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Year in Review—Operations: Raw Materials, Helicopters, Pilots — All in High Demand

By By R&W Staff | December 1, 2006
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Steel, aircraft, the right pilots, and certain equipment — such as night-vision systems — have all posed challenges to operators striving to meet high customer demand.

2006 PROVED TO BE A YEAR PACKED WITH ACTION — ON THE BATTLEFRONT, IN OPERATIONS, sales campaigns, and regulatory debates, and on the picket lines.

The helicopter community found itself in the unusual position of seeing almost ever sector of operations, civil and military alike, running at high tempos. The pace of operations raised questions of how the industry will meet the challenges in coming years of securing enough raw materials and labor to continue to fielding, flying, and fixing competitive rotorcraft. (Not to mention the unlikely but unsettling prospect that all sectors might slow down simultaneously.) Few people had time to ponder those challenges; they were too busy flying. But challenges loom.


Anti-insurgency operations in Iraq and counter-terrorist efforts in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere remained the major rotorcraft story last year, as it has since those efforts were launched in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

A measure of the intensity of rotorcraft operations in support of those efforts came when the U.S. Army revealed that its AH-64 Apache combat helicopter fleet had surpassed 2 million flight hours in late 2005. According to Army operational summary data, nearly one-third of those flight hours were accumulated in the last four years.

Apache helicopters continue to fly hundreds of hours a month in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of peacekeeping operations. By late April, their flight time exceeded 2.1 million hr.

Today, U.S. military officials are warning of the consequences of this operational pace. They are struggling to meet the challenge of repairing, refurbishing, and refitting combat aircraft in time for their scheduled redeployment to a combat theater, as well as the corresponding one of permitting aircrews to train sufficiently while their aircraft are in the depot. National Guard units rotating out of combat tours are routinely told to leave much of their equipment behind, since their simply is not enough to go around despite a string of supplemental funding bills from Congress.

The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, has said the Pentagon is developing plans to send entire Guard brigade combat teams back to Iraq — a move that would be a first. The Pentagon has held until now that it will not deploy Guard and Reserve unit for more than a cumulative 24 months.

But Pentagon officials face a dilemma. The current operational tempo is requiring that Army units be re-deployed to theater every 14 months or so. Marine units rotate back to combat every seven months. The concern of top military officials, including the new Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, and the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, is that the pace is depriving future battlefield leaders of critical training.

"At this pace, it’s hard to get young captains and staff sergeants the training and development they will need to lead troops in the next war," Cody said.

A key problem remains combat survivability for rotorcraft. The year opened with a new U.S. rotorcraft industry task force charged with seeking measures to improve the survivability of helicopters in combat in the near term and increase the safety and reliability of all helicopters in the long term.

The Rotary-Wing Revitalization Project aims to overcome the main impediments to broader use — and, consequently, greater sales — of rotorcraft. Those are the high rate of helicopter combat losses; the excessive operating costs of rotorcraft and intense maintenance needs. A key problem is that "rotorcraft are still vulnerable to Vietnam-era weapons — rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire," said Mike Romanowski, the Aerospace Industries Assn. vice president who oversees the project. But while those threats generally were confined to forward operating areas in previous conflicts, "the nature of the battlefield has changed." Aircraft of that era were designed on the assumption "that they were never going to be operating in forward areas. "In the global war on terrorism, there really is no forward edge of the battlefield, so that fundamental design assumption has changed."

The project is to issue its recommendations this month.

Looking forward to future demands on helicopter units, U.S. Army officials this year moved to increase the planned acquisition of new ARH-70A Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters from Bell Helicopter by 120 or more, to at least 480. The additional ARH-70As would be destined for National Guard units.

The Army in July 2005 awarded a Bell-led team a contract to provide 368 by 2013 under a program valued at $2.2 billion.

The Marines faced their own rotorcraft challenges with the operational tempo — among them the need to bolster their fleet of heavy-lift CH-53E Super Stallions. That fleet has been under strength for the Corps’ requirement by several aircraft, and that situation was aggravated Feb. 17, when two CH-53Es assigned to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa collided in midair during night-time training and crashed into the Gulf of Aden, killing a total of 10 crewmembers.

The aircraft were assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Sqdn. 464 (HMH-464) at MCAS New River, N.C.

To make up the shortfall, the Corps last year began pulling retired CH-53s from the aircraft boneyard and restoring them to flight status. The first three Super Stallions spent more than 11 years in storage before arriving at the Naval Air Systems Command Depot, Cherry Point, N.C.

On June 29, the first of eight retired Super Stallions undergoing refurbishment was sent to an operational squadron. It was handed over to HMH-464 at MCAS New River seven months ahead of schedule, according to the Naval Air Systems Command.

The Marines had other rotorcraft challenges. In a March 27 mishap at MCAS New River, an Osprey inadvertently lifted off, then fell back to the ground. The fall snapped the aircraft’s right wing. Marine officials initially suspected a faulty full-authority digital electronic controller caused one of the Osprey’s two Rolls-Royce Liberty engines to power up. Subsequent investigation found a cannon plug in the FADEC had been wired incorrectly. Nonetheless, the Corps had Rolls-Royce reprogram the FADEC to prevent inadvertent power-ups and liftoffs.

A flight of three Ospreys and some KC-130 tankers crossed the Atlantic in July so two of the Ospreys could participate in a series of aviation events in the United Kingdom, including the Farnborough Air Show, and perform for potential international customers. One of the Ospreys ingested ice in an engine during the crossing and diverted to Keflavik, Iceland, delaying its arrival in England.

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are allied efforts. This year, an Australian Defence Force element made up of two Chinook helicopters and about 110 personnel deployed to Afghanistan as part of Australia’s continuing commitment to the fight. The Chinooks provided medevac and air mobility support to Australia’s Special Forces Task Group. The helicopters underwent an Australian $25-million upgrade prior to deployment to make sure they would be interoperable with U.S. forces.

Critical materials made up another critical issue for the industry this year.

In May, senior leaders of the U.S. Defense Dept. and the aerospace industry met to discuss needed changes to the specialty metals provisions of the Berry Amendment. They reached agreement in principal on changes to the Berry Amendment that will protect the specialty metals producers while also protecting the thousands of small businesses that support the Defense Department. The Berry Amendment restricts the Defense Department from acquiring a number of items, including food, clothing, fabrics, and certain tools that are not produced in the United States. The aerospace and defense industry is impacted by provisions that apply to specialty metals.

The big story on the civil side for 2006 was safety. The year opened with a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board hearing on the safety of air medical service operations, including helicopter emergency medical services.

The NTSB called on the FAA to impose stricter requirements on all emergency medical services flights after a special investigation of 55 EMS accidents that killed 55 people and seriously injured 18 between January 2002 and January 2005. It recommended that the FAA ban U.S. commercial air medical operators from conducting flights under FAR Part 91 and require them to conduct all portions of a medevac mission under the more restrictive Part 135, regardless of whether a patient is on board. The board also called on the FAA to require EMS operators to implement flight-risk evaluation programs similar to those recommended under FAA Notice 8000.301.

It also wants the FAA to require EMS operators to install terrain-awareness and warning systems and to train crews in their use. Investigators said night-vision systems could help EMS pilots identify and avoid hazards during nighttime operations.

That was followed by a review of medevac operations by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. A branch of Congress, the GAO launched its review at the request of Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), a member of the House of Representative’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the FAA. The probe is ongoing.

For once, though, a segment of the aviation industry found itself ahead of the NTSB on a safety issue. The safety board dragged out its special investigation for more than a year. In contrast, the FAA formed a special team to look at the issue of medevac safety. It came up with a number of recommendations for training, equipment and surveillance months before the NTSB’s recommendations.

That work got rolled into the International Helicopter Safety Team, a collaboration of regulators, manufacturers, and operators aiming to slash the helicopter accident rate by 80 percent in 10 years. That team decided to take on an even more ambitious challenge: developing separate sets of safety initiatives that apply specifically to all the individual ways that helicopters are used.

Leaders of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), which is orchestrating those efforts, met several times during Heli-Expo in Dallas last March, first to further organize their efforts and then to brief attendees of the annual event and enlist their support in the effort.

Based on analyses by Bell Helicopter, Shell Aircraft and others that showed several improvements in aircraft equipment and design and flight crew training could produce dramatic reductions in helicopter accidents, a gathering of international industry leaders agreed in Montreal last September that an 80-percent reduction was achievable. They formed the IHST to achieve it. The team is co-chaired by Helicopter Assn. International President Matt Zuccaro and Dave Downey, manager of the FAA’s Rotorcraft Directorate.

Its organization is based on the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a highly successful effort in the late 1990s to reduce airline accidents. But the challenges faced by it were simple in comparison to those facing the IHST. Most significant, it dealt with a homogenous group — airlines — whose organizations and operations were largely similar regardless of where they flew.

By contrast, the IHST must figure out how to improve the safety of operations that range from law enforcement and long-line work to firefighting, agricultural, corporate, offshore and sightseeing, to name just a few. To meet that challenge, team members have decided to conduct their accident analyses and make recommendations based on the specific types of operations in lieu of generic studies and fixes.

With the foundation for their work laid in North America, team leaders decided to carry their message beyond North America. Zuccaro and Downey traveled to New Delhi in June to participate in a conference there on improving civil and non-combat military helicopter safety. They planned to follow that trip with ones to Asia, Australia, and South America, all aimed at enlisting government and industry support for their safety initiatives.

For information on the effort, visit

In another safety-related development, HAI achieved a breakthrough when the FAA in June approved funding to allow the industry to move forward with installation of the new technology Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) in the Gulf of Mexico. The agency requested $80 million in the Fiscal 2007 budget to begin initial implementation of ADS-B, with the first segment planned for deployment next year to provide communications, navigation, and surveillance as part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

The approval is a significant step in improving operations in the Gulf, according to Zuccaro. "The need for accurate weather, direct communications and surveillance capabilities has never been greater to support the 650-plus helicopters flying offshore," providing support for over 5,000 offshore oil and gas platforms, he said. The Gulf fleet "logs an average of 7,500 trips a day, involving an estimated 2.1 million operations a year - a fleet which transports over 2.6 million passengers and flies approximately 380,000 flight hours each year."

The FAA approval covered a memorandum of agreement signed in May by the FAA, HAI and top industry officials representing platform and helicopter owners working in the Gulf. It formally established a cooperative relationship under which the helicopter industry and platform operators will provide space on offshore platforms for the installation of ADS-B equipment, with helicopter operators providing transportation to the rigs for personnel to install and maintain the equipment.

The industry this year also tried to take in all the lessons held in its and the nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.

At Heli-Expo in February, HAI honored John Holland, Air Methods Corp.’s regional aviation director in Macon, Ga, as the 2005 Pilot of the Year. He was honored for the instrumental role he played in the evacuation of patients and staff at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans after Katrina. Holland stayed on the impromptu helipad set up at Tulane for 60 hr, until the last person was evacuated from the hospital. He worked under extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous, conditions to keep the evacuation moving and doing so safely. That is considered the largest patient evacuation from a hospital in history.

A common complaint immediately after Katrina was that helicopters and ready and able crews sat idle while those stranded at Tulane, other hospitals, and elsewhere throughout southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama sent repeated urgent calls for help.

To prevent a recurrence of that, HAI developed a first-responder helicopter database that went operational in July. The group began developing the searchable online database after Katrina to simplify the acquisition and dispatch of rescue and relief rotorcraft to disaster sites.

Labor proved a troublesome topic for the industry this year.

For one thing, with flight activity up in most sectors, helicopter operators bemoaned a lack of qualified pilots to replace retiring Vietnam-era fliers and urging changes to close that gap and prevent future ones.

A top Bristow Group official complained the offshore support sector is short of pilots, aircraft and mechanics and urged oil and gas companies to do a better job of planning for their demand in the future. The director of European operations for the group’s Bristow Helicopters in Aberdeen in late May said the company is searching the globe for more aircraft and associated crews and technicians to support them to meet the demand from oil and gas companies. "In the same way that drilling rigs are booked well in advance," the director, Willie Toner, said, "long-term consideration of future helicopter requirements would ensure that the risk of any shortfall in availability is significantly reduced.

"We make every effort to anticipate future demand," he added. "But in a highly competitive market, serving an industry subject to wide variations in activity, it would be very helpful if helicopter operators could be part of clients’ overall logistical planning." Today’s demand follows a period when offshore flights from Aberdeen fell by half from the peak of oil and gas activity in the 1980s.

The U.S. air ambulance industry is running short of qualified pilots to meet its demand for new crews, according to director of operations for the West Plains, Mo.-based air medical service Air-Evac. The director, Stuart Buckingham, told the Springdale, Ark. Newspaper The Morning News, "As an industry, the shortage is being discussed and we are seeking ways to get young pilots up to speed through business partnerships with air tour companies or news-gathering organizations who might sponsor young pilots’ hourly flight time. We have also considered flight simulation to boost hours, but in reality there is not a short-term solution to the loss of veteran personnel."

On Sept. 20, some unionized EMS and offshore pilots at PHI launched what was the first large-scale strike by helicopter pilots. The pilots, members of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, walked out after 2.5 years of negotiations on a new contract, and federal mediation of the matter, failed to produce an agreement.

The strike lasted more than 50 days and cost PHI more than $4 million, but the union called an end to the walkout in early November.

In early March, production-line workers represented by the Teamsters walked off the job at Sikorsky Aircraft plants in Connecticut and Florida in a dispute over payment of health insurance costs. The roughly 3,600 members of Teamsters Local 1150 ratified a new three-year contract in April, but the six-week walkout severely disrupted Sikorsky’s production plans for the year. U.S. Navy officials raised concerns about being forced to cannibalize H-60s for parts during the strike. Sikorsky has spent most of the year getting production activities back on plan.

That strike prompted Sikorsky to seek an FAA production certificate for its Keystone Helicopter subsidiary to manufacture S-76s and S-92 civil helicopters at its Coatesville, Pa., facility. Sikorsky currently produces and delivers S-76 and S-92 from its Commercial Aircraft Center in Stratford, Conn. A production certificate for Keystone would give it overflow production capability and flexibility in the event of a future work stoppage.

Keystone in March moved into the newest addition to The Heliplex in Coatesville, an addition building with more than 75,000 sq ft of hangar, office and shop space. The remaining 250 employees who in Keystone’s West Chester, Pa. facility have been moving into the facility over this year.

Keystone also broke later on the next phase of expansion, which includes a 30,000-sq-ft building that will house three new state-of-the-art paint booths.

In June, Sikorsky moved to make greater use of one of its newest subsidiaries, Schweizer Aircraft. Sikorsky broke ground for a 100,000-sq-ft Rapid Prototyping and Military Derivatives Completion Center at Schweizer’s factory in Horseheads, N.Y., adjacent to the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. The center, branded Sikorsky Hawk Works @ Schweizer Aircraft, will serve as the primary completion center for all Black Hawk and Naval Hawk derivative aircraft, mostly for foreign military customers. The center also will add capacity for additional future military work and for other special-mission aircraft currently manufactured at Schweizer, such as the Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle and fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft. The center is expected to be operational by the first quarter of 2007.

There were a number of other developments on the business front.

AgustaWestland and a team of suppliers are to provide up to 70 upgraded Lynx helicopters that should boost the vertical-lift performance and reliability of the British Army Air Corps and Royal Navy.

The £1-billion ($1.8-billion) contract for Future Lynx aircraft was no surprise. The U.K. Defence Ministry last year named AgustaWestland its preferred supplier on the program to provide a common, marinized airframe for both services — 40 battlefield reconnaissance versions for the army and 30 surface combatant variants for the navy.

Improvements are to include a new tail rotor and two 1,361-shp CTS-800-4 engines from LHTEC, the partnership between Honeywell and Rolls-Royce, that are expected to boost performance significantly over the Rolls Gems that currently power British Lynxes. The new engines are expected to improve hot/high performance and reduce fuel consumption.

First flight is slated for 2009, with the aircraft is to enter service with the British Army in 2014.

Victories in EC135 sales campaigns in Switzerland and Spain led Eurocopter to set up production lines in those countries.

Eurocopter’s order book for the EC135 stands at over 550 units, making it the company’s top seller and the best-selling light twin-engine helicopter worldwide. The company won a contract with Switzerland for 18 EC635s plus two EC135s for the armed forces, and struck a framework agreement with Spain for 48 EC135 law enforcement helicopters.

As part of these deals, Eurocopter agreed to set up assembly lines in the countries. As of 2007, the Swiss company RUAG will assemble 16 out of the 18 EC635s, with the total Swiss order being the single-highest in terms of value placed for the EC135/635 family to date.

With Spain, which has already participated in the EC135 program in the past by producing components and doing customization, cooperation will be further extended to final assembly of the EC135 at Eurocopter’s newly established Albacete facility.

Eurocopter set up the Spanish line in view of the large Spanish law enforcement requirement and further sales potential in that country.

For its part, Bell Helicopter in March broke ground on two new facilities: the Army Programs Center in Fort Worth, Texas and the Repair and Overhaul Center in Roanoke, Texas. "Our nation is at war and Bell Helicopter must keep our focus on the war fighters," said Bell CEO Mike "Red" Redenbaugh.

Planned for completion by the end of this year, the center will house about 206,000 sq ft of offices to handle Bell Army contracts.

Bell also opened a new, 82,000 sq ft Repair and Overhaul Center to handle transmissions, rotating controls, rotor hubs, gearboxes, rotor blades and more on all of Bell’s U.S. military platforms.

The center, which is next to the Bell Helicopter’s Logistics Center in Roanoke, Texas, has been in operation since January and reached full operational capacity this week. The facility is intended to allow Bell to provide industry-leading customer support while also establishing the infrastructure for Bell to deliver performance-based logistics.

In September, Bell’s production facility in Canada marked its 20th anniversary. For the occasion, Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Ltd in Mirabel opened a 12,100-sq-ft hangar. "Our Mirabel facility is instrumental in making Bell Helicopter a world leader in the production of vertical lift aircraft," Redenbaugh said. The plant will produce 429 Global Ranger, for which Bell has about 200 orders

Turbomeca also is expanding in North America. Turbomeca USA recently opened a 67,000-sq-ft addition to its plant in Grand Prairie, Texas to help meet growing demand for Turbomeca engines and provide the engines that will power the U.S. Army’s 322 Light Utility Helicopters. That and the U.S. Coast Guard HH-65 re-engining program "have accelerated Turbomeca USA’s growth in manpower and assets," said Russ Spray, Turbomeca USA president and CEO (pictured on page opposite).

Turbomeca also is looking to set up a parts-production plant in the Midwest United States in increase its worldwide parts-making capability.

In other business developments, TransTechnology Corp. changed its name to Breeze-Eastern. The company claims to be the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of sophisticated lifting devices for military and civilian aircraft, including rescue hoists, cargo hooks, and weapons-lifting systems. It employs about 195 people at its facility in Union, N.J.

Aviation equipment manufacturer Simplex Manufacturing marked its 60th anniversary this year. "We’re proud of our legacy, our enduring contributions to the rotorcraft industry, and we’re looking forward to a successful, innovative future," said Steven Daniels, Simplex’s president and CEO. For the occasion, the company introduced a new line of helicopter airborne power line mission equipment and commemorated a milestone delivery, the first Simplex Fire Attack system to a customer in Venezuela.

Heli-Expo brought a number of exciting developments, not the least of which was Bell’s unveiling of its new 417. The civil version of the U.S. Army’s new ARH-70A Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, it is designed to perform better than the 407 in hot and high conditions, carrying 400 lb more payload at 10,000 ft, with direct operating costs projected at $30 less than the 407. The Honeywell HTS900-2 engine on the 5,500-lb gross weight aircraft is designed to have a 2,500-hr TBO and improved fuel consumption.

At that show, Bell also said it has launched a study to identify the markets for a new medium twin aircraft and the systems and capabilities that aircraft must have to satisfy operators’ demands.

"We think the marketplace is sending strong messages" that customers "are looking for aircraft with far more integrated systems, everything from safety dimensions" like terrain-awareness and warning and traffic-alerting/collision-avoidance systems to onboard recording and health-monitoring systems, said Bell’s Redenbaugh

The move follows Bell’s departure late last year from the joint program with AgustaWestland that brought the AB139 medium twin to market.

Also at the show, Aviall, the aftermarket supply-chain management services company, struck agreements with Rolls-Royce and Keystone to support select military and civilian helicopters.

The company renewed its contractor logistics support agreement with Rolls for five years to support the Model 250-C30R/3 engines in the Army’s Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters. Under the contract, Aviall will be responsible for storage of new and overhauled engines, return of serviceable engines to overhaul facilities for repair, tracking time for overhaul and repair and distribution of replacement parts and engines from U.S. Army inventory to units in the field and U.S. military bases.

Aviall also agreed with Keystone to manage an on-site parts warehouse in Coatesville. Aviall will operate a warehouse at Keystone’s engine-services division there and supply Keystone’s various business units with their daily parts requirements.

In the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence and Transport Dept. approved pursuit of a more integrated national search-and-rescue capability as a private-finance initiative competition. The defense ministry and the Transport Dept.’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency currently jointly provide SAR services in the United Kingdom and the international seas and airspace for which it is responsible. Together, they provide 24-hr. military and civil helicopter SAR service from 12 bases around the country with Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Sea Kings and civilian helicopters under contract to the coast guard agency.

Under the next stage of the Joint Search and Rescue-Helicopter (SAR-H) project, the defense and civilian agencies plan to replace this capability with a single contract under which military aircrews would train and work alongside civilian counterparts trained to the same standards. The defense ministry and coast guard agency would continue to manage SAR services

In China, provincial and city governments were reported to be looking to acquire new helicopters for airborne law enforcement, including support of the upcoming Olympics, according to various news sources.

The Beijing police plan to add four AgustaWestland helicopters to its force to support the 2008 Summer Games as well as standard operations such as search and rescue, traffic control, automobile accident investigations and high-altitude photography, according to the Web site, which quoted the deputy director of the finance and equipment bureau of the public security ministry, Tao Junsheng.

Speaking at the 2006 China International Exhibition on Police Equipment, Junsheng said police helicopters could monitor 15 times as large an area as ground police, and for areas where "air police" are employed, "robbery, theft and other street crimes will be reduced by 50 percent."

In India, the BM Birla Heart Research Center launched an air ambulance service for eastern India, the first time this type of service has been available in the area.

The air ambulance service is being provided to the 4.6 million people of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal, with the facility available for patients of BM Birla and the Calcutta Medical Research Institute. A Bell 206, based in the Dum Dum Airport, is being provided by Rescue Services.

But availability of the service to the city will depend on demand. "We are ready to bring the facility closer to the heart of the city if the demand for it is good," an official said. "This is the first time that such a facility is being launched in eastern India. If the authorities see that there is a good demand for such emergency medical services then they will also increase the number of choppers."

Katrina’s Impact and Lessons Linger

As impressive as the helicopter community’s response to Hurricane Katrina was 15 month ago, each day that passes increases the risk that important lessons from that regional, multi-jurisdiction, interagency rescue-and-recovery operation may be lost.

A whole host of after-action reports, studies and analyses have been done, and individual agencies have to lesser or greater degrees updated their operating procedures in response to the challenges that Katrina unmasked.

The Helicopter Assn. International is making a big contribution toward ensuring a major lesson of Katrina is learned by developing a database of helicopters readily available to disaster-management teams as well as the capabilities, location, and staffing of those aircraft.

It was common to hear in the days after Katrina of helicopters around the United States fueled, staffed, outfitted and ready to fly save for orders or permission to enter the fray. Some crews told of orders not to fly, accompanied by threats if they should, from those in the emergency-management chain of command. At the same time, doctors at Tulane Medical Center and other New Orleans hospitals were clamoring in phone interviews with TV news shows for any and all help that could come by air.

HAI’s First Responder Program database, which went operational in June, is an attempt to bridge that divide. Its practical purpose is as the worldwide, online "go-to" system in times of crisis, to allow local emergency-response managers to quickly locate helicopter resources. HAI President Matt Zuccaro wants to develop this tool to the point where it facilitates helicopter operators getting pre-cleared by individual agencies’ command (and accounting) systems so that the only questions to be answered after disaster strikes are, as he says, "When and where do you want me?"

Zuccaro’s larger goal with the database is to begin the process of educating emergency-response managers on the availability and capability of helicopters so they eventually begin to routinely build that capability into their disaster-management plans. Too often in the past, that has occurred only after emergency managers saw during a real disaster what helicopters can do.

Such was the case with Newell Norman, chief deputy with the Jefferson Parish, La., Sheriff’s Office, who considered police helicopters a wasteful extravagance — until Katrina devastated the parish. At the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. show in July in New Orleans, he took delivery of a new Bell 407 for the Sheriff’s Office.

Traditionalists in the helicopter community could use to broaden their thinking about emergency-response efforts, as our correspondent U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Colby points out in his "The Military Spin" column this month (see page 58). There he explains how MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial systems were used to expand the capability of search teams working in Katrina’s wake and speed relief to that storm’s victims.

"First-responder planners must add this military capability to their bag of tricks," Colby urges.

Operational Control is the Wild Card

The wild card of 2006 for the industry is the focus of top FAA regulatory officials on the use and understanding of "operational control" among Part 135 operators and the FAA inspector workforce.

The agency’s attention to the issue is not really a surprise. It follow a series of accidents and investigations that unmasked common practices in which non-certificate holders marketed and booked flights using an air operator certificate holder’s aircraft and crews, sometimes on a routine basis. Most notable among the crashes were two involving business jets. One ran off a runway at Teterboro, N.J. in February 2005, injuring 20 people. The other crashed in Montrose, Colo. in November 2004, killing the 14-year-old son of the head of the NBC television network’s sports division.

The discovery of those practices unnerved top regulators and lawyers at the FAA, who were confronted with a situation in which key provisions of the FARs had fallen into disuse over time-at times with the knowledge of the agency’s own inspectors.

As a result, top agency officials have been conducting "road shows" to clarify for both operators and FAA inspectors what the regulations require.

Still, the FAA’s moves also have unnerved some in the industry-particularly those involved in helicopter emergency medical services. Some fear it will spell the end of programs in which an operator acquires, staffs, operates and maintains an EMS helicopter whose activities appear to be run by the health-care organization, not the FAA certificate holder.

The agency’s moves could indeed force a revamping of such arrangements. It also could force helicopter EMS operators not directly affiliated with a hospital to beef up their aviation dispatch and flight-following practices.

Top agency officials said they are not looking to impose the kind of dispatch requirements contained in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121, under which the pilot in command and a dispatcher on the ground have shared responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight. But they do want greater control over flight operations commensurate with the degree of complexity of a certificate holder’s operations.

The crackdown is not limited to EMS operators; it applies to all Part 135 certificate holders.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of operational control of aircraft operated under FAR Part 135. The FAA planned to issue by the end of October an amendment to paragraph A008 of a certificate holder’s operations specifications that is intended to clarify the operational control requirements of the FARs. FAA inspectors would then inform certificate holders of the clarified requirements. The certificate holders would have to revise their op specs to meet those requirements.

"A very important point is that we have made no regulatory changes," a top FAA official involved in the process said. "These are all requirements already in the FARs."

FAA officials said the amended op specs will specify that operational control is the responsibility of the certificate holder, that the responsibility cannot be transferred by any business agreement, and that no agreement between a certificate holder and other parties can supersede the certificate holder’s operational control responsibilities.

FAA officials have said repeatedly that they are looking for more than manual changes through this effort.

"What we are looking for is a cultural change," said Hooper Harris, head of the commuter, on-demand and training branch of the FAA’s Air Transportation Div. Certificate holders will have to establish and maintain absolute operational control of their aircraft, with its customers making requests for air transportation. "To meet the regulations, both the words and the actions have to be right."

Broader UAV Use Inevitable, But Problemmatic in Civil Arena

This year may be remembered as the one in which the helicopter world accepted that unmanned aerial vehicles are inevitable partners in the sky. The challenge ahead is ensuring that they become reliably avoidable partners there.

As in many things related to flight, the fixed-wing world is ahead in this respect. UAVs have proven their worth and compatibility, at least in military operations. Over the last year, though, the tone of discussions of UAVs among rotorcraft folk have become noticeably more welcoming. In some case, they’re even enthusiastic.

There were some notable achievements in the UAV field this year.

In January, the RQ-8A Fire Scout Northrop Grumman is developing for the U.S. Navy’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle program passed its milestone Jan. 16-17 when one of the UAVs took off from NAS Patuxent River, Md. and landed on board the USS Nashville operating offshore, with the last landings performed autonomously.

In the flights on Jan. 16, operators at ground stations ashore and on the Nashville controlled the Fire Scout’s takeoffs and landings, but the aircraft flew from the shore to the ship autonomously. On Jan. 17, a second Fire Scout was launched to complete the testing, which included having the aircraft land on and takeoff from the Nashville autonomously. The Naval Air Systems Command is developing four-bladed MQ-8B variants, which are designed to have greater payload and performance capabilities, for the Navy and U.S. Army.

In February, Boeing demonstrated for the first time the ability of an AH-64D Apache Longbow to control the weapon payload on an unmanned aerial vehicle. During the test at its Mesa, Ariz., the Apache, acting as an Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Technology Demonstration (AMUST-D) aircraft, took control and commanded multiple payloads on the unmanned aircraft, the Unmanned Little Bird version of the A/MH-6 that Boeing has been developing. The Apache was on the ground while the Unmanned Little Bird was several miles away.

In April, Kaman’s BURRO+ vertical takeoff UAV demonstrated its mission endurance with what the company said was a 12-hr., 17-min. flight and simulated mission without refueling.

Based on Kaman’s K-MAX helicopter, the BURRO+ departed Kaman’s airfield in Bloomfield, Conn. at 0613 local with safety pilot John McGonagle on board and flew a pre-programmed, three-leg course repeatedly, autonomously landing at 1830.

There were setbacks, too. On April 12, Boeing’s canard rotor/wing X-50A Dragonfly UAV crashed at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. The crash effectively killed that technology demonstration program.

The TR918 Eagle Eye, one of two tilt-rotor UAVs Bell is developing, achieved its first flight on Jan. 26. But on April 5, the prototype crashed and was significantly damaged after its engine lost power.

The key hurdle to clear before UAVs can be used routinely in civil airspace is ensuring that the aircraft can be flown safely and reliably in "see-and-avoid" flight environments.

After Tumultous Year, MD Focuses on Commercial Business

This was certainly an eventful year for MD Helicopters. Acquired in July 2005 by New York investor Lynn Tilton (below), the beleaguered firm opened the year with the appointment of a new management team that included some old hands and a new one.

Andy Logan, an originator of the NOTAR directional-control concept used on some MD models, returned to the company as named chief technology officer. Charles Vehlow, a former vice president and general manager for the Boeing Helicopter Div. and vice president of the Apache program, was named director of operations for Patriarch Partners Management Group. (Patriarch is the Tilton-controlled firm that bought MD.)

Tilton took over as interim CEO, having concluded that the previous interim CEO, Robert Rene, "was not an operations expert" and Chief Operating Officer Randy Kesterson "was somewhat paralyzed by the prospect of what needed to get done," she said, which at that point included reviving MD’s spares supply lines and winning the U.S. Army’s 322-aircraft Light Utility Helicopter competition.

Tilton’s debut at Heli-Expo caused a stir, including her comments about the company’s and the rotorcraft industry’s supply chains being "broken" and "indelibly flawed and the industry’s standard for customer service being, to paraphrase Tilton, abysmal.

After the U.S. Army in June selected EADS North America’s LUH bid of the Eurocopter EC145 over the MD902 Explorer and others, Tilton let loose, calling it an "outrageous decision completely at odds with supporting American industry" and the selection process "seriously flawed and perfunctory, at best."

"The simple reality is that there was no attention to substantive matters," she said.

Tilton filed a protest with the U.S. General Accountability Office. She argued that Army officials had misconstrued the pricing data in MD’s bid, rating it more expensive than EADS’ when, she said, it was lower. In reacting to the Army’s decision, MD revealed that service officials had asked the company in March to withdraw from the LUH competition, "based upon the perception that it was, somehow, not ready to perform the task."

But the GAO upheld the Army’s decision.

Tilton seems to have found an MD management team that suits her. It includes Logan, Chief Financial Officer Peter Hokanson (formerly of Garrett Aviation), Jeffrey Snyder as named general manager of spare parts and service (he came from Raytheon Aircraft, Dassault Falcon Jet and B/E Aerospace), and David Langenhuizen as general manager of operations. David Oglesbee was lured away from Bell Helicopter (where he was director of marketing and sales for non-Defense Dept. government customers) to be vice president of sales.

MD is now focused on building its commercial helicopter production capability. It has revised its plan for a Mexico production site to get fuselages from the facility faster. The Mesa, Ariz. manufacturer had planned to gain FAA certification of the site near Monterrey to produce its single-engine MD-500- and MD600-series helicopters, with plans to start production by year’s end. But the FAA certification process was too protracted to meet MD’s production plans. The company will now build single-engine fuselages in Monterrey and ship them to Mesa for final assembly and completion.

"Everybody Wants to Go Fast"

Speed, speed, and more speed — that’s what people want.

"Everybody wants to go fast," said Pat Donnelly, Boeing’s director of advanced rotorcraft systems.

That can be frustrating to those designing, buying and flying helicopters. In addition to the limits physics impose on rotor tip speed, the industry for years has used an approach to aircraft development and speed that actually constrains our pursuit of speed. At least that’s how Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of the U.S. Army’s aviation task force.

"To get more speed, we need more power. Traditionally, how do we get more power?" he asked. "We improve the engine. Then we get an engine too powerful for the transmission and we have to de-rate the engine. Then we work on the transmission and get one that can handle more power than the engine can produce. We’ve gone back and forth like that for years. We need to develop the engine and transmission as a unit."

That is one area that Sikorsky Aircraft is tackling in its X-2 Technology Demonstrator project, which is targeted for ground runs and a first flight by year’s end. The aircraft will rely on an integrated propulsion system that will proportion power from the engine between the main rotors and its aft propulsor, depending on flight conditions. The project’s speed goal is 250 kt in cruise.

Relying on its new Schweizer Aircraft center for rapid prototyping, Sikorsky Aircraft has completed installation of subsystems in the coaxial X-2 technology demonstrator (shown here during assembly). "We are absolutely and definitively on track to fly this demonstrator in 2006," said Sikorsky’s new president, Jeff Pino, back at the American Helicopter Society International’s technical forum in May. "All major systems’ detail design is complete. The first round of rotor testing is complete. Main shafts and transmissions are in fabrication and we’ll ground test the aircraft" this month.

He said the company already has overcome key technical challenges in developing a fully fly-by-wire demonstrator aircraft that can cruise above 250 kt. while preserving all the vertical flight characteristics of a traditional helicopter.

The objective of the X-2 effort is to retain "the hover efficiency of a helicopter while creating a new helicopter spectrum in speed," as Pino put it. Skeptics challenge Sikorsky’s aspirations, saying the company could not overcome fundamental problems — specifically, the lift-drag properties of the advancing-blade configuration and the hub drag of a coaxial rotor — that make a high-speed coaxial helicopter unfeasible. "Our team has conquered, at least analytically, both of these challenges," Pino told the AHS gathering.

Sikorsky’s small team of X-2 engineers has come up with a new rotor blade design that "achieves an L-over-D significantly better than demonstrated back in the 1980s, when we flew" the NASA/U.S. Defense Dept. XH-59A Advancing Blade Concept aircraft. Team members in Stratford, Conn. and Schweizer’s facility near Elmira, N.Y. did this "by creatively merging essentially three airfoils into one new blade," Pino said. "The technology that we imparted was the transition."

Regarding hub drag, Pino said, that "working with our sister division at the United Technology Research Center, and using empirically derived [computational fluid dynamics] results, we know the drag is low enough."

He said Sikorsky and Schweizer have developed a packaging and fairing solution "that reduces coaxial rotor hub drag to where it compares favorably with single-main-rotor helicopters — about 25 percent of the total drag."

The LHTEC engine was developed for the canceled U.S. Army RAH-66 Comanche on which Sikorsky partnered with Boeing.

The Challenge of Moving The Big Loads

This year started off well for Sikorsky Aircraft and for U.S. Marine Corps aviation. The Naval Air Systems Command awarded Sikorsky a $2.9-billion, "cost plus award fee" contract for the system development and demonstration phase of the Heavy Lift Replacement program.

Approved by the Pentagon Dec. 22, 2005, development of the successor to the CH-53E aims to produce an aircraft with roughly half the maintenance costs of the Super Stallion and more than twice the payload (27,000 lb. vs. 12,100 at a mission radius of about 200 nm.) under Navy "hot and high" conditions — 91.5F at 3,000 ft. The all-new helicopter is intended to have the same footprint as the -53E on board ships but offer greater visibility from the cockpit and a wider cabin capable of carrying U.S. Air Force-standard loads.

The CH-53K is to have fly-by-wire flight controls, a glass cockpit, fifth-generation main rotor blades, a low-maintenance elastomeric rotorhead, a new main gearbox and new engines. It also is to offer improved survivability and ballistic protection for occupants and key systems, something that "came into play in the last six months," said USMC Col. Paul Croisetiere, the Naval Air Systems Command’s Heavy Lift Replacement program manager. As part of that effort, a CH-53E underwent live-fire testing at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif.

The program calls for initial operating capability — a detachment of four CH-53Ks, with combat-ready crews, ready to deploy — by 2015, which is actually four years too late for the Marines. Their current -53Es face a 6,120-flight-hour, fatigue-life limit on the transition bulkhead section (at the tailboom’s fold point), and the service projects it will lose about a dozen aircraft a year starting in 2011. NavAir and Sikorsky are expected to finalize a plan shortly for modifications to keep the aircraft flying. That should bring Sikorsky another $4.2 billion of work.

The sole-source CH-53K contracts to Sikorsky — NavAir officials said competitive bidding would have produced a more costly aircraft at a later date — include an $8.8-million initial system development and demonstration contract, an unspecified follow-on to that due within weeks and a $2.9-billion system development and demonstration contract expected in March. The plan is to acquire 156 CH-53Ks plus five test aircraft, with an average flyaway unit cost of $56.6 million. Total program costs are estimated at $18.8 billion.

For that money, Sikorsky will select suppliers of the CH-53K’s subsystems.

In June, Sikorsky selected Rockwell Collins to provide the avionics management system (AMS) for the new heavy lifter.

The CH-53K’s new joint interoperable "glass" cockpit will provide additional capabilities and situational awareness for the pilots coupled with reduced logistics and operating costs, said Dave Haines, Sikorsky’s CH-53K program manager..

The CH-53K system consists of five fully integrated active matrix liquid crystal multifunction displays, dual integrated processing cabinets, dual control display units, and dual data transfer units. The integrated cockpit includes fully integrated primary flight instrumentation, crew alerting system, display management, vehicle management, civil and military flight management, and navigation and communication equipment management.

In addition, the CH-53K AMS provides improved mission situational awareness through embedded tactical mission aids, such as digital moving map, FLIR video, defensive electronic countermeasures, network ready capability, correlation, and tactical display functions.

Initial operating capability, or IOC, is scheduled in Fiscal 2015 and is defined as a detachment of four aircraft, with combat ready crews, logistically prepared to deploy. The first CH-53K, a flight test aircraft, is scheduled to make its first flight in Fiscal 2011.

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