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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Year in Review--Events: New Leaders, Old Fights

R&W Staff

The last 12 months have brought changes at the top of many outfits. Most of the new bosses face familiar challenges.


As the new year dawned, a new leader was at the helm of Eurocopter, Lutz Bertling having moved over from Eurocopter Deutschland when Fabrice Bregier moved to the executive suite at Airbus.

Within weeks, the charismatic Mike "Red" Redenbaugh was out as Bell Helicopter’s chief, a victim of the U.S. Army’s unhappiness with the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and what proved to be an "irrational exuberance" for civil aircraft that had no place in the market. The light single 417 he unveiled with the help of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at 2006’s Heli-Expo was on the scrap heap less than a year later and a more staid Richard Millman was brought in by parent Textron to figure what in Bell’s game could work and what couldn’t.

Millman, former president of Textron Systems, had his hands full. Within three months of his taking charge at Bell, the Army canceled its ARH contract on March 20, then reinstated it within hours but halted work until Bell could explain how it would salvage the schedule for fielding that badly needed helicopter. It didn’t help that an ARH prototype crashed and was destroyed Feb. 21 because an assembly error disabled a fuel pump.

The Bell ARH team is still struggling to recover the schedule and please the Army. The latest twist came last month when the Army awarded an $800 million contract to Raytheon for a target acquisition sensor suite for the ARH, something Bell partner FLIR Systems was already under contract to provide.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force tried to find its way out of its latest acquisition mess, this one delaying fielding of critical replacements for its cramped and underpowered Sikorsky Aircraft HH-60G Pave Hawks. The U.S. General Accountability Office in February upheld protests of its November 2006 selection of Boeing’s CH-47, backing complaints by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky Aircraft that it had undercut their bids by misjudging life-cycle maintenance costs. The service tried to massage its way out of that mess, only to have the GAO uphold another set of complaints from the protesters. This from a service that saw a procurement chief thrown in prison for underhanded dealings with Boeing on a tanker deal and another top procurement aide commit suicide after press reports revealed top Air Force officials helped place him in a do-nothing civilian job until he was confirmed in his post. Meanwhile, combat crews are without the search and rescue capabilities they need and deserve and won’t get them until 2012. In the meantime, the Air Force will spend about $100 million to keep the Pave Hawks flying.

After years of delays and criticism, the U.S. Marine Corps’ V-22 deployed to combat in Iraq in October. Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Sqdn. 263 (VMM-263) took 10 Bell/Boeing MV-22Bs on ship to the Mediterranean, then flew on to Al Asad air base, a major convoy hub about 95 nm west of Baghdad, for a scheduled seven-month deployment. The "Thunder Chickens" are relieving Marine Heavy Helicopter Sqdn. 362 (HMH- 362) and its Sikorsky CH-53Ds.

The V-22 still has its problems. One reason the aircraft did not self-deploy to Iraq is that they are prone to moisture infiltration in their de-/anti-icing systems that cause electronics there to short out. (Other reasons included a requirement for more in-flight refueling tanker assets for a self-deployment than the Marines could spare, given combat-support needs.)

The Marines are mum about the Osprey’s combat operations, in part because of a poorly done Sept. 27 Time magazine cover story that regurgitated outdated criticisms of the aircraft just as VMM-263 crews were sailing into harm’s way.

Delays in fielding the V-22 (which was originally slated to enter service in 1991) put Marine aviation in a bind. Pressed for airlift capability, the Corps decided to pull several CH-53Ds out of desert storage to augment Boeing CH-46Es in medium-lift missions. That was based on the success of similar restoration work with a half dozen CH-53Es.

The early months of the year saw a rash of U.S. military helicopter downings in Iraq. The Feb. 7 crash of a Marine CH-46 that killed all seven on board, the result of a missile attack, was the eighth.

Army officials in Iraq blamed most of the shootdowns on an insurgent tactic of using concentrated small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades against helicopters on what have become commonly used routes. But the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, said the Sea Knight’s anti-missile defensive measures did not release during the missile attack.

The downings prompted the Pentagon to look at systems and tactics to better protect rotorcraft and the soldiers and Marines on them. Downings dropped off significantly as the year wore on.

The pace of combat operations spurred innovations beyond the Marines’ revival of CH-53Ds. After top British commanders complained about the lack of combat vertical lift in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom decided to buy six AgustaWestland EH101 Merlins from Denmark to fill the shortage for its forces there. AgustaWestland in Yeovil is modifying the EH101s, which were delivered to the Royal Danish Air Force over the last year, to the British configuration. They will be designated EH101 Merlin HC Mk.3As when they enter service with the RAF. The U. K. will buy six replacement EH101s for Denmark.

The United Kingdom also opted not to complete development of the special-operations capabilities of eight HC3 Chinooks but convert them to a battlefield utility configuration. That surprised Boeing and Thales, which teamed on a proposal to install the latter’s TopDeck avionics suite on the Chinooks. The eight aircraft have been grounded since their acquisition in 2001 over concerns about certification of their flight software as safe.

The civil side of the business was active as well.

January saw the last strikers at PHI return to work. The company said it reached agreement Jan. 11 on a process for returning to work roughly 60 pilots who remained on strike after walking out against the offshore and EMS operator in late 2006. The pact was reached under the supervision of the U.S. District Court in Lafayette, La. The strike cost PHI millions.

The U.S. civil community was incensed by President Bush’s Fiscal 2008 proposal for funding the U.S. aviation system, which called for a new set of user fees to replace airline ticket taxes. The budget proposal followed "intense lobbying by the nation’s big airlines" and "shifts airline costs to other segments of the industry and gives airlines more control over the air traffic system," said National Business Aviation Assn. President and CEO Ed Bolen. He vowed that his group and the general aviation community would oppose "this toxic mix of higher taxes, new fees and airline control." The user fees appeared to be off the table as the year ended, but just for this year.

The EMS sector was unsettled by Air Methods Corp.’s July move to acquire CJ Systems Aviation Group.

Air Methods offered $25 million in cash for 100 percent of CJ parent FSS Airholdings’s outstanding common stock. In exchange, it would get CJ, its fleet of 113 aircraft, and its maintenance bases. CJ’s future was in doubt after it lost its contract to run air operations for STAT Medevac.

2007 marked the 40th anniversary of Bell’s Model 206 and the MBB (later Eurocopter) BO-105. It also saw the somewhat anti-climactic launch of Robinson Helicopter’s turbine-powered, five-seat R66 and the 300-shp Rolls-Royce RR300. Enstrom Helicopter, MD Helicopters, and Schweizer Aircraft quickly signed on to develop applications of the RR300 for their products.

The year closed with Schweizer kicking off its Model 434 program with a launch order for nine from Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry. The RR300 will power the 434, which is based on the Model 333 and will use the four-bladed rotor and dynamics developed for the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle.

The U.S. Army in May stood up its first unit of UH-72A Lakotas, the Air Ambulance Medical Detachment at Fort Irwin, Calif. The Army in August approved full-rate production of its UH-72A. But the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation in July had concluded the Lakota was not effective for use in hot environments or the transport of two critical patients, nor does it meet requirements for lifting external and internal loads.

The U.S. Army in August formally declared its first unit equipped with new-build Boeing CH-47F Chinooks.

In January, the U.S. Army deactivated the 57th Medical Co. (Air Ambulance), whose "Dustoff" call sign during the Vietnam War became synonymous with medical evacuation and whose exploits helped secure the role of helicopters in military and rescue operations.

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