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Friday, October 1, 2004

Editor's Notebook: Transformation

James T. McKenna

We are approaching the end of what may come to be known as a year of transformation for the helicopter industry. The year opened with Eurocopter laying the physical and political foundation for its pursuit of more U.S. sales with construction of an assembly facility in Mississippi, home of two powerful senators.

In February, cancellation of the RAH-66 Comanche scuttled the widely held assumptions about the course of Army aviation in the United States and the manufacturing and technological capabilities needed to support them.

The extended competition to build the next U.S. presidential helicopter has forged new alliances among major manufacturers and suppliers.

GKN left the AgustaWestland family to the Italians (provided the U.K. government doesn't intervene).

Kaman sold out production of its K-Max, an aircraft that just a few years ago seemed an orphan.

Now, Sikorsky has acquired Schweizer Aircraft, a move that extends its product line into the light commercial end, revives its unmanned aerial vehicle efforts and bolsters its capabilities to innovate and rapidly prototype.

It remains to be seen whether Boeing or someone else will step in to save MD Helicopters from languishing sales of new aircraft and starved spares provisioning for existing ones.

Bell Helicopter Textron has yet to set a convincing course for its future. But the changes over the last year, I believe, are harbingers of exciting developments to come.

New merging of talents and resources, like that of Sikorsky and Schweizer, do not just have the potential to reinvigorate the combined product lines. If they result in new products or improved ones, they also spur competitors to match those advances. That, in turn, brings new capabilities and, in theory at least, lowers prices for operators.

New mergers also can promote new research and engineering developments that lay the basis for additional product refinements down the road, ensuring the vitality of helicopter operations.

Such developments would be timely. Commercial operations are stagnated. Helicopter businesses can expand their fleets, move up to larger and/or more technologically capable aircraft or undertake new endeavors. But the basic economics of their operations won't change much because the basic technologies underlying them don't change.

The same is true for military operations. Combat operations around the world in the last two years have proved the capabilities and the limitations of rotorcraft.

Simply put, helicopters create operational alternatives unmatched by any other means of transportation. But they are too expensive to operate.

Regardless of whether a helicopter operator wears a suit and tie, an open-collar shirt or a uniform, the common demand is that the fundamental economics of the aircraft must change. Finding ways to change those economics likely will be the focus of new development efforts.

That is so because this promises the quickest and most certain payoff for the required investment in time and money.

Some steps in that process have been long underway. In August, for instance, the U.S. Army elected to have Goodrich's integrated vehicle health management system installed in new-production UH-60M medevac helicopters and retrofitted in UH-60As and Ls that will eventually be remanufactured to the M configuration. If this beefed-up health and usage monitoring system, or HUMS, fulfills its promises, the Army would gain a powerful tool for monitoring the maintenance and readiness of its fleet.

As other HUMS equipped aircraft, such as the Sikorsky S-92 and Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co.'s AB139, enter service, more and more operators will be sold on the benefits of such systems.

The main benefit is the prospect of transforming rotorcraft maintenance from a black art to a much more data-driven and economical process. That would go a long way toward making helicopters more efficient to operate, which is reason enough for anyone in the industry to get excited.

Speaking of transformation, the National Business Aviation Assn. has had a noteworthy year. After an abortive experiment of calling on heavy-iron specialists to lead the trade group, the group has returned to its roots and tapped a proven general aviation guy to pilot it.

Ed Bolen is well known and well respected in aviation circles in Washington. He has been at the point of efforts to broaden those circles to include the national security officials who decide when and how to place potentially strangling restrictions on aviation amidst our War on Terror. There is little doubt he will be successful in leading the NBAA into the future. We look forward to hearing his plans for doing that at the group's annual convention this month in Las Vegas.

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