Cash In or Step Up?
By James T. McKenna
By all accounts, we're amid good times in the helicopter industry.
At the Helicopter Assn. International's annual Heli-Expo shindig at the end of this month in Dallas, you can expect to hear major airframe and engine manufacturers crow justifiably about sales that approached record levels or set new ones.
We learn in this month's Rotorcraft Report, for instance, that the U.S. Aerospace Industries Assn. reports civil helicopter sales by American manufacturers jumped from "an already high level" of $515 million in 2004 to a record $750 million and U.S. civil helicopter exports also reached a record level of $490 million.
Furthermore, exports of all U.S.-made engines and of aviation parts topped 2004 levels by margins of 28 and 12 percent, respectively, which the group called "a reflection of the growth in foreign civil aircraft production." Now when the AIA says something like that, it's usually talking about airliners. But clearly a contributor to that "foreign" production is Eurocopter.
In his preview of Heli-Expo, contributing writer John Croft tells us that everyone from Matthew Zuccaro, HAI's newly appointed president (and an old hand at that association), to top executives of Bell, Turbomeca and Sikorsky has a rosy outlook for the show and for the coming year.
So the big boys--and girls, as we must welcome new MD Helicopters owner Lynn Tilton to the club--are happy. But the pace of activity in sectors like offshore support, emergency medical services and obviously military operations means that others throughout the industry--those who sell parts, do completions and modifications and repair rotor blades and dynamic components, for instance--must be happy, too. Times like these are what sages mean when they say, "A rising tide raises all boats."
Prospects are that the good times will be sustained at least for the short term as operators carry out fleet replacement plans and military operations continue in southwest Asia.
One question that these good times provoke is whether manufacturers, vendors and operators will simply cash in or instead take advantage of the situation to lay the foundation for sustained improvement and future success of the industry.
The biggest issue is the safety record of the helicopter industry as a whole. The rotorcraft's widely held reputation as inherently unsafe, not unlike the view of airline aircraft in the 1930s, is a brake on true success.
At Heli-Expo, industry participants will have the chance to learn firsthand what the International Helicopter Safety Team is and why members of this industry-government collaboration have committed themselves to cutting the rate of fatal helicopter accidents by 80 percent within 10 years. Chaired by Zuccaro and the head of the U.S. FAA's Rotorcraft Directorate, Dave Downey, the team will brief Heli-Expo attendees on that goal and its rationale and solicit input on how to best achieve it.
As a primer to that session, in the pages of Rotor & Wing this month Mark Stevens and Bob Sheffield of Shell Aviation share with us that company's analysis of fatal helicopter accidents and its resulting plan for raising helicopter safety to the level of good commercial airlines today. That plan has been embraced by the world's major oil and gas companies--the customers of offshore helicopter operators--and is a driving force behind the goal set by the International Helicopter Safety Team.
As Stevens and Sheffield explain, achieving that goal will require substantial investment by both operators and manufacturers--in aircraft of better, safer designs, in safety equipment like EGPWS and TCAS and in more thorough and effective flight crew training. It also will require a new mindset that fully embraces the concepts of quality and safety management systems.
Other issues this industry must confront include the short term one of ensuring that the intensifying pace of activity in both operations and aircraft support does not become an excuse for slipping on quality control and customer service. As Turbomeca USA CEO Russ Spray told John Croft, "If you don't get hold of those very quickly, growth can seriously affect support and quality."
Longer term, we all must find a way to ensure a steady supply of skilled pilots, engineers and mechanics. A shortage of such people, particularly mechanics, already is constraining helicopter operations, and the situation will only worsen as Vietnam-era helicopter hands retire.
This traditionally is treated only in the near term. Companies hire in high times and cut workers when things trail off, with little attention paid to where they will find good workers during the next up cycle. Demographics, like the size of younger populations and the greater appeal of more high-tech fields, argue that we simply won't find them unless we do a more effective job of nurturing them.
In these and many other issues--aviation security, aircraft noise and the use of helicopters in emergency operations and disaster relief, to name a few--the question before us is the same: Do we as an industry cash in or step up?
We would be remiss to close this issue without extending our thanks and appreciation to Roy Resavage, who retired as president of HAI on Oct. 31, 2005. Resavage shepherded the trade group for more than eight and a half years, which included very challenging times. It is never easy getting members of a group as varied and strong-willed as helicopter operators to act as one. Resavage dedicated himself to that challenge, and to good effect. We wish him the best.