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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Farewell 2009

By Joy Finnegan

The year is drawing to a close. I’ve heard many say they can’t wait for this year to be over. In general, certainly in reference to the economy, I have to agree. Looking back over the year in rotorcraft there have been some highs and lows.

One issue has to remain top of mind. Crashes in the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) industry, especially those with fatalities, continue to occur with a frequency that is unacceptable, in spite of focused attention this year from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), FAA and the industry itself.

A medical transport helicopter crashed in South Carolina in September, killing all three crewmembers on board. The helicopter had just dropped off a patient at a hospital in Charleston and was flying to Conway, about 90 miles to the northeast, when it crashed. Just days before we went to press there was another fatal crash near Reno, Nev. The crash killed all three crewmembers aboard the Susanville, Calif.-based helicopter. Again in this accident, as with the September crash, the helicopter had just dropped off a patient at a hospital in Reno and was returning to its base.

NTSB hearings in February and September drew national attention to the HEMS industry and numerous recommendations have been made. But all the hearings in the world aren’t going to change a thing if the industry and the individuals in it, do not respond. “Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will—his personal responsibility,” said Albert Einstein. This should be a mandate for all in the HEMS arena. Change must start with the individual.

Another pressing issue impacting the helicopter industry this year was the credit market. Accessibility to financing for all aircraft, not just helicopters, became difficult to obtain, especially for smaller, boutique operators in the civilian world. This credit crunch has seriously stifled growth in the marketplace. Watch for our helicopter financing report in February.

One bright spot in the market this year was the focus on upgrading existing helicopters or fleets. Operators also learned quickly to buy used and take it to an uber-capable shop where they had exactly what they wanted installed for a “like new” but more economical solution. For one such story see Rotor & Wing, “North to Alaska” in the October 2009 issue. As a reminder, all of our content is available online at www.rotorandwing.com.

Another positive was advances in the digitization of cockpit avionics and instruments, and the continuing emergence of new tools that are created or made more viable as a result of advanced digitization. Kudos go to the innovators who are driving technology forward. Synthetic vision, for example, has become a far less expensive and more viable option in a helicopter cockpit when there is already a multi-function display installed that is taking input and displaying data from a host of other digital instruments.

Sikorsky’s X2, lauded in both Popular Mechanics’ “Breakthrough Innovator” and Popular Science’s “Best of What’s New” awards this year, would not be possible without the digital technology that allows for the active vibration control system. We anxiously await news from Sikorsky about the X2 and the company’s ambitious goals for the technology demonstrator.

But back to the downside: Defense budget cutbacks on key rotorcraft programs (CSAR-X and the presidential helicopter) and less emphasis on others (joint heavy-lift, ARH) don’t seem like wise moves in these times. These cutbacks should not be interpreted as just a blow to the U.S. military, but to the civilian world as well. These programs drive new technologies that ultimately find their way into the commercial market all over the world.

There was also a marked shift toward western helicopter production in Eastern Europe—particularly by Sikorsky, with the September 2009 launch of the new SH70i Black Hawk production line at the PZL Mielec facility acquired in 2007, as well as the signing of a new MOU in April this year to develop new aircraft with AeroVodochodny in the Czech Republic.

Aero Vodochodny has been building S-76s for Sikorsky since 2000, and PZL Swidnik has been building airframes for AgustaWestland since the late 90’s. Rolls-Royce also signed an MOU with PZL in February to explore new aircraft development based on its new RR500 powerplant for light singles. This all significantly expands the market for “western” aircraft throughout eastern Europe and Asia. What will it mean for companies such as PZL and Hindustan Aeronautics as unique rotorcraft producers?

For our December issue, in addition to our directory listing there is a new “products” feature. We asked our contributing editors for their opinions on unique, can’t-live-without products for helicopters and their operators. Starting on page 19, you will find our “Editors’ Choice” section with a selection of those cool products. Also, don’t miss Terry Terrell’s column, “High Wire Act” on page 62. His column talks about wire strike avoidance, an all-too-preventable problem.

Don’t forget we have a helicopter forum on the Aviation Professionals Network (or AvProNet) and encourage your participation there. If you hear of a job opening or want to ask advice from your peers in the field, this is a great place to share and ask.

We are also pleased with our advancements in the e-media realm this year. We have a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Rotor-Wing/108354174813?ref=ts. Please join more than 2,100 people in becoming a fan and share your helicopter pictures with us there. You can also follow us on Twitter: @rotorandwing.

Looking ahead, we hope to bring you information-packed webinars and other e-media to enrich your rotary world knowledge in the coming year. Here’s wishing you the best as we move on to 2010.

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