IT MAY SEEM LIKE NO ONE IS HAPPY WITH THE current high demand for new helicopters.
Operators don’t like having to wait a year or more for aircraft. Customers of commercial ones want more services than it is possible to get at times, because everything available is flying. Manufacturers complain they could garner more sales if they could build helicopters faster.
Smiling among the unhappy crowd, however, are those in completion and modification shops. The high demand for new aircraft, which has lasted several years, has created record delivery backlogs. That, in turn, has driven buyers to snap up good used aircraft, which have become scarcer and seen their price tags rise. As the differences between new and used aircraft prices and availability shrink, more operators are prodded to look at refurbishing those they have.
"The new helicopter industry is not able to keep up with demand, so there’s a lot of aircraft out there that are requiring" refurbishment, said Paul Schreuder, vice president of sales and marketing for Edwards & Associates. "One of our new focus areas is going be on refurbing of aircraft."
The Piney Flats, Tenn.-based subsidiary of Bell Helicopter used to do a lot of that. "But we kind of got away from it because there were so many new aircraft out there," Schreuder said. "Now that the used aircraft and new aircraft price differential is getting so close, it just makes sense for people to now refurb their older airframes. There are so many new types of avionics out there and kits that people can buy that we’re going to start expanding that capability."
Edwards and its affiliate Aeronautical Accessories are just two of several completion and modification shops that are expanding their capacity and looking to serve the airframe modification needs of new market segments. In addition to the need for completions on the high volume of new aircraft deliveries and the developing demand for refurbishments, their moves are driven by a number of factors.
One is a growing recognition of the need to improve the safety of rotorcraft operations, which is spurring the installation of devices such as terrain-awareness, traffic-alert/collision-avoidance, cockpit voice and data recording, and satellite-based tracking and communications systems.
Another is the increased availability in the United States of government funding for homeland-defense initiatives, which is helping law-enforcement agencies upgrade existing aircraft and buy new ones.
In addition, operators are demanding more from their aircraft, both in commercial applications such as emergency medical service operations and as tools for supporting their own business activities.
Technology advancements also are playing a role, though on a smaller and less spectacular scale than you might expect. Judging from activity on the exhibit floor at last month’s Heli-Expo 2007 trade show, a hot topic for completions and modifications this year will be the growing use of light-emitting diode (LED) lights for interior and exterior aircraft applications.
LEDs are renowned for their precise beams, power efficiency, and service lives, which run orders of magnitude greater than more conventional lighting devices. They have posed challenges in thermal management, since heat build-up can kill them quickly. But the lighting industry has made great strides in that and other areas, to the point that LEDs are feasible for most helicopter applications.
"Finally, we’re able to service the light helicopter people," said Thomas Littleford, director of marketing and sales for Devore Aviation Corp.
The company is offering triple-LED forward-facing recognition floodlight systems for the Robinson R44, as well as triple-LED Tel-Tail floodlights.
"For high-vibration environments, the technology is there where we’re now competing with high-intensity discharge lights," said Greg Ginnetti, who is in charge of aviation sales and product support for Whelen Engineering Co.
Whelen’s Model 71011-series LED tail position light is designed to fit existing mounting configurations of incandescent and halogen tail navigation lights on helicopters. Whelen said it is TSO-C30c Class 3 approved and comes with a three-year warranty.
Whelen, which uses "millions of LEDs a year on our automotive side," Ginnetti said, has its aviation lights "out with helicopter OEMs, trying to get feedback."
Emteq has upgraded its night-vision imaging system with LED technology. The New Berlin, Wis.-based company aims to provide EMS, law enforcement and search-and-rescue helicopters with more capable cabin/cockpit systems.
The night-vision unit operates on 28v DC and Emteq says, draws 80 percent less current than incandescent lighting. It is compliant with MIL-L-85762, MIL-STD-3009 and DO-160 and is available in night-vision green, A, B, night-vision red and night-vision white.
Emteq also is offering its patented Quasar LED cabin lighting system, designed to provide complete cabin-lighting control, with light zones for work or relaxation. It says Quasar generates up to 16 million colors to match and accentuate an aircraft’s color. It offers 100-percent dimming capability, according to the company, and its color and intensity feedback features are designed to simulate an actual sunset and sunrise process.
Emteq recently purchased the Bachenbüach, Switzerland-based airborne lighting systems specialist Flight Components. That will expand its line of exterior-lighting products, including anti-collision, position, and tail lights, to complement its existing interior LED products. It also increases Emteq’s presence in Europe.
Pressure from regulators, accident investigators, and major customers like oil and gas companies are pushing many operators to upgrade the safety features of their aircraft.
"The industry’s at a point where the safety record just is kind of stuck," said Schreuder. "To improve that, you’ve got to come up with safety initiatives that make people aware of what they’re doing all the time and you know where the aircraft is at all times. It just makes for a much safer operation."
To support that, Edwards is expanding its offering of health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS). The company about 18 months ago offered a low-cost system developed by Intelligent Automation Corp. for the Bell 412.
It’s won great acceptance in the marketplace, spurred by the U.S. Army’s use of it on the AH-64 fleet and Shell Aircraft’s requirement that offshore support vendors fly HUMS-equipped aircraft. More than 45 have been installed on 412s.
Edwards and its affiliate Aeronautical Accessories are pursuing installation of the IAC system on the Bell 407 and 212 series, said Tim Fox, Aeronautical Accessories’ director of engineering.
Flight recording systems also are in demand. American Eurocopter is developing a cockpit information recording system that could be retrofitted onto Eurocopter aircraft with analog systems that are not required already to have a CVR. The system, which is not crashworthy or intended to replace a CVR and FDR, is designed to provide video of cockpit activities at a fidelity sufficient for post-accident analysis, flight-operations quality assurance reviews and training.
Helicopter emergency medical services are another market segment in the safety spotlight. Air Methods, for instance, is working with Mayo Clinic Medical Transport of Rochester, Minn., to complete the clinic’s new Eurocopter EC145. In addition to the ability to transport one or two critical-care patients and up to four medical attendants, the aircraft will feature a dual-pilot IFR night-vision goggle-compatible cockpit with a wide variety of avionics and special-mission systems, including dual Garmin comm/nav/GPS units and multifunction display, tactical communications systems and satellite communications. Safety features will include traffic advisory/collision-alert and terrain-awarness and warning systems (TCAS and TAWS).
In other safety-related developments, CMC Electronics and Edwards have installed CMC’s SureSight M-Series enhanced vision system on an AgustaWestland AW139 for a corporate operator. CMC bills the system as a cost-effective, infrared (IR)-based safety tool for helicopter flight crews flying in darkness, smoke, smog or other poor-visibility conditions.
FLIR Systems is offering the EVS3, a low-cost, environmentally sealed, compact thermal imager built specifically for general aviation. EVS3 is designed to provide rotary-wing pilots with improved situational awareness during all phases of flight, especially during taxi operations. It uses a high-resolution VOx 320X256 IR detector to create real-time thermal imagery that FLIR says can be displayed on any multi-functional or secondary aircraft display with auxiliary input.
Aircraft tracking systems, such as those offered by Outerlink, Blue Sky Network, Sky Connect, Sky Trac and other vendors, also are in high demand.
"They all appear to have great benefits, and they’re coming down in price," said Edwards’ Schreuder.
Increased homeland-defense funding in the United States is allowing emergency-services agencies to upgrade their fleets. Toward that end, L-3 Communications Wescam Div. at Heli-Expo showed its new MX-15i imaging turret. The unit is installed on an S-92 search-and-rescue version that Sikorsky Aircraft developed with CHC. The Canadian operator will use the aircraft for a five-year contract to provide SAR services for the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Sikorsky’s Keystone Helicopter installed the turret. The coast guard agency also purchased an MX-15i, and AgustaWestland has ordered two. CHC also plans to use AW139s on the contract.
The MX-15i integrates master-control unit electronics into the turret, which it says slashes installation weight by 47 lb over the MX-15, which uses a separate master-control unit. Integration of that unit only adds a half inch to the turret’s height. The MX-15i weighs about 98 lb.
Operators can opt for up to six sensors for the MX-15 series: an infrared imager, a one- or three-charge-coupled device (CCD) daylight camera with zoom lens, a daylight camera with spotter lens or dual-channel spotter lens, the dual-channel MX-Night Spotter, a laser rangefinder, and a laser illuminator. Up to seven analog video channels are available in NTSC or PAL.
Aeronautical Accessories’ high-visibility windows were developed for Bell 407s flown by law-enforcement agencies and have become a popular item.
Initially designed for crew windows, the product line has been expanded to include passenger-compartment installations. Those are in use by tour operators in Hawaii.
The company is expanding the line to include crew doors on the 206L series this year and plans to certify high-visibility crew doors for the AgustaWestland A119 as well.
Many operators are demanding more from their aircraft.
"People want what they’re used to getting out of their fixed-wing aircraft," Edwards’ Schreuder said. That company is working on a helicopter to install a split-screen display system in the cabin that will give the customer, a real-estate developer, "the ability to see where he’s at and show something to his customers related to the land that they’re flying over."
Customers are "using the aircraft very much as a business tool," he said.
To satisfy some of that demand to get more out of aircraft, Heli-Lynx Helicopter Services developed its GenerationFX line of products for the Eurocopter AS350 and 355. The heart of this upgrade line is replacement of the aircraft’s Turbomeca engines with Honeywell’s LTS101. But in addition to achieving better performance and engine maintainability for operators, Heli-Lynx aims to improve the aircraft’s overall reliability and capability. It replaces the entire electrical system and installs new instrumentation, lighting, exhaust, and control-cable systems, among a host of options. It also offers a tail-boom strake.
The high demand has shops adding capabilities and capacity.
Paradigm Aerospace Corp., formerly HAS, gained its reputation as a Bell-only facility. In the last 18 months, it has added the ability to work on AgustaWestland aircraft. "In 2007, additional manufacturers and buyers will be able to utilize our full contract customizing and completions services," said Paradigm President Ed Pears.
Paradigm Aerospace offers maintenance services for light to medium, turbine-powered helicopters. In addition, it is a full-service dealer and installer for leading avionics manufacturers.
Metro Aviation is marking its 25-year anniversary in the helicopter completion, maintenance services, and commercial flight operations business this year by expanding to a new facility, which it says will be one of the largest of its kind in the United States. The new location, scheduled to open in June, is near the company’s current Shreveport, La. operation and will have more than 160,000-sq-ft of additional space.
Metro is planning several new capabilities at the location, which includes three paint booths, two of which can handle transport category helicopters. With the addition of this capability, two airframes can now be simultaneously prepared and painted without slowing other completion operations.