I want to start this column by acknowledging the retirement of Jeff Pino as president of Sikorsky Helicopters. I met Jeff while he was with Bell Helicopter. He called from Bell one day and invited me to a customer feedback session. I attended along with several other chief pilots from Bell operators around the world. Nobody ever said that the chief pilots of PHI or CHC Helicopters et al, lack opinions or the ability to express them in a … literal way. The first hour of each morning for the two-day meeting was set aside to allow us to express our concerns about anything to do with Bell Helicopters.
All of Bell’s upper management and another couple of hundred engineers, program managers and sales folks were in attendance; it was sporty to say the least. I remember that I went on a rant about the seats in the Bell Jet Ranger at about the time that I was questioning the parentage of the designer of said seat. One of the folks in attendance jumped out of his seat and ran out of the room yelling “don’t shoot!” Those of you with long days in a JetRanger seat will connect with the temptation to at least throw a rock at him on the way out. Does anyone think that if they went to a car dealer to test a car and it had a JetRanger seat in it that a transaction would occur?
Anyway this meeting was Jeff’s idea and my first of several exposures to Pino that illustrated his attitude toward customer support. More importantly, as Jeff went up the corporate ladder, he always took time to say “Hi” and converse, one pilot to another. After all, how many presidents of a major helicopter company can claim a FAA aerobatics air show endorsement on their pilot’s certificate? Clear skies and a good tailwind Jeff, wherever your journey takes you next.
Speaking of journeys, in May I went to Moscow to attend HeliRussia, which is—as you may know—the largest annual gathering of helicopter folks in Russia. This was the 5th time HeliRussia has been held and I have attended the last four. One observation is that four years ago some of the helicopters on display where actually in need of a bath. Since then, the state of presentation has gone from clean windows, to clean as far as you could reach from the floor, to this year where all of the helicopters on display where very well presented. I think you have to consider the way in which helicopters are used in Russia to appreciate the significance of this transition. The Russians tend to fly large utility helicopters that go out and make their living doing manly work. Not a lot of S-76 class corporate helos running around with Gucci leather and wet bars in the back. There are some, I’m sure, but nobody ever accused a Kamov Ka-32 or a Mil Mi-17 of looking like a Learjet with rotors. That said, I had the opportunity to see the new Kamov Ka-62 on display and meet with the program manager, Alexander Vagin. Think of a Ka-62 as a direct competitor to an AgustaWestland AW139. A similar cabin size, powered by Turbomeca Ardiden 3G engines, five-bladed, glass cockpit, anti-ice is standard. Although true to its Russian roots the landing gear and tires look like they belong on a seven-ton truck, not a 150-lb wheel barrel. If you read that comment and think it’s intended as an insult, you haven’t been paying attention, go back a couple of paragraphs and try again. If that doesn’t work, then go fire up any of your wheeled modern helicopters and do some utility work for a day. Pilots of Black Hawk, S-58, Erickson Air-crane and several other helicopters need not attend this training session, they already get it. My meeting with Mr. Vagin was very interesting; he speaks excellent English and is obviously very knowledgeable about the world helicopter market. The defining comment was his first, in which he stated that a large percentage of the content of the Ka-62 is Western European or American product. Furthermore, Vagin stated that Kamov Helicopters will use those products that present the best value/cost ratio, regardless of origin. My last several years of interaction with the Russian helicopter community both in Russia and in meetings in the U.S. prompts me to only question their marketing abilities as the last barrier to success in the first-world market outside of Russia.