A Year of Surprise

By By Joseph Ambrogne | December 1, 2015
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2015 saw both consolidations of medical transport operators and heavy cuts by offshore oil and gas operators, in addition to other shake ups. Image by R&WI, with helicopter courtesy of AgustaWestland

Looking back, it’s easy to characterize 2015 as the year of surprises. Many predictions made near the end of 2014 proved drastic understatements, with almost every major segment of the rotorcraft industry enduring hardship—whether political, economic or natural.

Some of the most prominent shocks this year were the spin-off and sale of Sikorsky Aircraft, the persisting worldwide downturn in oil and gas and the contentious politics surrounding unmanned aircraft systems.


In the following year in review, we discuss these and several other happenings that helped shape the rotorcraft industry in 2015.

The U.S. Marine Corps’ new super heavy-lift CH-53K was first flown Oct. 27 at Sikorsky’s West Palm Beach, Florida, facility. Photo courtesy of Sikorsky

Offshore Oil and Gas

The oil price slump might perhaps have been the most significant development of the year, affecting several segments of the rotorcraft industry worldwide. The offshore transport providers were not blindsided by the downturn, which began as early as last November and echoed numbers during the Great Recession.

Even the rapid decline in prices per barrel from more than $100 to less than $50 was taken in stride by major offshore operators used to weathering that segment’s periodic cycles—and they quickly began implementing lessons of the past to weather the expected hardships.

Early in the year, next-generation airframes such as Airbus Helicopters’ H160 and Bell Helicopter’s 525 Relentless made their debut at Heli-Expo 2015, and their manufacturers fully expected to rack in orders from operators using the downturn to invest in more competitive fleets for the long term.

The military looked harder
at the costs and benefits
of improving rotorcraft speed, thanks in part to successes
with the V-22 Osprey.
Photo courtesy of the U.S.
Marine Corps
The S-97 Raider, a U.S. Army Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator candidate, first flew on May 22.
Photo courtesy of Sikorsky

But the persistence of the downturn—now expected to last through 2020—caught the industry summarily off guard. For operators like Bristow Group, Era Group and CHC Helicopter, cost-cutting efforts predicated on a recovery in 2017 have proven inadequate, forcing repeated headcount reductions, consolidation of support services, cancellation of aircraft orders and deferral of aircraft payments for a year or more. Some have leaned more heavily on other markets such as SAR, tourism or even fixed-wing airline operations as a safety net. OEMs likely will feel the effects of their customers’ damage control as new aircraft orders fall through.

In spite of these difficulties, significant strides also have been made to improve offshore safety. HeliOffshore, a collaboration of operators born from 2014’s CHC Safety & Quality Summit, announced at its inaugural conference in May plans to improve automation, operational performance monitoring, flight path monitoring, application of HUMS, information exchange and operational standards. With help from many of those same operators, Airbus Helicopters published the industry’s first rotorcraft Flight Crew Operations Manual—used by H225 LP crews engaged in offshore transport.

The industry also made commercial gains. Era Group in June opened a new “super base” in Houma, Louisiana, and CAE made plans to develop a new simulator training center for Cougar Helicopters with backing from energy companies. Erickson, Inc., long-time provider of overland transport for the energy sector, secured its first offshore contract in Brazil.

Offshore operators built on other revenue streams during oil’s downturn, while OEMs worked on the next generation of offshore helicopters.
Photos courtesy of Bristow Helicopters, Bell Helicopter and Airbus Helicopters

Unmanned Aircraft Systems

At HAI’s Industry-Government Forum on Jan. 28, members of the rotorcraft industry showed what would become a growing concern about the popularity of unmanned aerial systems throughout 2015. But rather than worrying about the threat to pilot jobs, operators questioned the effects on pilot safety—since drones would occupy the same low-altitude airspace as many commercial and public service helicopters. Even setting aside Amazon’s troubling proposal on July 28 for “drone-only airspace” below 400 ft agl, these concerns would prove valid as recreational and commercial interest in unmanned aircraft quickly exceeded the ability of the FAA—under repeated pressure from AUVSI and other drone economic interests—to integrate them safely into U.S. civil airspace.

The FAA’s Feb. 15 announcement of a Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking opened the floodgates for would-be commercial operators to enter the U.S. civil airspace through the Section 333 exemption process, resulting in more than 2,650 such exemptions at press time. At the same time, an explosion in recreational use of drones weighing less than 55 lb resulted in the disruption of aerial firefighting and law enforcement missions—whether out of ignorance of airspace rules or out of malice. In Los Angeles, one man deliberately flew his UAV toward an LAPD AS350 conducting a search and was later apprehended. After more than one aerial-firefighting crew was grounded thanks to nearby drones, the FAA on July 29 reiterated a U.S. Agriculture Department message that “if you fly, we can’t.” The agency also released a report on alleged drone sightings by pilots, but it was later maligned by the AMA for its vagueness, inaccuracies and inflammatory tone.

Ultimately, the agency refused to cave under economic pressures and failed to meet its Sept. 30 UAS integration deadline.

Questions remain about the effects of a helicopter-drone collision in midair, and the industry has only begun to address that possibility.

However, technology also demonstrated how drones, done right, have potential to improve the aviation industry with minimal safety risk. Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed Martin showed throughout the year how the Unmanned K-MAX could revolutionize military and public service operations. The Unmanned K-MAX proved its capabilities in multiple deployments as a cargo hauler for the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan. It conducted the first-ever unmanned collaborative casualty evacuation on March 26, followed by two precision firefighting demonstrations in Boise, Idaho, and Rome, New York, respectively.

One Surprise? Heli-Expo Heads To Louisville

Heli-Expo 2015 attendees might be excused for their “surprise” at recalling that this year’s show will be held in Louisville, Kentucky. (That venue has been scheduled since 2013.)

As they packed up in balmy Orlando, Florida, last March, they watched news reports that a major storm gripped Kentucky and dumped well more than a foot of snow there, including in the Lexington area. That was a bleak reminder of a more northerly setting than the show’s recent venues (Orlando; Anaheim, California; Dallas; and Las Vegas).

It may be some comfort that Louisville’s average high temperature in March is 58 deg F, and its average snowfall for the month is 1 in.


First Flights

Unmanned aircraft systems were a major concern this year to both U.S. legislators and rotorcraft operators. Photo by Mark Colborn

Despite a difficult year, the industry saw many first flights in 2015.

Enstrom Helicopter’s TH180 flew on Feb. 6 at the company’s facilities in Menominee, Michigan—completing a tethered, 30-min ground run followed by a 30-min free flight. The TH180 is a single-engine piston helicopter that will be marketed primarily as an entry-level rotorcraft trainer to compete with the Robinson R22 and Sikorsky S300.

Sikorsky Aircraft’s S-97 Raider—a finalist in the U.S. Army’s Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator—flew on May 22 at the company’s Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. The coaxial, rigid-rotor aircraft deviated from a planned 30-min low-speed flight, instead flying for about an hour at a top speed of 10 kt, executing three takeoffs and landings as well as forward, rearward and lateral flight.

Airbus Helicopters flew its H160, the medium twin formerly dubbed the X4, on June 13 at Le Bourget Airport outside of Paris. The much-hyped helicopter features a host of innovations and is slated for offshore transport, public service, EMS, VIP transport and SAR.

Bell Helicopter achieved first flight of its 525 Relentless on July 1 at its Amarillo, Texas, facility. The 525 was supposed to fly in 2014, but was delayed by complications involving Bell’s supply chain and FAA inspection requirements. Bell has marketed its fully fly-by-wire, super-medium twin for offshore, corporate, parapublic, EMS and firefighting missions.

Sikorsky also flew for the first time its CH-53K on Oct. 27 in West Palm Beach (see page 21).

Another Surprise? Bird Strikes

Another surprise last year was U.S. aviation officials’ report of a big increase in incidents of birds colliding midair with helicopters from 2009 through 2013.

The average number of “bird strikes” reported during that five-year period was nearly 550% greater than the number reported from 2004 through 2008, according to data collected by the FAA and the federal Dept. of Agriculture.

In the 2004 to 2008 period, an average of 30.6 bird strikes were reported each year. In 2009 to 2013, the annual average was 167.6.

Officials were not sure what caused the increase in reported strikes.

Executive-Level Changes

On April 2, United Technologies Corp. appointed Robert Leduc as president of Sikorsky, while former President Mick Maurer moved to the newly created position of UTC senior vice president, strategic projects. Leduc was brought out of retirement after ending his 35-year aerospace engineering career at UTC in 2014. His tenure would prove short.

June 1, Chris Emerson succeeded Mark Paganini as president and CEO of Airbus Helicopters, Inc. Emerson also became the head of Airbus Helicopters North America Region. Paganini, who had been with the Grand Prairie, Texas-based subsidiary since 2003, took a post with Airbus Group as head of special projects.

On Oct. 12, Bell announced Mitch Snyder, previously its executive vice president of military business, would succeed John Garrison as president and CEO. Garrison, who served in the role since 2009, became president and CEO of construction-services company Terex Corp. Nov. 2.

The biggest executive-level surprise came June 15 at the Paris Air Show when UTC announced plans to divest Sikorsky, leaving open the possibility of either a direct sale or spin off. That decision came July 20 when UTC chose L-M as the sole bidder over Textron Systems and was finalized on Nov. 6. At that time, L-M had achieved approval from domestic and foreign governments, though the U.S. was concerned over a possible defense contractor monopoly. Sikorsky, the largest supplier of helicopters to the U.S. Defense Dept., now joins L-M’s vertical-lift portfolio alongside the F35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. L-M’s Dan Schultz was named Sikorsky’s president (see page 22).


On Jan. 22, the U.S. Congress proposed legislation to cap flight-training benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill after benefits abuse by a small number of helicopter flight schools. The FAA in June began forbidding select flight schools from enrolling veterans under the GI Bill.

Airborne Law Enforcement

Lasers were used in attacks against police helicopters worldwide.

In the U.S., H.R.5478 was introduced Sept. 16. It threatens the Defense 1033 Excess Property program, in which free surplus helicopters are provided to law enforcement agencies.

Significant strides were made in airborne video management systems, such as high definition gyro-stabilized cameras and manned, real-time video downlink capability.


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