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Thursday, July 1, 2004

Out & Up

Now on its own, Rotortech has become an agile, responsive and no longer small maintenance and engineering company

By Ian Parker

The United Kingdom has a wealth of helicopter expertise and capability, not least being the offshore oil support operations over the North Sea. In 1977, Management Aviation, then one of the major operators, formed Rotortech to look after its aircraft. The ebb and flow of the European oil industry has carried the helicopter flyers with it, and in 1984 Management Aviation became Bond Helicopters. Fifteen years later, Helicopter Services and Bond Helicopters merged and Rotortech was sold into private ownership. It was this development that really gave Rotortech its wings—and it has been flying high ever since.

At last year’s Helitech show in Duxford, Rotortech, based not far away near Cambridge, revealed that it had bought an autoclave—a pressurized oven used for getting the best possible cure of composite materials. And it’s a big one, at nearly 10 ft. (3 m.) in diameter and nearly 33 ft. (10 m.) long. An autoclave is a considerable investment, even for a company the size of Rotortech, so it has to be kept busy to pay its way. Recently, Rotor & Wing visited Rotortech to see how the business is developing.

Rotortech is involved in many different aspects of work, from civilian and military customers in the U.K. and overseas. Managing Director Simon Peck told R&W the company recently became involved in working with stealth technology, such as applying radar-absorbent materials to naval periscopes and sensors. It also was contracted to manufacture composite missile fairings “for a very prominent U.K. company.” Rotortech supplies Puma engineers to the Royal Air Force’s 33 Sqdn., which operates Westland Puma HC1s from its base at RAF Benson in Wallingford, and which currently has a shortage of manpower. “We are probably the only company in the U.K. that holds a current civilian series approval for the SA330 Puma,” Peck said.

He added that Rotortech holds “an enviable amount of type approvals—including series approvals for variants of the Dauphin, Puma and Super Puma. For the size of the company, we punch heavy.”

Much of that capability was inherited from when the company was the engineering arm of Bond Helicopters. Since it was spun off from there, Rotortech has been building its staff. “When I joined the company about three and a half years ago we had just over 20 employees,” Peck said. “Now we’re up to almost 50.”

The company’s two main business activities are heavy maintenance and composite manufacturing. The two complement each other. “Our aerospace design approval principally supports the heavy maintenance side of the business,” Peck said, “but the facilities are useful for the manufacturing side of the business in designing parts.” Rotortech recently upgraded to the ISO9001-2000 approval and is in the process of implementing design and manufacturing approvals in compliance with the regulations of Europe’s Joint Aviation Authorities and the new European Aviation Safety Agency.

Rotortech is a Joint Aviation Regulation 145 (JAR 145) approved maintenance organization. The flexibility of that approval, combined with an extensive list of “C” capabilities, enables Rotortech to release most things on a JAR Form 1 (Certificate of Release to Service). Peck said that is a considerable advantage over a lot of Rotortech’s composite competitors. The company’s goal is to be one of Europe’s premier maintenance organizations, providing the best customer service and support for engineering, design and sales. Peck said that goal includes being constantly alert to client requirements and operating in the most effective manner, with due regard to the highest standards of safety.

“In truth, we are virtually a one-stop shop,” he said. “We have most of the facilities we need on site to turn round major projects. We don’t have to go out for very much, other than overhaul of dynamic components.”

In addition to its main engineering department, Rotortech has its own avionics, design, manufacturing and fabrication facilities, all of which help it target a wide range of business.
“As we don’t have a fleet of aircraft of our own to support,” Peck said, “all our work tends to come in ad hoc.”

That means Rotortech must pursue outside business, and the company has an active sales and marketing department to do that. Three-quarters of its aerospace work is from overseas, which means the sales and marketing work force has to be highly mobile.

Rotortech recently decided to separately and jointly develop both sides of its main business areas—heavy maintenance and composites. The company had been looking for a suitable autoclave for years. One day, a former employee told Peck of 31-ton (28-metric-ton) unit belonging to a failed company in Farnborough. Rotortech bought it and had it installed in Cambridge.

The autoclave can be operated automatic or manually. The company converted the unit to run on nitrogen instead of conventional air, which carries the risk having combustion “of anything inside if you’re not very careful,” Peck said. “We don’t want to take any risks with tools or parts. We often run cures overnight and it’s easier to sleep at night knowing it’s a nitrogen system, rather than air.”

One of Rotortech’s flagship products is the lightweight carbon-fiber rear-engine cowling it manufactures for the Sikorsky S-76A+ and C+ series helicopters. Rotortech designed and developed the cowling, along with lightweight doors and several other items, to reduce the weight of the S76A+ operated by what was then its parent company, Bond Helicopters. Widely regarded as the best bits of composite on the aircraft, the items were adopted by Sikorsky. Today, all the later S-76C+s have Rotortech cowlings. “This is good news for us as the S76C+ is selling so well,” Peck said, adding the cowlings order book is “pretty extensive.”

Since the cowlings were first installed on aircraft in 1993, Peck said, “we have never had one come back to us, which I think says a lot for the quality of the product.”

Autoclaves give a better finish than oven-curing or a normal cure and the pressure it produces ensures that the quality of the carbon-fiber material is as good as it can get. Claved goods are superior to non-claved goods, which is why the Formula 1 industry generally requires that standard. Rotortech is also involved in racing work. “Our head of composites has an F1 and motorsport background,” Peck said.

“Aerospace standards and quality combined with the high-tech innovations coming out of Formula 1 give us a strength and depth of knowledge beyond many of our competitors,” he added. The company’s design unit can develop non-standard repair schemes that, in liaison with the manufacturer, allow its technicians to address items not covered in the structural repair manual. Customers often send in parts that other companies have deemed beyond economic repair, Peck said. Rotortech has repaired them “simply because of our experience in this field.”

Major operators such as CHC, British International, Bond and Bristow often turn to Rotortech for composite repairs. Many of the aircraft for which it has approvals are Eurocopter types that have quite a high composite content. “We have been able to save a very high proportion of heavily damaged composite structures—at around a quarter of the cost of replacement,” Peck said. Given its autoclave’s size, Rotortech is having discussions with various rotorcraft manufacturers regarding new-build aircraft composite structures. “Having been in the business 27 years now we’re well known to them,” he said.

About 60 percent of revenue is generated by composite work, the majority of which involves manufacture of new items, although repair work is pretty steady. Many JAR 145 maintenance organizations in Europe have limited capability to repair complex composites, Peck said. “We try to carry out repairs to a standard that makes the item indistinguishable from a new one.”

Rotortech also focuses on manufacturing tooling and it produces a wide range of mold tooling using many diverse materials. It is looking to expand into other business areas, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, which are almost totally composite. The company recently invested in CATIA 5 to further upgrade its 3D modeling capability . “Because there aren’t huge volumes in rotorcraft developments,” Peck said, “we have to look for other opportunities such as racing car composite work.”

Rotortech owns about 6.5 acres on its home airfield and has its own flight dispersal area. The company is building a new hangar that will accommodate up to eight Puma-sized aircraft. The company is at Bourn, 3 nm. west of Cambridge. In addition to 4,260 sq. ft. (1,300 sq. m.) of workshops, the company has some 2,130 sq. ft. (650 sq. m.) of offices.

Its separation from Bond Helicopters meant Rotortech had to fly alone in a sky where there are many other big birds. It would appear to be on a strong thermal.

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