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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Paris Air Show Report

By Giovanni de Briganti

One welcome by-product of the global recession is that this year’s Paris Air Show was largely free of the boring succession of multi-billion dollar deals for Airbus and Boeing airliners that have dominated past editions. And, as orders and hard news in the military fixed-wing field were also few and far between, rotary-wing aviation had a rare opportunity to shine on its own.

And, as luck would have it, helicopter manufacturers had a number of new, or nearly new, products to exhibit, and announcements to make.

The two European majors, playing on their home turf, both managed to exhibit significant products for the first time in Paris. A year after first unveiling the concept at the Farnborough Air Show, AgustaWestland brought to Paris a full-scale mock-up of its latest military helicopter, the AW-149, in a variant designed to compete for the Turkish government’s Utility Helicopter Program (TUHP). The other competitor is a variant of Sikorsky’s Black Hawk; which Turkey has been operating for 20 years or so.

Although Paris was not its true "premiere," as it had been unveiled at the IDEF defense exhibition in Istanbul in late April, the TUHP 149 generated significant interest on its first appearance at a major show.

The TUHP149 was displayed in fully-armed configuration, carrying a full range of weapons including rocket pods, guided missiles and cabin-mounted automatic weapons. A point of interest is that, unlike its predecessor, the highly successful commercial AW139, the AW149 is fitted with a complete avionics suite developed and produced by AW. In addition to moving profit margins back to AW, the use of proprietary avionics also ensures that the company is not held hostage to the perhaps conflicting priorities of a vendor when it urgently needs modifications or major changes.

The TUHP 149 is designed to carry a standard Turkish Army nine-man infantry squad, in addition to two pilots, flight engineer and two gunners. AW says that, at a pinch, it can seat 18 soldiers in its 11-cubic-meter cabin (and 3-cubic-meter stowage compartment), but they would have to be very small soldiers indeed, to judge by the size of the seats fitted to the mock-up.

The Turkish government was expected to announce the winner of the TUHP competition, which calls for a total of 109 helicopters (plus 110 more to follow later) for seven different government departments, in early July, but as this hasn’t happened, the decision will slide back until the autumn.

This will allow AW to pursue the 149’s development. The company plans to fly an engineering testbed by year-end, with the first prototype to follow in mid-2010. It then plans three years for qualification — no civil certification is planned — leading to initial deliveries in the second half of 2013. The engineering testbed, by the way, will consist of an AW149 fuselage mated to AW139 drive-train.

The company has not yet begun to market the AW149, as it prefers to wait for first flight, but it is confident that the design will find as sizeable a market as its smaller AW139, whose production rate has tripled since 2004, to 90 aircraft/year, to meet sustained demand.

In fact, the AW139 accounted for 20 of the 50 orders AgustaWestland booked through the first five months of the year, and although civil orders have slowed down, company officials are confident that the military market will more than make up for this dip.

The Italian Air Force’s long-deferred order for a new search and rescue helicopter to replace its venerable HH-3Fs is now expected to be awarded by the end of the year, and is expected to cover between 12 and 15 AW-101s. (Note that AgustaWestland has now adopted the AW designation for all of its helicopters, including the A-109 and the EH-101).

Also in AW’s backlog are the Future Lynx (now AW159 Wildcat) for the UK, the ICH-47 Chinook for the Italian Army and, of course, the NH-90 program, in which AW has a 32 percent share. After many teething problems and delays, NH-90 production is slowly increasing, and the consortium should deliver as many as 42 helicopters this year, including those held over from 2008 for various reasons.

NH Industries, the NH-90’s prime contractor, exhibited for the first time in flight an NFH-90 naval variant, this one belonging to the Italian navy and fitted with a complete mission system as well as a heavy store carrier, an MU90 torpedo, and a Marte MK2/S anti-ship missile.

At the air show, AW also unveiled the latest variant of the AW101 medium lift helicopter. Featuring new, more efficient BERP IV main rotor blades, more powerful engines, a new cockpit display system and a new, up-rated tail rotor, this new version (as yet unnamed) increases payload by over 900 kg (2,000 lbs) when operating in "hot and high" conditions, and allow the AW101 to operate at its current 15,600 kg maximum all up weight as well as at the higher takeoff weights that AW plans for the future.

With 226 helicopters delivered in 2008, and new orders steadily if unspectacularly coming in, securing and increasing its production capabilities is a continuing objective for AgustaWestland. The company is mulling the acquisition of Poland’s Pezetel, for example, which has built more than 1,000 of its cabins, and remains a highly-qualified yet affordable alternative to outsourcing to the other side of the world.

Eurocopter also brought an almost-new product to the Paris Air Show, in this case a full-scale mock-up of the EC175 that it is developing jointly with China’s Harbin Aircraft Industry Group (HAIG) for the civil market, and which made its European debut at Le Bourget. Eurocopter says the program is on course for its first flight at the end of the year, and it sees a potential market for more than 800 aircraft over the next 20 years. Surprisingly, however, the number of orders still stands at 111 units, and has thus not increased since the aircraft was unveiled at the 2008 HAI. Or, taking the opposite view, the program has so far weathered the recession without a single cancellation.

Most, if not all, of these EC175s will go to commercial customers. Another Eurasian product, the Korean Helicopter Program, which should also make its maiden flight by year-end, is intended as Eurocopter’s lead military product in the medium twin market.

Launched in 2006 by the Korean government as an UH-1 replacement, the KHP is a joint venture between Eurocopter and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). The Korean military are to take 250 aircraft, and a similar number is expected to be sold, primarily by Eurocopter, on the international market, where it will directly face-off with the AW149. Both are similar in terms of size, both are due to make their first flights by year-end, and both should be ready for initial production by 2012 – 2013.

Interestingly, the KHP is to weigh 8 metric tons, compared to 8.1 tons for the AW149, but it is designed to carry 12 equipped soldiers, rather than the 18 that AW sees as the capacity of the AW149.

Another Eurocopter initiative was the unveiling of a Stand-Alone Weapon System (SAWS) which, although exhibited on an AS550 Fennec, can be fitted to any of the company’s light and medium helicopters. The SAWS is composed of a core, including a mission and firing control computer with controls and interfaces, and a choice of sensors (FLIR, TV, HUD, etc.), guided (such as the Denel Ingwe laser-guided missile) and unguided weapons, such as rockets and guns. The company says it is intended to satisfy increased market demand for armed helicopters by offering an easily configurable and modular package.

During the show, Eurocopter’s Tiger HAP attack helicopter performed daily flight demonstrations. Tiger recently qualified for operational service with the French Army, which plans to deploy three Tigers to Afghanistan later this year.

The company continues to compete for military aftermarket business. During the show, it announced that it had won a contract to retrofit 26 German Army CH-53G helicopters for personnel recovery missions; the contract is valued at 25 million euros and the first retrofitted helicopter is scheduled for delivery in early 2010.

Eurocopter is also waiting for the UK Ministry of Defence to decide whether it will go through as planned with the mid-life update of its fleet of Puma transport helicopters. "Negotiations are very, very advanced... and we are shaving the price where we can," said a senior company official, adding, however, that financial pressures are forcing the MoD to review all of its procurement plans.

This could mean the Puma update could be dropped in favor of the replacement of the entire Puma fleet, which could ultimately make better long-term financial sense; here, Eurocopter sees an opportunity for the NH-90.

Eurocopter also used the show to demonstrate its green credentials, with the Bluecopter demonstrator that promises 30 percent better fuel efficiency, and much lower emissions, thanks to its turbocharged diesel engine instead of a turbine and other innovations.

Sikorsky used the Paris Air Show to announce that it had completed its restructuring into three distinct divisions, which it believes will allow better response to the market. One business unit, Sikorsky Military Systems, is focused on the U.S. and international military market, while Sikorsky Global Helicopters, announced in February, brings together its existing commercial business units. The company had already launched Sikorsky Aerospace Services, which will group its customer support business.

Sikorsky, which posted increased revenues for each of the past seven years, says it is following a "four-pronged business strategy: growth with margin expansion, excellence in execution, technological leadership, and globalization." Its restructuring is intended to make it more global, better focused on specific customer segments, and better able to continue growing, according to a statement.

The company had no big announcement or product at the show, but released some interesting news. For example, it said that the more than 300 Black Hawk helicopters operated by the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan have logged "over 900,000 flight hours without a single material failure with the aircraft." It added that, since February 2003, the Black Hawk has maintained an 84 percent mission-capable rate despite extreme heat, wind, and sand conditions.

Product-wise, Sikorsky and Elbit Systems announced at the show that they had successfully completed the test phase for the Armed Black Hawk (ABH) demonstrator helicopter, also known as the Battlehawk. An optical missile, a laser-guided rocket, and a 20-mm turreted gun were all fired during these tests. This clears the way for Sikorsky to begin marketing conversions of in-service Black Hawks, and new production Battlehawks, to customers world-wide. The demonstrator configuration also includes Elbit cockpit displays, a Mission Management system with digital map, Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) and ANVIS/HUD helmet systems with cueing capabilities integrated into the avionics suite.

Sikorsky also announced at the show an agreement for Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) to manufacture Sikorsky S-92 helicopter cabins in India, with the first cabin due for delivery in late 2010 from a new greenfield facility that TASL will build at Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Sikorsky is also making progress in outsourcing its Black Hawk production. It announced at the show that major components of the first S-70i (i.e., export) Black Hawk helicopter have been joined at PZL Mielec in Poland, "marking the first time a Black Hawk helicopter has been assembled outside the United States and signaling a major step forward in producing Black Hawk helicopters internationally," according to a statement.

This helicopter includes a cabin produced at Mielec, a tail cone made by Turkish Aerospace Industries and a cockpit section produced by Kaman Aerospace in the U.S. It is somewhat ironic that the Black Hawk, a military helicopter once the company’s most "domestic" product, has now adopted a truly international supply chain, while the global network of risk-sharing partners and subcontractors that it had originally envisioned for the S-92, a commercial helicopter, never materialized.

Bell Helicopter’s exhibition centered around its Model 429, the light twin on which it is counting for future growth in the commercial market. The company organized demonstration flights during the show, and won favorable reviews for the aircraft’s roomy cabin, exceptional visibility from the cabin, and power.

Although it was hoping to announce the 429’s certification at the show, Bell missed by only a few days, as Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA) granted its certification on July 1. The 429 has also completed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification requirements, and Bell expected to begin initial deliveries in July.

Bell currently has about 300 letters of intent for the 429, which it now hopes to convert to firm orders — and increased down payments. Over 60 percent of these orders come from international customers, so Bell is hopeful that the 429 will help re-establish the company as a player in the global marketplace.

Like most aerospace manufacturers, Bell is jumping onto the "green" bandwagon. The company’s efforts so far are limited, however, to creating a "new enterprise wide eco-innovation initiative aimed at evaluating its products using a life cycle assessment." In other words, says Craig Lieberman, who has been appointed to lead this effort: "We have started to evaluate our products and operations... to determine the total impact of our manufacturing efforts with the goal of a substantial reduction in all areas."

What this brings to the table, other than good will, is unclear, but meanwhile Bell is stressing the 429’s eco-friendly features, which it says include low noise, lower fuel consumption and the significant use of composites to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft.

Boeing’s Rotorcraft Division held a rare press conference at the show, highlighting not only its venerable Ch-47 Chinook, V-22 Osprey and AH-64 Apache, but also its AH-6i light attack helicopter and various conceptual studies it is working on to meet future heavy lift requirements.

Boeing, despite having only a limited product range, booked record orders in 2008 and projects strong annual growth through 2015. In the military business, this upbeat view is also shared by its competitors; it is only the commercial helicopter business that has suffered some cancellations, and a slowing of orders, due to the global economic recession. However, given the huge backlog of commercial orders enjoyed by most manufacturers, with the exception of Bell, any decrease of orders could have a silver lining, by reducing the frankly excessive delivery times that have no doubt dissuaded some perspective customers.

Russia Redux?

Russia’s helicopter industry was back with an upbeat message at the show, after a decade or two of aimless to- and fro-ing during which it wasted time and money and let its Western competitors take a gigantic head-start that Russia may never be able to make up.

The Russian Helicopters Joint Stock Company (RH) managing company, an affiliate of UIC Oboronprom, said that the consolidation of the Russian helicopter industry has entered its final stage, and that it is aggressively developing its research and production capacity.

To catch up with its global competitors, RH is finishing its own R&D centre in Moscow’s suburban Panki, and new engineering centre, test production line, and research centre are also nearing completion, it says. Ultimately, Russian Helicopters wants to take a 15 percent share of the global market but, in the short term, it recognized that the challenge is to use its profits to modernize and to raise the competitiveness of its products, rather than to offset losses.

The shortest-term target is the launch of the new Mi-38, Ka-62, Ansat, and Ka-226T models. However, given the relatively old technologies of these helicopters, it is doubtful whether they will raise any significant interest in the market.

Russian Helicopters is going to keep the current production line, retaining the heavy helicopter segment and gradually expanding the midsize and light segments. The main goal is to keep hold of traditional markets. These are first of all India, China, Africa, and partly South-East Asia. The company is planning to expand to Latin America, become stronger in Southeast Asia, and keep its positions in India and China.

While building its new product line, RH will concentrate on offering upgrades for its family of Mi-8/-17 Hip medium transport helicopters, for which it foresees stable demand until 2020 and for which it plans a glass cockpit (to be completed by the end of 2009) and modern avionics suite.

Despite the abundance of news, helicopter manufacturers announced few new contracts or sales during the show. The total adds up to 19 helicopters, which is a modest tally by any measure: 10 for AgustaWestland (three AW109s, five AW119Kes, and two Grands plus two options), seven for Eurocopter (six Ecureuils and a single EC135), and two 412EPs for Bell. If the number of sales during the show was disappointing, manufacturers like Eurocopter and AgustaWestland are already seeing the beginning of a recovery in the commercial market.

The big, unanswered question at the show was whether the industry has already passed the worst of the recession or whether, in a "W" recovery scenario, a harsher dip is to be feared for 2010 before the recovery begins. And this question remains as valid after the show as it was before.

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