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Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Editor’s Notebook

James T. McKenna

A Breakthrough Year?

Will 2005 be a breakthrough year for rotorcraft?

Venturing such an upbeat forecast, as we would by answering that in the affirmative, is always a dicey proposition. Many a bar bet is won and laughs of ridicule shared at year's end by comparing to reality the bold predictions made the preceding New Year's Eve. You need be embarrassed only once or twice in that process before you heed its lessons on Fate's fickle nature and take to waving off such questions or answering them with a stock "Who's to say?"

We in the helicopter industry this year may be more inclined to optimism over prudence. We gather this month in Anaheim, Calif. for the Helicopter Assn. International's 57th Annual Heli-Expo in the wake of a remarkable year, which you will recall as you read Rotor & Wing's report on the state of the industry and its segments.

Last year began with the U.S. Army figuratively tossing $100 bills from the Pentagon's roof when it cancelled the $14-billion-plus Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche program and vowed that all that money would be dedicated to new aircraft programs. We concluded 2004 with FAA certification of the long-awaited Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co. AB139 and Frank Robinson's stunning tally for the year of more than 690 piston-engine aircraft sales by his namesake helicopter company.

So, as we all gather in the Land of Disney, we might be forgiven for being a bit bright-eyed and giddy. Up front, 2005 looks promising. Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky all enter it coming off a year of strong turbine-powered aircraft sales. We have new civil aircraft programs in store this year. The U.S. Army is marching ahead with procurement of the new Armed Reconnaissance and Light Utility helicopters, and funding for those programs seems secure (at least for now). We have a new presidential helicopter contract and all its ramifications to discern and contemplate.

Why do I think 2005 might not just be a good year but one that transforms the helicopter industry? There are four reasons.

Schweizer and Sikorsky--Having joined forces late last year, these manufacturers this year will refine their assessments of how they can benefit from each other's talents and resources and focus on achieving the fruits of their union. This should unleash Schweizer, an agile, innovative manufacturer and aerospace subcontractor that before the marriage with Sikorsky had reached its financial and organizational limits. It also should invigorate Sikorsky, which re-enters both the fixed-wing and unmanned aerial vehicle markets and extends its product line into what is quite obviously a vigorous piston-engine helicopter segment. Their combined presence will spur competitors in their markets to step up to the new challenges Sikorsky/Schweizer poses.

Safety--Accidents and unsafe incidents are chronic problems for rotorcraft operations. EMS outfits in the United States and offshore support companies in the Gulf of Mexico are coming off some of their worst years ever as far as accident totals are concerned. The predicaments have caught the attention of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA. Both are due to issue recommendations on improving EMS ops, which should spur industry to action. In addition, a broad coalition of industry and government groups plans to discuss collaborative safety improvement efforts at the first International Helicopter Safety Symposium this September in Montreal. Collectively, these efforts could alter the industry-wide safety landscape for the better.

The Center for Rotorcraft Innovation--Industry leaders have settled with Rep. Curt Weldon on support for his Center for Rotorcraft Innovation. At a time when every federal agency is scrambling to protect the funding it has, the influential Pennsylvania Republican carved $2.5 million from the U.S. Army budget for a center to reinvigorate rotorcraft research and production in America. But industry leaders feared the center would be a subsidized annex of Boeing, whose Philadelphia rotorcraft plant is near Weldon's district. Late last year, they overcame that difference (see p. 16). Industry will combine their efforts to foster research with Weldon's, which should free funding and promote collaboration in an area in which European companies and governments have long held the lead.

Tsunami Relief--The Dec. 26, 2004 tsunamis that killed nearly 160,000 and injured and displaced millions around the Indian Ocean is a disaster beyond comprehension. Among the first in to help were helicopter operators, both civil and governmental. They provided tools and capabilities that no other group anywhere could match. They went into devastated areas beyond even the reach of rescue workers on foot. They re-established lines of communications and often were the only means of doing so. They allowed relief leaders to survey the extent of the disaster and identify the areas of greatest need. They maintained the flow of relief workers and supplies when every other means of access was blocked. Rotorcraft, their operators and their crews saved countless millions. In the process, we hope, they demonstrated to those unfamiliar with helicopters the truly unique capabilities rotorcraft bring to emergency response and disaster relief. As combat in Afghanistan and Iraq continues to prove to military leaders the unique value of rotorcraft, the tsunamis present the best opportunity we may have to help civilian leaders appreciate the role rotorcraft can and must play in the emergency planning of nations.

There is my rose-colored vision of 2005. If Fate allows, we'll compare it to reality when 2006 arrives.

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