopter, Turkish Aerospace wants to capitalize on this prestigious win. Görkem Bilgi, the group’s head of Marketing who was the first to present the T129 to Pakistan in 2008, is now in talks with Morocco for the purchase of 24 T129s and with Thailand for 12. Betting on T129’s small size, relative low cost (compared to the Apache or the Tiger) and impressive hot and high capabilities, TAI (renamed Turkish Aerospace just a week before the Farnborough Air Show) does not want to stop in such a promising way.

In parallel, the company is also busy on the development side. The company is preparing the first T625 prototype, for a first flight planned in a couple of months. The T625 will be a medium helicopter designed to perform both UH-1 Turkish military missions and civil missions in the range between the AW169 and the AW139, Görkem Bilgi told us. Following this first flight, the company will then focus on testing its first homemade gearbox, a key element for the helicopter but also for the company, which has planned to scale up this technology for the next helicopters to come. Finally, Turkish Aerospace has started the design phase of both a 10-ton helicopter and an 8-ton attack helicopter. However, these two programs still have a long way to go before they reach the market.

Another vertical lift topic gaining more importance and that animated the show was Urban Air Mobility. Just before the event, Bell’s CEO Mitch Snyder announced that his company was close to unveil its Urban Air Mobility vehicle architecture. The aircraft, part of the UBER Elevate program, would have a vertical takeoff capability and a maximum takeoff weight of 453 kg (1,000 lbs). In addition, Rolls Royce has unveiled a new hybrid propulsive system for this kind of aircraft. Using its low-end engine, the M250, to feed a distributed propulsion system, this project replaces Rolls Royce in that game after the end of the DARPA XV-24 LightningStrike program. Safran also announced the first ground test of a distributed propulsion system, turbo-generator (a gas turbine driving an electrical generator) is coupled to a bank of batteries. As the French company indicated, “the power is efficiently distributed by a new generation power management system, and the motors are controlled by a fully-integrated smart power electronics assembly”. The system generated 100 kW of electrical power and “reflects Safran’s determination to invest in the development of hybrid electric propulsion systems”, said Stéphane Cueille, Senior Executive VP for R&T and Innovation at Safran.

Finally, Boeing has launched Boeing Next, a new R&D entity part of its Horizon X division. Using Aurora flight competencies, Boeing Next is expected to work both on the aircraft architecture, performance and certification but also on all the modifications needed to be applies to the environment to allow and support this new market.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.