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40th Years Retrospective: The Helicopter Industry’s [Heyday]

By Dave Jensen | August 1, 2007
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The 1980s was a time of new aircraft, new missions, new technologies, and limitless optimism. It was fun while it lasted.

THE FUTURE OF THE HELICOPTER NEVER looked better than it does right now." So reads the opening sentence of an industry forecast story in the January 1980 issue of Rotor & Wing. In that same story, one manufacturer boldly predicted the estimated 4,000 helicopters in the U.S. commercial fleet would more than triple in five years. And Allison Engines (now Rolls-Royce) predicted 43 percent growth in the civil helicopter market throughout the Free World (so-called because the Cold War still existed).

If ever the civil helicopter industry enjoyed a heyday, a time of high spirits and optimism, it would have been the early 1980s. As the decade progressed, however, the outlook for the industry changed dramatically. High interest rates, recession, and a slump in oil prices took their toll. Optimism yielded to pragmatism; the industry entered a period of transformation and matured.


But the somber reality of the late 1980s didn’t negate the decade’s excitement. An entrepreneurial spirit prevailed, and confidence existed that helicopters could serve a myriad of uses, even become everyday public transportation, like buses, taxis, and airliners.

The rising tide from this confidence lifted all boats. In 1980 the industry’s principal event, put on annually by the Helicopter Assn.. of America (later by the Helicopter Assn. International, and called Heli-Expo), took in 8,800 attendees, a 30-percent increase over 1979. It mushroomed to more than 10,500 in 1981.

R&W grew prosperous in the 1980s as well. Indeed, during the fast-growing late 1970s, it was able to shed its coverage of short takeoff and landing aircraft — which is why the magazine’s title includes " & Wing" — and focus solely on the rotorcraft industry.

The rising tide also yielded new missions, new operators, new associations, new aircraft, and new companies producing aircraft. The 1980s was probably the most colorful period in rotary-wing history, with record-breaking flights, daring rescues, and trail-blazing journeys around the world. There also were colorful personalities, pioneers like PHI’s Bob Suggs, ERA Helicopter’s Carl Brady, Island Helicopter’s Fred Fine, and, in the North Sea oil patch, Alan Bristow, John Cameron, and Morten Hancke. The men who launched successful helicopter operations then were not bean counters; they shared a background and love for aviation along with grit and determination. The decade also saw adventurers like Ross Perot Jr. and Dick Smith, visionaries like Frank Piasecki and outstanding aviators like Jean Boulet, who in the 1970s set the rotary-wing altitude record by taking a stripped down Aerospatiale SA315B Lama up to 40,820 ft (12,442 m).

Started by OPEC

Fueling the heyday of the early 1980s was the urgent pursuit of petroleum that followed the 1973 oil embargo by the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil companies scrambled to find the black brew everywhere — in the Rocky Mountain overthrust belt, off Alaska’s North Slope, near California and Canada’s maritime provinces, in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bering Sea.

The two oil sources harboring the most helicopter activity were the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. More helicopters flew in the Gulf. PHI alone had more than 700 helicopters at one time — more than any other operator, save the U.S. Army.

But the big iron was in the North Sea, and the biggest was the 44-passenger Boeing 234 Commercial Chinook. Its employment as a people-hauler was short-lived, but sensational. British Airways Helicopters was the initial Boeing 234 operator, flying six of the type. Three other offshore operators flew the tandem-rotor craft: Norway’s Helikopter Service, Alaska Helicopters and ERA Helicopters, the last two supporting offshore exploration in the Navarin Basin.

The workhorse in the North Sea was the venerable Sikorsky Aircraft S-61N, introduced in the early 1960s. The big question was what newer aircraft would replace it. Bell Helicopter had hoped its 214ST — developed for production in Iran, until revolution toppled the Shah — might fit part of the bill. But Bristow Helicopter’s purchase of 35 Aerospatiale AS332L Super Pumas in January 1981, followed by Helikopter Service’s acquisition of 10 AS332s, affirmed the heir apparent. Bristow’s $200-million buy granted the operator the privilege of renaming the aircraft. It called it the Tiger.

Offshore drilling in the Navarin Basin indicated oil exploration would go farther and farther offshore, which is why Bell proposed developing a 30-passenger tilt-rotor for the mission. Not wanting to yield a monopoly on tilt-rotor technology to the U.S., five European nations representing seven European companies launched a program called Eurofar to develop a 19-passenger tilt-rotor that could fly up to 310 kt. With NASA operating two XV-15 tilt-rotor technology demonstrators and the U.S. military launching in 1982 the Joint Services Advanced Vertical Lift Aircraft (JVX — bearing the V-22) program, tilt-rotor flight became the buzz during the 1980s. Bell actually contemplated a 75-passenger tilt-rotor airliner. The FAA established a Civil Tilt-Rotor Program Office, and studies predicted a potential worldwide market for 1,400 commuter aircraft with tilt-rotors.

Helicopter Airlines

Fueling the keenness for tilt-rotors was a rotary-wing mission unique to the 1980s — helicopter airlines. Urban sprawl made commutes from downtowns to airports and outlying areas a headache. Many business executives avoided commuter hassles by hopping into their corporate helicopters. Why not offer the same convenience to the general public?

It wasn’t long before scheduled services sprung up in every major U.S. city – Honolulu, Denver, New Orleans, Dallas, Washington — and in London and Paris. Boston had its HubExpress service, which hired as a consultant Rhett Flater, now executive director of the American Helicopter Society International. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles, among others, had competing services.

The helicopter airlines quickly mimicked their fixed-wing brethren. Los Angeles’ Airspur established a hub-and-spoke operation. New York Helicopter was included in TWA’s frequent flyer program. Incentives were offered. For example, Pan Am’s helicopter service in New York gave free rides to first-class passengers in its carrier’s jets. Confidence in the market ran high, and the Helicopter Airline Assn. was formed, essentially before the market gained footing.

Helicopter airlines employed a wide range of aircraft, from Bell JetRangers and Agusta A109s to Sikorsky S-58Ts. Westland Helicopters — looking for missions for its WG-30, a civil aircraft with the Lynx’s dynamic components that entered service in 1982 — zeroed in on the helicopter airline market and met some success, taking orders from scheduled services in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

But by the end of the decade, the rotary-wing airline market had ebbed, the victim of an unworkable business model, and so, too, prospects for the WG-30. The aircraft served briefly in the lower North Sea and was reprieved when India’s government ordered 21 WG-30s, primarily for offshore support, in the mid-1980s. Ultimately, however, the aircraft never found a viable mission.

Helicopter airlines, talk of tilt-rotors, and a healthy corporate helicopter market combined to spotlight an urgent need for downtown heliports. The FAA unveiled a heliport master plan to assist cities in establishing IFR landing facilities. Four cities — New York, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Los Angeles — received funding. But when the airline market collapsed and predictions regarding civil tilt-rotors proved premature, the momentum to establish city-center heliports was deflated. In addition, resistance to scheduled helicopter operations became organized. For example, two adversarial groups emerged in Los Angeles: Chopper Stoppers and CRASH (Citizens Revolt Against Shuttle Helicopters). HAI responded with a "Fly Neighborly" program to abate objectionable noise through improved flying techniques. But the struggle for available urban landing space continued.

New York did preserve space for helicopters, though it has fewer than the five heliports it had in the 1980s. Indeed, it became the focal point for the evolving corporate market, in which basic single-engine helicopters were being traded for nicely appointed twins. Agusta led in the dual-engine trend with its IFR-approved A109, but quickly saw competition in the Sikorsky S-76, Aerospatiale AS365N Dauphin 2 and Bell 222.

The flamboyant Gerald Tobias, president of Sikorsky, perhaps best marketed corporate helicopter use in the early 1980s by setting up point-to-point races with fixed-wing jets. While fixed-wing transport had to factor in cab service to and from the airports, the S-76 could take off at the start point and land at the destination, guaranteeing its win.

Hybrid corporate/airline helicopter operations also flew out of New York to Atlantic City, bearing casino-bound gamblers. Resorts International — whose general manager, Matthew Zuccaro, is now president of HAI — flew three rainbow-colored S-61Ns between the two cities. Later named Trump Air, after real estate tycoon and casino developer Donald Trump, the service acquired a jet-black commercial Chinook. The brief shuttle service was that civil helicopter’s last hurrah as a people hauler.

Air traffic from New York up to Boston and down to Washington, D.C., in airspace called the Northeast Corridor, prompted the establishment of an IFR route structure exclusively for rotorcraft. Expectations were high, but progress in establishing the interface with fixed-wings were abruptly interrupted by the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. The route structure was little used during the 1980s.

Perhaps the mission that most blossomed during the decade was emergency medical service (EMS). The American Society of Hospital-Based Emergency Medical Services (ASHBEAMS) was formed in 1980. The mission grew fast in the 1980s — perhaps too fast, as the EMS helicopter safety rate at one point reached an alarming 20.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours before improved safety standards and equipment were implemented.

The heli-logging mission, which remained strong despite high interest rates for housing, launched a quest for an air vehicle that could efficiently lift much more than a helicopter. Various schemes were tried, the most notable being Frank Piasecki’s Heli-Stat, which had four Sikorsky H-34s attached to a lighter-than-air balloon. It, and comparable designs, didn’t succeed.

The most dramatic heli-logging operation to salvage blasted-down timber occurred following the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which also brought a flurry of other helicopter activities.

Other disasters also left their imprints on the 1980s. Eighty-four people died in one of the worst hotel fires in U.S. history, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand in November 1980. But rotorcraft plucked 370 persons from the burning hotel’s rooftop, marking one of the most successful helicopter rescue operations. And in January 1982 a U.S. Park Police LongRanger lifted five survivors of an Air Florida flight, a Boeing 737 that plunged into the icy Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

A collision of a JetRanger and Twin Otter over the Grand Canyon in 1986 dramatically impacted the expanding helicopter sightseeing market in the U.S. The incident, plus noise complaints among hikers and campers seeking a pristine environment, drew congressional legislation restricting sightseeing flights over several national parks.

Not all monumental events affecting the rotorcraft industry were disasters. In September 1982, Ross Perot Jr. and Jay Coburn completed the first round-the-world flight in a helicopter, flying a JetRanger 26,000 mi over 23 countries in 30 days. Less than a year later, Australian millionaire Dick Smith made the first solo journey around the world.

New Technology

Meanwhile, manufacturers were busy designing new aircraft. France’s Aerospatiale was perhaps most prolific, introducing in the 1980s the AS365N Dauphin 2, AS355 Ecureuil 2, and AS332L Super Puma. In addition to the 214ST, Bell rolled out its 222 and first four-bladed aircraft, the 412. MBB and Kawasaki introduced the BK117, McDonnell Douglas the MD530, Schweizer the Model 330, and Poland’s PZL Swidnik the Allison-powered Kania.

Older, piston helicopters were updated and "turbinized." Some were modified for specific missions, and one imaginative company offered to outfit Sikorsky S-55s to be "heli-campers," complete with bunk beds and a roll-out awning.

Attention quickly turned to Asia’s promising market. In the early 1980s China began license production of the Z-9 (Aerospatiale AS365N), and in 1984 MBB and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. agreed to jointly develop the Advanced Light Helicopter).

The civil and military markets combined to inspire various unique concepts. For example, Boeing developed the Model 360 technology demonstrator, a composite helicopter about the size of the H-46 but with four-bladed tandem rotors. It was fast and promising but never produced. Boeing also contemplated an X-wing design, in which cruciform blades would rotate during takeoffs and landings and lock into fixed position during cruise. Sikorsky flew its advancing blade concept (ABC), with two counter-rotating main rotors, while McDonald Douglas developed its NOTAR (no tail rotor).

But it was the smallest helicopter that became the biggest seller – and biggest surprise. In 1980, soon after its certification, few in the industry – except, perhaps, Frank Robinson – could have guessed the R22’s popularity as a trainer and private-use helicopter, even though its $68,000 price tag and $40+ an hour operating costs held obvious appeal. By 1885, 500 R22s were sold, and by 1989, 1,000.

One of the biggest transformations during the 1980s was the helicopter cockpit. Avionics manufacturers such as Bendix, Sextant, SFIM, King, Canadian Marconi, Thomson CSF, Collins, and Honeywell were busy developing autopilots and other avionics that were rapidly becoming digital. Sperry and SFENA produced single-pilot IFR kits. The newest avionics weren’t cheap, however, which is why the FAA came up with Special FAR 29-2, proposing two-pilot IFR operations with limited avionics upgrade. The Collins displays in U.S. Coast Guard’s HH-65 Dolphin did much to advance the "glass" cockpit in helicopters, and in 1983 Sikorsky broke ground by offering the Bendix electronic flight instrumentation system as a factory option.

For many helicopter pilots in the 1980s, the navigation aid of choice was Loran-C. NASA was looking at microwave landing systems for precision approaches. The police helicopter market brought the civil use of infrared sensing and, along with the fast-growing electronic newsgathering market, development of camera stabilization. Many emergency helicopter operators liked the Wulfsberg multi-frequency radios, and a popular weather detector was the Ryan Stormscope.

A Different Industry

As the 1980s progressed, however, the manufacturers turned their attention to the blossoming military market, which, in the U.S. was fed by the Reagan administration’s military build-up. The optimism of 1980s continued; it just put on a uniform. Enter, as a result, the alphabet soup, with programs like LHX, JVX, ARTI and, in Europe, PAH-2/HAC/HAP. Encouraged also by a promising export market, virtually every airframer attached guns and rocket pods to their civilian designs — the Dauphin, S-76 and BK117 to name just a few.

Perhaps most notable was how military programs ushered in consolidation and confederation, which heretofore was unprecedented. LHX joined Bell and McDonnell Douglas, vying against Boeing and Sikorsky. JVX joined Bell and Boeing. Westland joined with Agusta on the EH101. And a memorandum of understanding between Germany and France had Aerospatiale and MBB come together to develop the Tiger antitank helicopters and establish a new company, Eurocopter. These and other agreements – also among avionics manufacturers, service suppliers and civil operators – were all in the wake of the high-flying 1980s.

Highlights of Manufacturer Milestones Since 1967


1984: McDonnell Douglas buys Hughes Helicopters from the estate of Howard Hughes. Company is renamed McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Co.

1985: Kaman Aerospace celebrates its 40th anniversary.

1986: A Westland Lynx with BERP rotor blades achieves the absolute world speed record. The blade was designed to take advantage of the benefits of composite construction, optimizing the aerodynamics qualities and enhancing performance.

1991: First flight of the K-MAX, which utilizes Kaman’s proven intermeshing rotor system in a single-seat helicopter built specifically for utility purposes.

1992: The company Eurocopter is created with the merger of the helicopter divisions of Aerospatiale and MBB/Deutsche Aerospace.

1994: Westland Helicopters is acquired by the engineering company GKN. In 1996, company name changes to GKN Westland.

1997: The Boeing Co. acquires McDonnell Douglas

1998: Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co. is formed as a joint venture between Bell Helicopter and Agusta SpA.

1999: MD Helicopters Inc. is formed with the acquisition of the former McDonnell Douglas commercial helicopter line from Boeing,

2001: AgustaWestland is formed with the merger of Agusta SpA and GKN Westland.

2003: First flight of the BA609 tilt-rotor.

2004: Sikorsky acquires Schweizer Aircraft Corp., which includes its light helicopter, reconnaissance aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) product lines. Founded in 1930, Schweizer was the oldest privately owned aircraft manufacturer in the United States.

2005: The BA609 performs first conversion to airplane mode in flight, first civil aircraft to do so.

2007: Robinson Helicopters announces the company’s first turbine-powered helicopter, the R66. Robinson has produced more helicopters than any other aircraft manufacturer in history.

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