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Thursday, December 1, 2005

Editor’s Notebook

James T. McKenna

Why I Ain't Rich

Early on in my aviation journalism career, an airliner disintegrated over Lockerbie, Scotland. This was just at the beginning of the cable TV news era that brought an incessant demand for "talking heads," so-called experts, to tell viewers what is happening right now and what it means, even if not much of either is known at the moment.

On this evening, my boss appeared at my office door and said a local TV station wanted someone to go on air that night to talk about the crash. Why he, a respected aviation reporter with 20-plus years experience under his belt, was passing this on to the most junior guy on the staff puzzled me, but I said, "Yes, sir," and scurried to find out what crash he was talking about.

That was the first of many aviation-related, TV news appearances for me. For a long time, I was uncomfortable doing them. That is, until I realized a truth of the TV news world.

When they need a "talking head," TV producers hit their contact lists. They want someone who is experienced and expert. But when they are right on a deadline, some will settle for anyone who's breathing, fairly presentable and can make it to the studio in time. Knowledge is optional. (In my first case, Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed four days before Christmas. My boss and every other knowledgeable "talking head" was on holiday or headed there. So the producer had to settle for me.)

When I saw some of the people that this process puts on TV as "aviation experts" (and heard the things they said), I figured I was performing a public service by going on TV. I had (and have) plenty of access to real experts, could report their insights and keep the lunatic fringe off the air.

After one TV appearance, I must have come off as a bit cocky, prompting one of true experts I knew to deflate my head.

"If you're so smart," he said, "why ain't you rich?"

This year offers ample proof of why. I'm a lousy prognosticator and worse gambler.

2005 was a good year for rotorcraft and many of its gains were long expected. Aircraft manufacturers, for instance, have been banking for years on the fleet-replenishment campaigns that emergency medical, offshore and corporate operators launched in earnest over the last year. I didn't foresee, however, the degree to which those efforts would become fleet-expansion campaigns, particularly in the offshore sector.

We all awaited U.S. certification of the Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co. AB139 and many anticipated a jump in sales once that medium twin was finally available to the market. Still, Seacor Holdings' order for 20 of the sleek, fast helicopters for its offshore operations caught me by surprise when it was revealed at Heli-Expo last February.

Perhaps I should have seen coming--as savvier observers did--the "rebirth" of long-time aircraft production lines like that for Black Hawk variants in Connecticut, Chinooks in Philadelphia and Hueys in Texas.

After all, investment in new military rotorcraft development in the United States has been starved for years. The resurrection of war in southwest Asia made the urgent need for more and better vertical-lift capability apparent to just about everyone in the halls of power in Washington. That, combined with manufacturing and design advances at Sikorsky, Boeing and Bell Helicopter (and the impracticality of pulling helicopters out of combat for major upgrades), made the case for essentially building new Black Hawks and Chinooks rather than rebuilding old ones. New-build programs make sense and solve the near-term problem for the U.S. military. But, as an alternative to research and development of new-technology rotorcraft, they are hardly the best course for the long-term health of the industry.

There were some genuine surprises this year.

Last December, for instance, I would have bet on Sikorsky's S-92 taking home the prize in the U.S. presidential helicopter competition. The EH101 is a fine aircraft and its team of manufacturers, systems integrators and subcontractors obviously made a compelling argument that they were best suited to fly the U.S. Chief Executive into the mid-21st century. I just didn't think there was any way they could counter years of experience and partnership between Sikorsky and the U.S. Marine Corps and the White House.

I also would have bet Boeing's Little Bird bid for the U.S. Army's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter would have topped Bell's militarized 407. Perhaps the fact that ARH tail numbers will soon be coming out of Texas, not Arizona, is evidence that OH-58 drivers had more sway than special operators in deciding the best option for a new scout and reconnaissance helo.

And really, who among us would have guessed a year ago that MD Helicopters would still be around as a viable, independent manufacturer at the start of 2006? Yet here we are at year's end with that long-beleaguered company in the running for the U.S. Army's next competition (for the Light Utility Helicopter), restarting its spare-parts supply lines and backed by a new owner with deep, deep pockets and a stated commitment to make it reliable and prosperous. When a rich neophyte enters the world of aviation with grand dreams of success, I'm reminded of the old saw:

How do you make a small fortune in aviation?

Start with a big fortune.

Still Lynn Tilton of Patriarch Partners, MD Helicopters' "white knight," has an impressive reputation on Wall Street. If she can make good on her vow to put customers first at MD Helicopters, she will have achieved something unique among helicopter makers. That might be the biggest surprise of all. Should I bet on it?

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